Boston Diary: The Shot Heard Round the World (Independence Day)

The Fourth of July is as big a thing in Boston as anywhere in the USA. This home of revolutionary icons and of the eponymous Tea Party, and starting point of Paul Revere’s ride, celebrates the day literally with a bang: in the morning the sound of cannon-fire can be heard in the course of various period-costume marches and re-enactments like the one on Cambridge Common, close to where I am presently staying. At night a traditional festive concert next to the Charles River by the Boston Pops Orchestra gives way to a massive fireworks display.

The emphasis on loud bangs is more than incidental; in the Boston area Independence Day is often related to the events of April 1775, when a British column from Boston marched out to fight rebel militias at Lexington and Concord. For many this was the opening of the Revolutionary War. As Ralph Waldo Emerson told the story:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.

One of those Boston icons, very much related to the “shot heard round the world”, is the Old North Church, officially Christ Church, Boston. The Choir of Trinity College is to sing there as part of its US tour, from the midst of which I am writing.

The Church steeple in particular is thought to have played an important part in the same events, and particularly those portrayed in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” which was set on the same night of the British march:

He said to his friend, "If the British march

By land or sea from the town to-night,

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--

One if by land, and two if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Some of the story as Longfellow told it was mythical. Apparently Revere was one of dozens of riders trying to spread the alarm of a British attack, and not necessarily the most successful. The signal from the Old North Church was given at his request but for another rider, who did not get through the British lines. He was, however, a significant figure in the American revolution for other reasons, and not unjustly remembered.

Viewed from a greater distance, like across the Pacific, the rituals and stories of American nationality can be a bit hard to understand, or just hard to take. My American friends of whatever political and religious persuasion tend, however, to embrace them. The arguments they have among themselves do not usually centre on whether celebration of national identity is a good thing, but rather on which version of it, and which accompanying values, will prevail. It is a great strength of American culture that its symbols function as symbols should, with a ‘surplus of meaning’, rather than just as ‘signs’ that have a single uncontested message that can be contested or rejected.

The impact of this robust sense of national identity is, of course, a more ambiguous matter on the world scene. Like the symbols themselves however, it is not to be dismissed or explained in single or simple terms. Myths have their own power which is not to be denied.

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