On this date in 1875, centennial festivities in New England had concluded, President Grant had returned to Washington, and residents of Concord, Mass., took pride in a new statue dedicated the previous day -- one that would forever mark their town's role in America's founding.
"The Minute Man" was the work of a local artisan destined to become America's most prominent sculptor. Three years earlier, while only 22, Daniel Chester French had been asked by Ralph Waldo Emerson himself to design the statue. And though French wasn't present at the dedication -- he was in Italy, continuing his studies -- the young sculptor had left his work inscribed with the opening stanza of Emerson's famous poem memorializing the events that led to revolution.
By the rude bridge that
Arched the flood,
Their flag to April's
Here once the embattled
And fired the shot heard
Round the world.
* * *
On this date in 1850, Henry and Anne French of Exeter, N.H., welcomed son Daniel into the world. After the Civil War ended, the family moved to Concord, Mass. There, they became neighbors and friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous Alcott family, and other illustrious New Englanders of the time. In the autumn of 1867, Daniel enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but with encouragement from Abigail May Alcott, he followed his heart -- withdrawing from MIT after two semesters to pursue sculpting. His first two works of art were a bust of his father and a relief of his sister. He apprenticed briefly in the studio of John Quincy Adams Ward while taking drawing classes at the prestigious the National Academy of Design.
Young Dan French had not been commissioned to do any public art in 1873 when Emerson persuaded local officials in Concord to have him create "The Minute Man" for the centennial of the "shot heard 'round the world." It was an inspired choice, as French would go on to create an extraordinary number of important American statues. His work includes the John Harvard bust in Harvard Yard, the pensive Abraham Lincoln seated nobly at the Lincoln Memorial, and the inspiring rendition of Thomas Starr King, the abolitionist pastor who left New England for San Francisco in 1860. Although the Rev. King is forgotten now, Lincoln credited him with keeping California in the Union. His statue stands in Golden Gate Park.
Daniel Chester French's place in U.S. history would be secure if had done only the Lincoln Memorial, one of the most beloved pieces of public art in the world. The iconic statue in Harvard Yard has touched millions of people as well. In recent years, gullible tourists have taken to rubbing the statue's left foot, having been told that Harvard students do that for good luck before exams. The statue has been defaced in any number of other ways, including by having crimson paint splashed on it at the end of football season -- and at least once with blue paint, presumably by Yale fans.
Its inscription is also source of amusement. It reads simply:
Around the Cambridge campus, the joke is that the real name of this statute should be "The Three Lies." They aren't lies, exactly, but Harvard College was founded in 1636; John Harvard was an early benefactor, not the school's founder; and that's not him anyway. There were no likenesses of the man, so French used a painting of a John Harvard descendant for his model.
Actually, Daniel Chester French was diligent in trying to find the right models for his statues and in the allegory each one conveyed. This diligence was present in his work from the beginning. "The Minute Man" is a case in point.
Readers of this daily essay surely know the backstory of April 19, 1775: Warned by Paul Revere and other riders about the 700 British regulars on the march from Boston, American militiamen met them at the town green in Lexington. British Maj. John Pitcairn ordered the "damned rebels" to lay down their arms and disperse, a demand that did not go down well.
No one knows who fired the first shot in Lexington, but within minutes eight Americans lay dead, with no fatalities on the British side. Later in the day, the Americans would even the score in Concord and on the road back to Boston. And as they saw smoke rising from Concord, the militiamen on the town's North Bridge faced a squad of redcoats. As in Lexington, the Colonial commander, Col. James Barrett, instructed his men not to fire first. Directly questioning this order, an American lieutenant, Joseph Hosmer, shouted, "Will you let them burn the town?"
Such second-guessing would have been unthinkable in the British ranks. So would the impromptu huddle among the militia commanders about what to do next. But these were proud and autonomous Americans. Capt. David Brown of Concord demurred when Col. Barrett asked him if he wanted to be the point of the spear. Capt. William Smith of the Lincoln militia volunteered that he and his men were ready for battle. Col. Barrett asked another captain, Isaac Davis of Acton, if he and his men were willing to lead the charge. Drawing his sword, Davis replied, "I haven't a man who is afraid to go."
As I've mentioned previously, historian David Fischer Hackett has noted that New England men "were thus consulted -- not commanded -- on the great question before them." This morning, however, in the context of the global pandemic stressing the limits of American democracy, I'd like to mention two other aspects of the shots "heard 'round the world."
The first is that some historians, including Patrick Browne, believe Isaac Davis was the model for "The Minute Man" statue. Browne admits his bias -- like Capt. Davis, he's from Acton -- but I think he's right. And this is as good a time as any to point out what I haven't previously. Isaac Davis died on that bridge, shot through the heart by a British soldier, making him the first American officer to die fighting for freedom.
Davis wasn't a professional military man, which is one point of Daniel Chester French's statue. "The Minute Man" is a farmer holding a musket in his right hand while his left hand rests on a plow. "He was in mid-step," Browne notes. "That first step toward the battlefield, before he had even relinquished his plow, [French] felt was the moment the farmer became a soldier."
The moment, in other words, when he decided he was willing to fight for his rights. In the current crisis, all Americans are giving up these hard-won rights, some more willingly than others, in a shared sacrifice for the common good. Others are doing far more. Like the men on the North Bridge, they are risking, and sometimes losing, their lives to fight this enemy. For the most part, our heroes in this war are not citizen-soldiers. They are medical professionals and cops and first-responders and workers in essential services, including food production, delivery, and preparation. Thousands more are manning our food banks, many of them unpaid for their labor, as was Daniel Chester Smith -- he received nothing for sculpting "The Minute Man." Altruism as well as bravery, in other words, are part of our DNA.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.