On a beautiful summer day, with visitors enjoying its views and waters, the Old North Bridge seems an unlikely spot for the beginning of a revolution. Yet here the first organized and deliberate battle of the American Revolution occurred, when, in April 1775, colonial militia intent on defending their munitions forcefully repelled regulars of the British Army. Turning them back at the Bridge, the colonials famously sniped at the British as they retreated on a heavily wooded road.
It was the beginning of an eight-year war that the revolutionaries fought with little help from outside. Once they had killed members of the British armed forces, there was no path back to peace and submission. There could be no end to defensive resistance, to a rebellion that at first had no unified, all-encompassing aim. Only after more than a year of bloodshed and ad hoc organization did the thirteen colonies unite in Declaring Independence, justifying their goal, with the aid of Thomas Jefferson’s mighty pen and mind, with the most lofty and universal terms he could devise.
During this period, George Washington transformed the initially rag-tag Revolutionary Army, using stern measures to exact loyalty and obedience, while inveigling the Continental Congress (even as revolutionaries, the colonists had a regular legislative assembly) to provide the money and measures needed to fund the Army and enhance its power to fight.
Ultimately, the colonies triumphed and went on to peacetime success not because of their military might (which arguably remained inferior to the British) but because of the political culture they embodied. The political processes and traditions that they had always relied on enabled them to retain their cohesion after throwing off the British, and, eventually, to devise a stable new nation based on the Constitution, ratified some thirteen years after the Revolution began.
Far from being alien subjects, the colonists were scarcely distinguishable from their imperial adversaries. Their cause produced results because they knew and wished to preserve a civil society, in which they could be secure in their enjoyment of specific personal and political rights. The American Revolution was a narrow struggle, fought by two populations infused with the same liberal traditions and similar attitudes toward the rule of law.
Unlike the revolutions we see around us today, the American revolution was not primarily about religion, nor was it fought along tribal, sectarian, or racial lines. It was more of a family quarrel, fought between two forces of related bloodlines.
Being creatures of empire, early Americans, once free, quickly exhibited their own imperial tendencies. Today we are quick to preach power-sharing to nations fraught with internal strife, but on this score we lack an illustrious history. When it came to indigenous Americans, for example, the Anglo-Americans dominant in the 19th century pursued a policy of removal and territorial appropriation that makes the Japanese-American internment camps of the 20th century look like a friendly garden party.
The Native American tribes, though possessing deep claims to the lands of the American continent, were as unwieldy and threatening in a cultural sense as any terrorist is today. The notion that white Americans could cohabit or compromise with native peoples, or that two such dissimilar cultures could be harmonized or politically integrated, was too mind-boggling to be entertained. Instead, the American government used military and political force to extirpate Indians and push them off desirable lands. Americans’ idea of “power sharing” with the Indian “other” was to expel remaining tribes from the American body politic, cordoning them off on “reservations,” where they could no longer impinge on, or participate in, the ostensibly egalitarian government that was sovereign by then.
Similarly, in the 1860s, white Americans had to fight a Civil War among themselves, at the cost of some 600,000 lives, to establish the principle that we should not enslave persons whose skin color is different than ours. It took another hundred years to provide African-Americans with the legal protections necessary for the full exercise of their political rights.
Throughout our Civil War, the rest of the world sat on the sidelines, as the nation sought its direction through a protracted conflict that refined it and left it profoundly changed. The principles of union, federal authority, and equality that were then irrevocably established laid down the foundations of the nation’s might today.
These facts about our history must be recalled as we consider intervening in revolutionary conflicts in other countries. The paramount importance of civil culture should be borne in mind as we contemplate giving military aid or committing ourselves militarily in other ways. We tell ourselves that stepping in will lead to a more just result, or an earlier peace, but what process of internal development or resolution are we short-circuiting? We say that other countries should tolerate and politically empower radicalized or militant minorities, though this isn’t something we’ve ever done with ours.
Much as our hearts are moved with compassion for the suffering that accompanies violent conflicts that are unbounded and unequal, we should be humble in our response, recalling the long path we have traveled from Revolution to tolerance and inclusion—a centuries-long struggle that continues even now, long since peace returned to the Old North Bridge.