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The Fantasy of Local History

Postcard from Lexington

By Stephanie M. Skier

LEXINGTON, Mass.—In this small town most known for its “shot heard round the world,” local history is a town pastime, and for some, a serious hobby. Here local history tends to take the form of attempts to reconstruct a romanticized past.

This Boston suburb likes to masquerade as a quaint New England village and glorify its role in the American Revolution. Every year on Patriot’s Day—the Mass. state holiday in April that commemorates the battle of Lexington (and maybe some other battle that might have occurred in Concord)—a troupe of Lexington residents dress up in colonial-style garb, take up muskets loaded with blanks and reenact the battle of Lexington. The town’s Historic Districts Commission must approve everything along the stretch of Mass. Ave. that serves as the town center—from signs in store windows to bike racks. High school students and senior citizens, clad in “traditional” tricorn hats made in China, lead tourists around the Battle Green where the battle of Lexington took place. This is the same land that today hosts practices of the high school’s ultimate frisbee team and serves as a water stop for cyclists on the (appropriately named) Minuteman Bikeway.

Town history has focused almost exclusively on the colonial period and the Revolutionary War. But the latest project of the Lexington Historical Society may be a signal that interest in local history is expanding into other topics. The society is in the process of renovating an old railroad depot to create a museum about the town’s development as a railroad suburb in the beginning of the twentieth century. But instead of describing daily life in 1915, the depot’s first major event—a showing of old footage from the 1915 “Pageant of Lexington” which celebrates the battle—indicates that even in remembering Lexington’s twentieth century, the town still has one eye looking for 1775.

Young white women in white togas are shown doing an interpretive dance at a pond; records from the event say they are nymphs representing nature and the elements. The silent film of the pageant shows a young white woman as the “Goddess of Peace” standing elevated above soldiers and rioters. Playing into the standard line of Lexington’s immense importance, the local paper wrote last week that this scene represents “the debt the world owes to Lexington for her attainment of liberty.”

The pageant’s account of the battle reads like a description of a contemporary epic film, starring an underdog who rises above all odds. In what the guide calls “most wonderful fight know to history,” it describes how “untrained farmers” fought against “drilled troops,” and “drove the soldiers like frightened sheep.” This classic literary theme of the underdog has entertainment value and resonates with town pride, but it is a highly colored reading of the events of April 19, 1775.

Outside historical accounts by professional historians—rather than zealous townies—describe a different picture. These accounts avoid the hyperbole and colorful rhetoric of the town’s pageants and popular history. These 77 “untrained farmers” were mostly veterans of the French and Indian Wars, with additional target practice from hunting, and preparation as part of the town’s training band. Instead of driving the British away like sheep, the Lexingtonians sustained heavy losses, killed only two British soldiers, and did not prevent the British from marching onward to Concord.

But that account does not make for a very good legend, so the town goes with the Lexington spin.

Even the military history of the battle is shrouded in uncertainty. Accounts vary as to whether British regulars or the Lexington farmers fired the first shot. In the Patriots Day reenactment, a person dressed as neither a British regular nor a Minuteman fires the first shot from outside the Green. This recreated version of history certainly does not portray the way the battle actually began, but it is considered better than taking sides with either of the plausible possibilities.

This defense of Lexington’s historical significance often results in clashes with nearby Concord, that other town that (falsely, from the Lexington view) claims the shot heard round the world. In 1824, Concord resident Samuel Hoar claimed in a speech that his town had made the first “forcible resistance” to the British, offending Lexington’s town pride and sparking the appointment of a committee to collect evidence on the battles of Lexington and Concord. The 40-page pamphlet that resulted from the committee not surprisingly documented Lexington’s noble efforts against the British.

Lexingtonians are politically invested in the town’s history; pride in its Revolutionary role has come to define Lexington, and thus the town must defend that version of history.

Hopefully the historical society’s future events and eventual museum will promote interest in more diverse aspects of Lexington’s history than a history of battle reenactments. Yet judging from some of the local published works on Lexington’s last two centuries, even these accounts are not complete pictures of the past.

Local history is almost entirely a history of the town’s prominent families, which are those that have been here since British rule or were part of high society in later periods. The local history since 1775 focuses largely on mansions and the affluent people who owned them. Because town records, official speeches and other writings are often all that remains of the town’s past, people with enough educational privilege to produce such documents are greatly overrepresented in historical accounts.

Lexington looks back into the past to find an identity for the community in the present. But without being able to obtain a clear, objective or complete picture of the past, we cannot attempt to reconstruct an accurate representation of it. The reenactments and the restored historic houses are not as much a glimpse into a past as a statement about the present, and the self-congratulatory selective memory that defines the culture of contemporary Lexington.

Stephanie M. Skier ’05, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. She’s enjoying the air conditioning at 14 Plympton St. and awaiting the next issue of Captain Lexington comics.

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