Today, as I write this, is Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts. It is a holiday in a few states, but Massachusetts is key because it is commemorated with school closings (not unique this year), the Boston Marathon (now postponed until September), and a Red Sox home game before 12 noon (obviously not happening).
The day acknowledges what historians have long recognized as the beginning of the American Revolution when shots were fired between American militiamen and British soldiers in Lexington and Concord and in what is now Arlington. On April 19, 1775, British Major John Pitcairn, with no orders from a superior officer, commanded his troops in six companies to fire on a crowd of some 70 Americans assembled on the Lexington green. “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, and disperse!” he shouted. “Damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms?”
Another British officer joined in the shouting, “Damn them! We will have them!” And when the Americans refused, the shots rang out. Eight militiamen were killed and several wounded in the skirmish. A few months later, King George III declared that the colonies were in rebellion, and the rest is history.
Freedom and rights, liberty and justice were on the minds of some, but not all, Americans in those crucial years. Historians often remind us that not everyone agreed that the colonies should become independent from the British empire. One-third certainly did; one-third thought reconciliation was possible, even preferable; and one-third were uncertain and awaited the outcome of the struggle.
Along with Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington, and many others, Benjamin Franklin, born in Boston, living in Philadelphia, summed up the problem concerning separation: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall hang separately.”
Today, as we shelter-in-place, thanks to this dreadful disease that has ravaged so many in Massachusetts, we are witnessing the outbreak of several nationwide protests against government orders shutting down our businesses. Of course, we should all want to see the end of COVID-19 and a return to our normal lives, to get back to work.
These rallies have taken place all over the country, from Cape Cod to Annapolis, Maryland, to Madison, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Some have argued that funding from very conservative, pro-Trump administration organizations like Koch industries and the DeVos family are behind these demonstrations. Some protestors carry the American flag, others the Confederate flag. In an echo of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, some carry signs demanding to “Make America Free Again.”
They claim that governors have become dictators, and they want their freedom restored. They shout that they do not have to follow physical distancing if they do not want to and they can reopen their businesses because we live in a free country. Some have called this a “patriot” movement. And President Trump has promoted their actions, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN! LIBERATE MINNESOTA! LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” (his emphasis).
Sound familiar? Sound like 1775-1776 all over again? A new order Patriot Day?
The problem is that there is, as always, the obverse of this coin. President Trump has claimed that his authority is “total,” “and that’s the way it’s got to be.” But his authority is not “total.” The Constitution provides that we have a government of divided power, horizontally and vertically: the first between the president, Congress, and the courts; the second between the national and state governments.
Americans did not rebel against George III and the empire to gain a new king in the guise of a president. Presidents are subject to the laws, just as everyone else is. Liberty does not mean we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, no matter how much we would like to. It means that with liberty comes responsibility and duty.
The demonstrators are right that we need to get to work as soon as possible. But it also means that we have a duty to do so responsibly.
The month before the battle at Lexington and Concord, as Virginia was deciding to raise a militia and to put the colony in a posture of defense, Patrick Henry made his famous declaration, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” These words may well ring true if we seek an end to staying home or decline to distance ourselves: COVID-19 is a deadly disease. Too much liberty right now is not what we need.
This Patriot’s Day, this Patriot’s week, we cannot follow hysterical calls to defy the law or the preposterous tweets emanating from the White House. We should follow the advice of our medical experts who rely on science. They will tell us when it is safe to return to business as usual.
Jack Fruchtman, a part-time Aquinnah resident, has written books on the American Constitution, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, among others and served as the Patrick Henry Visiting Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University in 2006.