Lexington has always fought for its place in the national memory. Here, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, we anticipate the construction of a beautiful new visitors’ center, equipped to receive guests from across the country and around the world. The challenge of telling our story – showing the world why Lexington mattered and matters – is not new, although it is certainly an evolving one. It began just in the wake of the events of April 19, 1775.
It was called the “Battle of Lexington” by the well-informed Isaiah Thomas, printer of the Massachusetts Spy. Seven of the eight men who died on Lexington Green that morning were initially buried in the old cemetery behind the current First Parish Church. It seems unbelievable that no monument was erected over that gravesite, though no evidence of what it may have looked like has surfaced.
Meanwhile, the people that had lived through the actions of that “ever-memorable” day started as early as 1777 to try and organize the building of a monument to the event. They told their stories often enough that, in 1789, the newly-elected George Washington paid a visit to the town. Washington noted that he dined at Munroe Tavern and was shown “the spot on which the first blood was spilt in the dispute with Great Britain." The event was important enough in town that the Reverend Jonas Clarke, who always recorded the day’s weather above anything, commented on the President’s visit in his journal.
Barely two years later, Reverend Clarke was on a committee selected by the town to approach the United States Congress asking for funds for the memorial marker, to be placed either over the graves of the slain as they still lay, or on the green where most of the action, as everyone could still remember, had taken place and where there was a recently vacated bit of raised ground. This attempt bore no fruit; Congress was made of men from all the States, and they each perhaps considered their own localities’ parts in the unfolding of this history just as significant as Lexington’s.
The town struggled through the 1790s with procuring funding for the project. In the end, the obscure stonecutter Thomas “Park” (possibly a relation of Captain John Parker) received a good sum from the early Massachusetts State government to execute the marker. His masterpiece is inscribed “Executed by Thos. Park.” The period after “Park” could indicate that “Thos.’s” surname was actually a punctuated “Parker.” At any rate this man’s original carving, now in the collection of Lexington Historical Society, is interesting.
Perhaps the whole thing was rushed, in a way. It does seem as though the people of Lexington wanted to set this memory in stone, literally, before the close of the eighteenth century. The words on this carving are those of the Reverend Jonas Clarke, who was still Lexington’s parson in 1799, when the memorial was finally completed on July 4 of that year. This date was certainly not by accident, although it is tempting to imagine that the original, tentative plan was for a ceremony on April 19 to mark the obelisk’s completion, but that the construction went over time and budget. In any event, the problems with Thomas Park’s craftsmanship on the finished product cannot but have become quickly apparent to onlookers.
The lines of text grow slightly more crowded as you read down the slate’s inscription, as if the stonecutter saw that he was running out of room. It uses oddly-placed underscores, even for the time, between Reverend Clarke’s ubiquitous exclamation marks. It also uses the long ‘s’ throughout, which will be familiar as the ‘s’ that looks like a lowercase ‘f’ – badly out of fashion by 1799. And worst of all, as Thomas Park cut the slivers of slate away, carefully shaping each letter, he managed to spell more than one word incorrectly.
The first line reads, “Sacred to Liberty and the Rights of Mankind”, or at least it should. The “I” is missing from the word “mankind”. A second spelling mistake can be found further down, when the tablet touts “the EVER MEMORABLE NINTENTH [sic] OF APRIL. Interestingly, our forebears have inserted carets where the missing letters should be – but other than that, the slate has suffered no graffiti or vandalism, unlike the obelisk itself, which is riddled with carvings from the nineteenth century.
In 1835, the whole memorial was rededicated, the bodies it mourned were moved into a grave beneath it, and a marble plaque, with the errors corrected, was installed in place of the original slate. The slate vanished from history until 1911, when a local family interred a loved one and discovered that the stone had been used as a seal to the family tomb, with the words facing inward, protected for countless decades from the elements. It was then given to Lexington Historical Society.
The immortal words of Reverend Clarke can be read in full from the modern image of our War Monument below. Even since so long ago, those of us that try to tell Lexington’s stories have created, sometimes made mistakes, and then reinvented.
-James Miele, Museum Shop Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.