A Poem That Bears Repeating

Another July 4th is around the corner, and everyone in the U.S. will celebrate my birthday. (That really is what I thought as a kid.)

Happy 248th birthday, America!

As we near the completion of one-quarter of a millennium, it’s worth reflecting on the generous legacy left to us by our Founding Fathers and the generations of patriots who came before us. I have some thoughts on the matter, but I’m curious to hear your perspective.

As a devotee of American history, I decided this year to dust off Ralph Waldo Emerson’s classic, Concord Hymn, a well-known and celebrated poem.Memorized and recited by kids for generations, although perhaps (sadly) not as much anymore, this four-stanza poem was first read at the dedication of the battle monument on July 4, 1837. Do you remember the words?

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;

Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;

And Time the ruined bridge has swept

Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,

We set today a votive stone;

That memory may their deed redeem,

When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare

To die, and leave their children free,

Bid Time and Nature gently spare

The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Heroism and remembrance are Emerson’s themes. Time and nature have a way of conspiring to make us forget these heroes. I’ll fess up. I’ve forgotten about the stand those men made on April 19, 1775, and that’s what Emerson predicted would happen. That’s why the monument was erected, and why the poem was written. To help us remember.

The provincials fired upon the British troops who were outnumbered and tactically disadvantaged that day. Our heroes, merely farmers, scattered the highly trained army and handed the colonies a victory in the first battle of what would be a long, drawn-out war of independence.

Fast-forward from the “shot heard round the world” to now.

Today we are a free people—free to come and go, free to choose, free to speak our minds and worship as we please. To pursue the American dream: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

There’s room to debate the nation’s past and present sins—here at home and abroad—and we should. And we can hold different opinions about what makes our country great and disagree whether she is exceptional at all. It’s healthy to ask if America’s promises in the Bill of Rights are being extended to everyone who lives here.

But I pray we’ll stop allowing national arguments to separate families and friends, and to tear apart the very fabric holding this historic experiment together.

Let’s hold fast to the principles and values in our founding documents—patriotism, national unity, sharing and devolution of power, the rule of law, and democracy among them. For every travesty one might count against our country, I believe there have been countless blessings bestowed upon us, her family, and upon the world.

The famous poet urges us to “tend to the memory” of the deed performed in Concord with a commitment equal to their sacrifice. The Old North Bridge that stood over the Concord River the day of the fight, where the farmers proudly raised their flag, has since been replaced several times. The field is bare, the sons and fathers of the brave men who fought are long gone.

There’s little left to remind us, save the obelisk and Mr. Emerson’s poetic words.

Bid “time and nature gently spare the shaft we raise to them and thee.”