By now you have heard story after story about the brother bombers who terrorized Boston, the victims, and the heroes whether in blue or white uniforms, or in government, or just in jeans or running shoes. There is a central story no one in the media or in government seems to have considered. It’s a story about overlooked victims, a persistent spirit, history and multiple ironies.
In speaking to a cop on the street, Boylston Street, when it re-opened last Thursday night, it became apparent to me that anyone who lives in a free society is a Patriot. It was a short conversation, but through gritted teeth and a select few words, the officer posted on the scene of a storefront turned memorial got across a message. Law enforcement has discussed the Marathon ad infinitum over the years, and civil liberties trump the excess of caution that those who protect us might rather use. Contemplating this, I concluded that if we all were to give up some liberties, living in fear of future attacks, these dedicated public safety professionals could well do a better job of preventing harm. That’s their mission, and they take it to heart.
When people complain about TSA searches and other public safety measures, if they are not clueless about potential consequences, what they are really saying is that they prefer to err on the side of liberty. No doubt what happened on Patriots Day was a senseless tragedy that should never have occurred, but many of the over 300 million of us would rather take a chance on experiencing another such tragic event than be subjected to searches and changes in our way of life. I was at the finish line in Copley at last year’s Boston Marathon, and many other years, but as it happened, not this year. So, I don’t get a vote. What about the people who lost limbs and loved ones? Interviews of Boston’s seriously injured recite a consistent feeling: they will not let this event stop them from moving on and living their life as before. After so much personal loss, it makes me think that, by and large, people around here will always err on the side of liberty. By their actions, these people prove they are no less Patriots than Patrick Henry, who in 1775 famously declared:
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! — I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Colonists revolted to a growing presumption of servitude to the British crown. Americans have since taken the concept of liberty to more revolutionary heights. Next year’s Patriots Day Marathon will no doubt be a testament to that.
This brings us to the ironic and untold story of this Patriots’ Day. The irony is that after 3 days passed since the bombings, of all possible locations from Danvers to Dagestan, the brothers’ own finish line took place in the birthplace of America: Watertown, Massachusetts. Yes, I said Watertown. Ironically, the street on which the younger brother was found hiding in a boat is kitty-corner pretty much the next street over from the meeting place where the Patriots launched the Declaration of Independence. (See map in image)
People recall the tri-corner hats and muskets, but there is more to the story of the Patriots than what is covered in your typical middle school. After hostilities had erupted in and around Boston, at the Boston Massacre, at Lexington and Concord, and just around the date of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the city of Boston became too dangerous for the Patriots to meet. Unbeknownst to most in modern times, in 1775 Watertown became the revolutionary capital of Massachusetts. Paul Revere even moved his family from Boston to Watertown for safety. On the intersection of Common Street and what is now Mt. Auburn Street (formerly Mill Street) sat the Meeting House where the Provincial Congress met from April to July of 1775, and where the Great and General Court met from July 1775 to November, 1776, and later in 1778. Washington left from Watertown to take the first command of his troops the following day at Cambridge. The Meeting House was a stone’s throw from Franklin Street, also ironically named after a Patriot, where the younger bomber hid in a boat christened the ‘Slip Away II’, a third irony.
The process of deciding whether to fight the British for independence endured many years of lobbying on either side. Despite hostilities, there were factions that were ever loyal to the Brits. Others thought it folly to take up arms against them. Over time, the Patriots (also called the mobility, or mob) had to find a way to move public opinion, and get support from Indian nations and the French for what would be a daunting fight for independence. They were not having success convincing other colonies to declare independence, so in 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence, they started swinging momentum by having individual towns declare their independence from the British. The Patriots conferred on these towns the rights to elect their own representatives and remove civil or military officers that were appointed by the King’s Governor. The first of these towns was the same place that first introduced the complaint of “no taxation without representation”: Watertown. The General Court only moved back to Boston after the British had left at the end of 1776.
An attack on Boston’s Patriots’ Day was also an attack on these Patriots. Against all odds, these unnamed victims succeeded in gaining the type of sovereignty and independence that is the dream of many in the bombers’ homeland – a fourth irony. So the original Patriots might be thought of as the overlooked victims of the unjust bombings. The Patriots were farmers and every day people, but they were ready to rush in from surrounding areas to defend their countrymen against tyranny in a minute, hence the nickname Minutemen. As a Watertown newspaper of the time wrote in response to British boasts of killing 150 Patriots, there are thousands more Patriots being born each day. Every day Bostonians and other onlookers on Boylston Street were ready to act within a minute of the bombings on April 15th. The Patriots as we remember them may be long gone, but apparently their persistent spirit lives on in legions more who are ready in a minute to this day.
A few days before the Marathon, I was paying for breakfast in Pittsburgh when the teller pointed out a fellow Bostonian at the counter. The man told me he was actually from Milbury and had to explain Milbury is near Worcester, Mass. He was a cameraman for NBC Sports in town for the Frozen Four hockey tourney, and told me he had to rush back to Boston to set up the cameras at the Marathon’s start and finish lines. I’ll probably never know, but I hope that he was not hurt. People all over Massachusetts claim Boston as their home, because like the Minutemen, they are Bostonian in their thinking. It is a commitment to a state of mind as much as a location. When threatened we see that slogans like “The Spirit of Massachusetts is the Spirit of America”, and now “OneBoston” may indeed have some basis in fact. So identifying a single birthplace for America is like limiting the Minutemen to Boston, but as cited above, Watertown does have some singular claims to make back in 1775 when things became heated in Boston.
The irony remains. When the younger brother was captured, police had blocked off Mt. Auburn Street very coincidentally at the intersection with Common, precisely where the Meeting House stood in 1775. A nondescript granite marker identifies the spot in front of a cemetery with gravestones so old, their engravings are weathered into the stone. It’s not on Boston’s Freedom Trail, and people who come to Boston to see historical places never even hear of the town next door, Watertown. People walk and drive past this corner every day, oblivious to what occurred there and who stood there making their case for liberty almost 240 years ago. Last Friday evening, the spirit of patriotism and need for justice was once again self-evident among the dozens gathered on that spot to see the attack reach its finale, myself included. Of all places on Earth where this story could have come to an end, from the Caucusus to California, was Watertown just an ironic coincidence, or did the original Patriots somehow have a last word in putting an end to unjust acts once again?
You can donate to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings at OneFundBoston.org
Author’s Note: Watertown was also where the first international treaty was signed, thereby asserting the sovereignty of the United States and protecting the northern border. The Treaty of Watertown, a sister document to the Declaration of Independence, was with the Míkmaq Indian tribe, who fought with the Patriots and have fought in every US war since. When the British returned and were re-defeated in 1812, the sails of the USS Constitution, aka Old Ironsides, were made in Watertown. The significance of Watertown might be one of the best kept secrets in American history.
Since we are all either Norm’s or Cliff Claven’s in Boston, I have done my best Cliffy impersonation as an armchair historian. If any historian scholars in cyberspace read this, please feel free to comment below with your insights.