In ‘The British Are Coming,’ Rick Atkinson Turns His Gaze To The American Revolution

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On April 19, 1775, the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired on the Lexington, Mass. town green. No one knows for sure who fired the shot, but when British soldiers heard it, they panicked. The red coats fired at members of the local militia, killing eight and wounding 10. With that, the Revolutionary War had begun.

Rick Atkinson, who wrote the best-selling Liberation Trilogy about the American effort in Europe during the Second World War, has now written the first book in a new trilogy to tell the story of the war that made America. It's called The British Are Coming.

Atkinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian, says there are lessons from the Revolution that hold true even today, 244 years after the shot heard 'round the world. For example, Atkinson says, we can learn "that however difficult our difficulties today, however burdensome they seem to be, we've had much more difficult periods in our national history and we have survived it somehow."

The Revolution has also taught us, he says, "that in difficult times, leaders have emerged who have helped us to get to where we need to go."

Atkinson sat down recently with NPR's Scott Simon right across from the green in Lexington — where militia members spent the night waiting to see the whites in the eyes of more than 800 British soldiers who'd been sent to stop the American Revolution before it could begin. Here are highlights from that conversation.

Interview highlights

On what happened on April 19, 1775

The ambition of the British was to send a force of about 900 men to Concord, 18 miles from Boston, not to seize the patriot leaders, which is what London had suggested to General [Thomas] Gage, the British commander, but rather to seize the cannons, the muskets, the gunpowder, the other war material that they knew to be in Concord. They got here 12 miles outside of Boston to Lexington, found a small militia force waiting for them — maybe 50 men by the time everything had settled out — and there was a massacre, is really what it amounted to. Eight Americans dead and 10 others wounded, two lightly wounded British soldiers, and then they proceeded on to Concord. By that point Concord was ready for them.

On the leadership of George Washington

He wasn't a very good tactical general. He does not see the battlefield spatially and temporally the way a great captain does, the way a Napoleon does. What you can see in Washington, though, is a man for — great responsibility enlarges him. When he first arrives in Cambridge to take over the Continental Army in the summer of 1775, he's disdainful of New Englanders. He's a Virginian, he doesn't really see how these dirty, obnoxious, obstreperous people, he doesn't really like them, and he doesn't understand the mystical bond between leader and led within the cultural constricts of democracy, this emerging democracy, and he's got to grow into that. He's got to learn that. The relationship that he's got to build with his army is something that we see develop over the first several years of the war.

On a key guiding principle held by Washington

[Washington] says a people not used to being forced to do things will not be drove, they must be led. And he is a leader, he understands the essence of the requirements to lead rather than to force people to try to do what they don't want to do. And in the army that he is commanding, the army we have today actually, that's a fairly critical insight that he's got and a recognition that this is the essence of leadership.

On whether the American Revolution was a revolution for all, or just for a white patriarchy of slave owners

Certainly you had some people, white slave owners in the south for example, who felt pinched economically by the restrictions that have been placed on them. But I think that it's not romanticizing that era excessively to believe, particularly when you look at the contemporary writings and what it is they believed at the time, that [the founders] had their eye on a grander future than simply a slave-holding country that was a nice place to be if you were white and rich. I think that really we sell them short if we don't acknowledge that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator" and all those other fine words out of the Declaration of Independence are things they really believed. They're aspirational, yes.

On what the declaration meant for slaves, women and the poor

Five-hundred thousand of the 2.5 million people here [when the declaration was written], it doesn't apply to them. It doesn't apply to women. It doesn't apply to the indigent, but it does open a vista into a future in which you can see an egalitarian society that's quite different from the society that existed here in 1775 and is quite different from anything that exists anywhere else on earth.

On lessons from the revolutionary era

I think one of the things we can learn is that the nation was born disputatiously. I mean, this is a country that has friction within the body politic in our genome. It's a very ornery people of 1775 and why should we be surprised that we are an ornery people today?

We can also learn that however difficult our difficulties today, however burdensome they seem to be, we've had much more difficult periods in our national history and we have survived it somehow. We've not only survived it, we've triumphed ultimately.

We can also learn, I think, that in difficult times leaders have emerged who have helped us to get to where we need to go. And we've been fortunate enough to see men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower, and there's a long list of them, and they share frequently a list of traits that we recognize as really admirable among our leaders. And we should demand that. We should be insistent that a good, noble, accomplished people be led by good, noble accomplished leaders.

NPR's Samantha Balaban produced this story for broadcast and Barrie Hardymon edited.

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