Why We Celebrate Patriots' Day

Faculty Insight

Robert J. Allison

Professor of History, Suffolk University

Allison, ALB ’87, PhD ’92, is an expert in the history of Boston and colonial America. When we pondered the origins of Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, he came to the ready with a swift history on the origin and evolution of the holiday. 

We residents of New England take our American history pretty seriously. After all, this is where the Mayflower landed, the Puritans settled, Paul Revere rode, and someone—a minuteman? A redcoat?—fired the "shot heard round the world." 

Patriots' Day as we know it today memorializes the start of the Revolutionary War. But that wasn't always the case. Which events and traditions led to this commemorative day? To dig into the history, we must start with the Puritans.

Where It Began: Fast Day

The Puritans who fled England and settled in North America established two holidays that remain traditions today—Thanksgiving and Fast Day.

Each fall, they gathered to give thanks to God for the blessings of the year—and for not exercising his judgment on them. In spring, they set aside another day for fasting and prayer, when they would ask for God’s aid in the coming year, atone for their sins, and implore God not to exercise His judgment on them.

Both holidays persisted well into the nineteenth century. President Lincoln gave Thanksgiving a considerable boost during the Civil War, when he revived the custom that Presidents Washington and Adams had initiated, proclaiming a national day of Thanksgiving. After the war, it became a time to spend with family and to give thanks for the blessings of life.

Fast Day, always in April, had a tougher time in a more secular age. After all, most of us prefer counting our blessings to reflecting on our transgressions.

By the 1880s, Massachusetts citizens had turned the humble Fast Day into a celebration of the first gestures of spring. This holy day became a rather raucous holiday spent outdoors, with boat and bicycle races, and a noticeable amount of public drinking.

Massachusetts officialdom simply had to act. A renewed commitment to fasting seemed unlikely to take hold, but a day of solemn civic remembrance just might do the trick.

The Battle of Celebrations

The town of Concord had a proposal: all citizens of the Massachusetts Commonwealth should join in the celebration of Concord Day, held each April 19, the anniversary of the 1775 battle. Ralph Waldo Emerson had even written a poem about Concord’s embattled farmers, their flag unfurled to the April breeze, firing a shot heard round the world.

Perhaps not surprising, the other 350 towns were not enthusiastic about honoring Concord.

The neighboring town of Lexington was particularly opposed. After all, Lexington had its own April 19 celebration, honoring the Battle of Lexington where—according to residents—in 1775 the actual war had begun before Concord’s embattled farmers were out of bed. Lexington suggested April 19 be observed as Lexington Day.

The two towns compromised, jointly proposing April 19 as Lexington and Concord Day, but the other 349 towns were still resistant.

A Patriotic Resolution

Governor Frederic Greenhalge had no parochial interest in either Lexington or Concord. In fact, he had been born in England.

Immigrating to Lowell as a child, he worked in the textile mills before serving in the Civil War, becoming a lawyer, and eventually serving as mayor of his adopted city. Elected governor in 1893, Greenhalge’s more pressing problems were resolving labor disputes and preventing riots by the unemployed.

But Greenhalge’s most lasting legacy was proclaiming April 19, 1894, as Patriots’ Day, noting that the day marked the anniversary of both the beginning of the war for Liberty in 1775 and the first blood shed of the Civil War in 1861. Patriots’ Day commemorated not Lexington and Concord, but Liberty and Union.

That first Patriots’ Day, April 19, 1894, had proper commemorations of the Revolutionary and Civil wars. But history has a way of repeating itself. And given that it was a fine spring day, there were boat and bike races—with several hundred riders setting off on a ride from Concord to Boston—and, alas, a fair amount of public drinking.

OFF AND RUNNING

Three years later, inspired by the 1896 Olympics in Athens, the Boston Athletic Association organized a marathon from Ashland to Boston on April 19.

New York runner John McDermott was the first of 10 runners to complete the 24.5 mile race, doing so in two hours, 55 minutes, 10 seconds. The following year, a swift-footed Canadian named Ronald MacDonald won the race, beating 25 others. Despite being a foreigner, MacDonald made Bostonians proud—he was a student at Boston College, and in the last miles he beat a New Yorker.

In the late 1960s the United States observed a serious shortage of three-day weekends, and sought to correct this by shifting traditional holidays honoring historic events to a convenient Monday. In Massachusetts, Patriots’ Day moved to the third Monday in April, where it has remained since 1969.

Each Patriots’ Day, citizens come out for reenactments of Paul Revere’s Ride from Charlestown to Lexington, and William Dawes’ Ride from Boston and Roxbury to Concord. In the wee hours of the morning, reenactments of the battles of Lexington and Concord occur. Runners from around the world descend on Boston for the marathon, and baseball fans take in a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

This leisure is made possible by the sacrifices of those who fought for Liberty and Union, or, as Emerson said of the embattled Concord farmers, they “dared to die and leave their children free.”

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