Modern history

THE RESCUE

image Of John Hancock, Sam Adams, a Salmon, and a Trunk

It is supposed their object there was to seize on Messrs. Hancock and Adams, two of our deputies to the General Congress. They were alarmed just in time to escape.

—Letter from a Gentleman of Rank in New England, April 25, 1775

WHILE THE COUNTRYSIDE began to stir, the man who had set these events in motion hobbled back toward Lexington, painfully encumbered by his silver spurs and heavy riding boots. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning when Paul Revere regained his freedom. The night had turned cold and raw and darker than before—the damp Stygian darkness that so often comes before a New England dawn.

As Paul Revere passed the low swamps that lay west of Lexington Green, he would have felt the dampness in his weary bones. He made slow progress in his high-topped boots on the muddy road, but his mind was racing far ahead. He wondered what Samuel Adams and John Hancock had done since he left them. Had they ended their interminable debate? Were they still debating? Did they act wisely on their warning?

Knowing Hancock and Adams, Paul Revere decided that he had better be sure. Before he reached the center of the town, he turned off the road, plunged into a muddy swamp, and waded across the wetlands to Lexington’s burying ground. In the darkness, he picked his way across the broken slates and canted stones that marked the last resting place of the town’s founders.

As Paul Revere stumbled through a maze of burial mounds and sunken holes, perhaps he had a moment to think about the men and women whose mortal remains lay beneath him in the ground. Inconceivable as it may seem to their degenerate descendants, the Whig leaders of revolutionary America often had these periods of reflection. They took a long view of their temporal condition, in a way that Americans rarely do today. “Think of your forefathers!” John Quincy Adams urged his contemporaries, “Think of your posterity!”

Paul Revere and his fellow Whigs believed themselves to be the heirs of New England’s founding vision, and the stewards of John Winthrop’s City on a Hill. The moral example of their forebears haunted and inspired them. When Sam Adams signed his revolutionary writings with the pen-name “Puritan,” and Paul Revere created his political engravings on godly themes, they expressed their strong sense of spiritual kinship with their ancestors.

For these men, the revolutionary movement was itself a new Puritanism—not precisely the same as the old, but similar in its long memories and large purposes. Like the old Puritans who had preceded them, these new Puritans were driven by an exalted sense of mission and high moral purpose in the world. They also believed that they were doing God’s work in the world, and that no earthly force could overcome them. In the language of the first Puritans, they were both believers and seekers—absolutely certain of the rightness of their cause, and always searching restlessly for ways to serve it better. In that endless quest, the memory of distant ancestors who lay sleeping in the grave was a source of guidance and inspiration to them.

At the same time, they also thought of their posterity. These men were deeply conscious of their own mortality—more than we are apt to be today. They looked ahead to the time when they too would be lying beneath the broken slates of New England’s burying grounds, and asked themselves if their acts would be worthy of generations yet unborn. Perhaps some of these thoughts (which have so little meaning to Americans today) may have occurred to Paul Revere, as he felt his way through the broken stones of Lexington’s burying ground during the dark hours before the dawn of April 19, 1775.

At last Paul Revere emerged from the burying ground and turned north to the Bedford Road. He walked a few hundred yards to the Clarke parsonage, hoping to find that the men he had come from Boston to warn were safely away. As he entered the door, Paul Revere was horrified to find that Sam Adams and John Hancock were precisely where he had met them three hours ago— still debating among themselves.

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John Hancock, portrait by John Singleton Copley, 1765. The sitter, at twenty-eight had recently inherited the largest fortune in New England. His dress and furniture suggest some of his great wealth which made him independent. But so strong was the ethic of work that he kept at his calling even in his portrait, and sat for the artist with his ledgers in hand. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The household was an uproar. Elizabeth Clarke, then in her twelfth year, looked on wide-eyed at the scene of confusion that surrounded her. Crowded in the small house, beside Sam Adams and John Hancock, was Hancock’s fiancee Dorothy Quincy, a young woman known to her friends as Miss Dolly, and celebrated throughout New England for her spirit and independence. Also present was John Hancock’s fastidious aunt, the rich widow of the man who had made the largest fortune in New England, “as ladylike a woman as Boston ever bred,” in Miss Dolly’s measured phrase.

Young Elizabeth Clarke wrote many years later, “I … can see, in my mind, just as plain … the whole scene, how Aunt Hancock and Dolly Quincy, with their cloaks and bonnets on, Aunt crying and wringing her hands and helping mother dress the children, Dolly going round with Father to hide money, watches and anything down in the potatoes and up in the garrett.” 1

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Samuel Adams, portrait by John Singleton Copley, circa 1770-72. Adams wears a simple suit of dark crimson. In his right hand he holds the instructions of Boston Town Meeting. With his left, he points to the Massachusetts Charter. The portrait represents the personality of the man himself, and also the austerity of his Whig principles. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

John Hancock sat at the Clarkes’ table, busily sharpening the fragile blade of his fine dress sword, breathing fire and brimstone at the British Regulars, and debating furiously with Sam Adams all at the same time. Dorothy Quincy remembered that “Mr. H. was all the night cleaning his gun and sword, and putting his accoutrements in order, and was determined to go out to the plain by the meetinghouse, where the battle was, to fight.” 2

We think of John Hancock as a politician, but he regarded himself as a soldier, and in the small hours of the morning he talked bravely of joining the Lexington men on the Common, and facing the Regulars when they arrived. “If I had my musket,” Hancock was heard to say, “I would never turn my back on these troops.” He swore again and again that “it never should be said that he had turned his back” upon the Regulars. 3

John Hancock punctuated these martial threats by shouting commands at his companions. At one stage Dorothy Quincy thought of her aged father in Boston, and said that she would return to him tomorrow. Hancock turned toward his fiancee and said in his imperious way, “No, madam, you shall not return as long as there is a British bayonet left in Boston.” Miss Dolly answered firmly, “Recollect, Mr. Hancock, I am not under your control yet.” 4

Sam Adams tried in vain to persuade his fire-eating friend that he was more useful to the cause in other ways than by carrying a musket. Dorothy Quincy saw Adams clap John Hancock on the shoulder and say to him, “That is not our business. We belong to the cabinet.” 5

Paul Revere joined this conversation after he arrived. He added the weight of his recent experience to Adams’s arguments, telling of his “treatment” at the hands of the British officers on the Concord Road. With great urgency Revere told Hancock and Adams that they must leave immediately. Dorothy Quincy remembered that “it was not till break of day that Mr. H. could be persuaded.” 6

The clinching argument was a report that one British officer had asked “where Clarke’s Tavern was,” There was no such tavern in Lexington; only the Clarke home where Adams and Hancock were staying. Tories were everywhere, and the location of the Revolutionary leaders could not long remain a secret. In the end, Hancock was “overcome by the entreaties of his friends, who convinced him that the enemy would indeed triumph, if they could get him and Mr. Adams in their power.” 7

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Dorothy Quincy was staying with her fiance John Hancock in Lexington when Paul Revere arrived. She left a memorable account of the events that followed. Whig New England liked its women to be smart and strong. “Miss Dolly” was much celebrated for her beauty, brains, and spirit. The artist John Singleton Copley seems not to have been one of her admirers, and painted her in 1772 as something of a termagant. Her beauty is lost in this likeness, but her intellect and independence shine through. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

As dawn approached, Hancock at last agreed to depart with Adams and Revere. Typically, he left his aunt and fiancee behind in the Clarke house, and insisted on traveling in high state. The fugitives set off in Hancock’s heavy coach, making their way over muddy roads toward a parsonage in the second precinct of Woburn (now the town of Burlington), northwest of Lexington. There they were welcomed by the widow of the former minister, in the network of Congregational clergy that spanned the countryside of Massachusetts.

Soon after they arrived, John Hancock began to think about his dinner. In Lexington, an admirer had presented him with a fine great salmon, fresh caught in a New England river. The fish had been left behind at the Clarke house. Hancock sent back his coach with orders to return with Aunt Hancock, Miss Dolly, and the salmon. All arrived in good order. Hancock demanded the salmon straight away, and asked that it to be cleaned and cooked. His hostess went to work on it in the kitchen.

Adams, Hancock and their party were now alone with their host’s family. Paul Revere was gone again. He had traveled with Hancock and Adams until he felt sure that they were out of danger. Then he decided to return to Lexington Green “to find out what was acting,” as he liked to say. Back he went to the Clarke house, and rested for a few moments.

Suddenly another crisis burst upon him. A young Boston acquaintance named John Lowell appeared, and begged Revere to help him with an urgent task. Lowell was John Hancock’s confidential clerk. He explained that when Hancock and Adams fled, they had left behind a large trunk stuffed with important papers. Lowell told Revere that the trunk had been left in an upper chamber at the Buckman Tavern on Lexington Common, a few hundred yards from where they were talking. It was very heavy—more than one man could carry. It contained the innermost secrets of the Whig cause, and written evidence that could incriminate many leaders.

Paul Revere rose quickly from his seat. With young Lowell, he walked down toward Lexington Common to rescue the trunk. The two men headed straight for the Buckman Tavern where they found a large crowd, many rumors, and much confusion. In the crowded taproom, they were astonished to be told that it was all a false alarm!

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Lydia Henchman Hancock brought her husband Thomas Hancock the foundation of his fortune. He used it well, and made her the richest widow in New England. She was with her nephew John Hancock in Lexington on the night of April 18. When Paul Revere arrived, Aunt Lydia gave way to high hysterics. (National Portrait Gallery, Washington)

Revere quickly discovered what had happened. After he and Dawes had left for Concord, the men of Lexington had sounded the alarm. These prudent Yankee farmers decided to act on Revere’s message, but also to confirm its accuracy by sending out their own “expresses” to the east. Two men of Lexington went riding off to Cambridge, with instructions to “gain intelligence of the motions of the troops, and what route their took.” While they were gone, Captain Parker’s men mustered on the Common. 8

The two Lexington scouts traveled different roads and were away for several hours. One of them returned between 3 and 4 o’clock, and reported that Paul Revere’s message was mistaken. He announced that “there was no appearance of the troops, on the roads for Cambridge or Charlestown, and that the movements of the army were but a feint to alarm the people.”

On the strength of this report, Captain Parker dismissed his men, but ordered them to remain nearby, “within call of the drum” until the other scout came back. Many of the militia decided to stay at Buckman’s tavern. Some had loaded their muskets. Before entering the taproom, they observed the time-honored American rule of no loaded weapons at the bar, and emptied their guns by firing them into the air. This was the “volley” that had so alarmed the British patrol. The militiamen were in the taproom, talking among themselves, when Paul Revere arrived.

Just then, the second Lexington express came racing up the Boston road at full gallop. He shouted that the Regulars were very near, and already past “the Rocks,” a landmark barely half an hour east of Lexington Green. This other scout had found the marching column, but was trapped on the road behind them, unable to get past the troops and warn the town. Jonas Clarke remembered that “he was prevented [from returning sooner] by their silent and sudden arrival at the place where he was waiting for intelligence— so that, after all this precaution we had no notice of their approach till the brigade [sic] was actually in the town, and upon a quick march within about a mile and a quarter of the meetinghouse.” 9

Thus, despite its earlier warnings, the town of Lexington was taken by surprise. Captain Parker instantly mustered his company again. Alarm guns were fired, and the bell was rung once more. Parker summoned nineteen-year-old drummer William Diamond, a youngster who had just moved to Lexington from Boston, where he had been trained in the art of military drumming by a kindly British soldier. Diamond was ordered to beat the call to arms. The Lexington militia came running out of the tavern onto the Common.10

Lowell and Revere sprinted in the opposite direction, through the taproom, and climbed the stairs as fast as their weary legs could carry them. In a chamber on the second floor they found the trunk where John Hancock had left it. As they entered the room, Paul Revere turned and looked anxiously out of the tavern window toward the first streaks of light in the eastern sky.

In the soft gray dawn, he suddenly saw the British troops approaching—a long column winding inexorably up the Lexington Road, like a giant red centipede on its hundreds of white legs. Above the heads of the marching men, a steel fringe of bayonets was visible in the early morning light.

Paul Revere watched the Regulars for a moment. He thought they were “very near,” Then, with renewed urgency, he returned to his task. On the floor was a stout wooden trunk, covered in leather and studded with nails, with a curved top and strong brass fastenings. It was indeed very large—four feet long, two feet wide, and about two and a half feet high. The trunk was full of papers, and immensely heavy. 11

Revere and Lowell decided to carry it away from the tavern and hide it in the woods. They lifted the massive trunk, struggled down the narrow stairs with it, and staggered through the front door of the tavern. Outside, Captain John Parker was forming his militia on the Green. Revere and Lowell carried the trunk directly through the ranks of Parker’s men, heading for a place of safety where the trunk and its contents could be hidden.

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John Hancock’s trunk, filled with secret papers, was left behind in the Buckman Tavern. It survives today in the Worcester Historical Museum.

Meanwhile, in a Woburn parsonage, John Hancock was preparing at last to enjoy his salmon. Dorothy Quincy remembered later that he was just sitting down to a “tempting feast,” when a man from Lexington came rushing in, shouting wildly, “The Regulars are coming! The Regulars are coming!” At the first appearance of the soldiers this messenger had left his family and hurried to warn the Patriot leaders. “My wife’s in etarnity now!” he cried hysterically in his Yankee twang, as everyone looked on in astonishment.

Once again, Hancock and Adams were warned that they were in danger. Their presence in Woburn was not easy to disguise if the Regulars should come that way. Hancock’s large coach was parked prominently in front of the house, where all could see it. The household flew into action. The coach was driven into the trees, and hidden beneath a large pile of brush. Hancock and Adams abandoned their salmon once again, and ran into the woods of Woburn.

In fact, nobody was coming after them. When Tory Peter Oliver later heard the story of their hasty departure, he sneered that “their flight confirmed the observation made by Solomon, vizt the wicked fleeth when no man pursueth.” 12

A little later, when it was clear that the Regulars were not heading toward Woburn, Adams and Hancock were led out of the woods and taken deeper into the Middlesex countryside, to the modest house of Amos Wyman, “in an obscure corner of Bedford, Burlington and Billerica.” Here they settled in and Hancock suddenly felt hungry again. One person recalled that he was “forced by the cravings of nature to call for food.” Their new hosts had nothing in the house but a bit of cold boiled salt pork, brown bread, and potatoes. This was the ordinary fare of Middlesex farmers, but Dorothy Quincy observed that it was a “strange diet for these patriots, who were in the habit of having the best.” 13

While on their way to this new sanctuary, they began to hear the rattle of musketry in the distance. Sam Adams turned to his companion and said, “It is a fine day!”

“Very pleasant,” John Hancock replied serenely, thinking that Adams was talking about the weather.

“I mean,” Sam Adams explained, as if to a child, “this is a glorious day for America.” 14

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