Who is responsible for firing the first shots on Lexington Green in the early morning of April 19, 1775?  Be sure to consider the divergent perspectives, mind sets, biases, and motivations...

Who is responsible for firing the first shots on Lexington Green in the early morning of April 19, 1775?  Be sure to consider the divergent perspectives, mind sets, biases, and motivations contained within the eyewitness accounts provided as primary source documents

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Without having the exact primary sources that you are supposed to consult, it is not possible for us to answer this question for you completely.  Instead, I will give you some tips as to how to go about analyzing primary sources for yourself.  I will say that my own view is that we will never know who fired the first shots at Lexington.  People who left us accounts of the day might have had their own interests that they would try to protect in their accounts.  In addition, we know that eyewitness accounts are not always reliable even when they come from people who have no clear biases.

One factor to consider when you are looking at primary source documents is when they were created.  If a source was created long after the events it purports to describe, it is less likely to be accurate than a primary source created right after the events.  For example, this source is a document that was created by Sylvanus Wood, who was 23 years old when he was part of the Lexington militia present for the battle.  In the document, however, he says he is 74 years old, meaning that he gave his testimony over 50 years after the events.  He says that the British fired first, but his memory could well have faded over the years.

Another factor to consider is the identity of the source and what would likely be in their best interests to say.  This source is a letter that was written by Lt. Col. Smith of the British Army to General Gage, who was the governor of Boston.  The letter was written on April 22, 1775 so it is not likely to be inaccurate due to fading memories.  However, there is a good chance that the writer of the letter is biased.  It is likely that he would not want to portray his troops as the aggressors.  He says that

…they (the colonists) in confusion went off, principally to the left, only one of them fired before he went off, and three or four more jumped over a wall and fired from behind it among the soldiers; on which the troops returned it, and killed several of them.

However, we might not want to take this at face value because this is what we would expect him to say.  Whenever a witness gives an account that is what you would expect them to say given who they are, it is best to be somewhat suspicious of the truth of the account.

Another thing you might consider is the tone of the testimony in the primary source that you are examining.  If anything in the testimony sounds exaggerated or clearly meant to take a side, it is wise to be cautious about accepting the testimony at face value.  As one example, Lt. Col. Smith writes that

Our troops advanced towards them, without any intention of injuring them…

This may be true, but it also sounds like the words of a man who is trying to make his side look as good as possible.  This should make us suspicious.  Similarly, the testimony of Joseph Warren Thomas, a colonist who was at the battle, starts like this:

Americans!  forever bear in mind the BATTLE of LEXINGTON!  where British Troops, unmolested and unprovoked wantonly, and in a most inhuman manner fired upon and killed a number of our countrymen, then robbed them of their provisions, ransacked, plundered and burnt their houses!  nor could the tears of defenseless women, some of whom were in the pains of childbirth, the cries of helpless, babes, nor the prayers of old age, confined to beds of sickness, appease their thirst for blood! - or divert them from the DESIGN of MURDER and ROBBERY!

This witness is clearly trying to make a point.  His language is very inflammatory and is clearly calculated to incite anger against the British.  Therefore, we have to be suspicious when he claims that he British fired first.

When all of our primary sources say what we would expect them to say, it is very hard to know the truth.  If we had British sources saying they had fired first, or colonial sources saying that the militia had fired first, we could be more certain of their accuracy.  However, since all of the sources claim their side was innocent, we simply cannot be confident know the truth.

Sources:

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