From Lexington 1775 to Wilmington 2020


There is a direct connection between the Battle of Lexington, The Gettysburg Address, and Joe Biden’s speech on Saturday night.

In his acceptance speech, Biden said: “Once again, America’s bent the arc of the moral universe more towards justice.” He was, of course, referencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous phrase, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What most people don’t know is that the phrase did not originate with King. He adapted the words from a sermon by 19th century Transcendentalist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. In 1853, Parker wrote: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

It turns out Abraham Lincoln also borrowed some wordplay from an 1850 sermon by Parker, who was a famed abolitionist. The sermon contained this phrase: “Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people.” Lincoln was struck by those words, marked them up in his copy of the sermon, and drew on them in 1863 for the Gettysburg Address, when he resolved “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The connection with the Battle of Lexington? Reverend Theodore Parker was the grandson of Captain John Parker, who commanded the Lexington Militia on April 19, 1775, when they faced the British on Lexington Common. And it is to Theodore Parker that we owe one more iconic phrase from American history. In the 1850’s, 80 years after the Battle of Lexington, Rev. Parker passed on the words that family lore claimed his grandfather said to his men minutes before that first battle of the American Revolution — words that now adorn a memorial on Lexington Common, and have graced the page of many an American history book: “Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

There you have it. A direct connection from John Parker to Joe Biden — and three famous phrases that we owe to Theodore Parker.

Rick Beyer is an author, documentary filmmaker and producer, and co-host (with Chris Anderson) of the History Happy Hour livecast on the Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours Facebook and YouTube page. One of his books is The Greatest Stories Never Told. He lives in Chicago.

Tags 2020 election Abraham Lincoln Biden speech Biden win Gettysburg Gettysburg Address Joe Biden lexington Moral universe Parker Theodore Parker Theodore Parker Wilmington

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