This article was first published in The New Republic on July 18, 1988.
"Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world."
—Hymn sung at the completion of the Battle Monument Concord, July 4, 1837
The claim in Emerson's line is expansive. Can it be true that the shot was heard round the world—when there were no satellites, no television, no radio, no telephone? Let us see.
It then took from five to six weeks for news to cross the Atlantic. (The first regular passenger service between England and the colonies was instituted in 1755.) Thus the news of the "battles" of Lexington and Concord, fought on April 19, 1775, appeared on May 29 in the London press, from which the French papers, as usual, took their news of America; and from them the press in the rest of Europe picked up the story. By June 19 it appeared in a newspaper as far away as St. Petersburg. Similarly the news of the Declaration of Independence was first published in a London newspaper on August 17, 1776; a week later it appeared in papers in Hamburg, on August 30 in Sweden, and on September 2 in Denmark. The actions in Lexington and Concord had been no more than skirmishes in two villages whose names Europeans can never have heard before. Yet the news excited editors across Europe, and they knew it would arouse their readers. The saw at once the size of the event.
In 1775-76 the French Revolution had not sounded its tocsin to the peoples of Europe. Most of them lived under the rule of a few absolute monarchs: Louis XVI in France; Maria Theresa (as dowager empress) and her son Joseph II in Austria and the Holy Roman Empire; Frederick the Great in Prussia; Catherine the Great in Russia; and Christian VII in Denmark. It was the age of the "enlightened despots," who genuinely had the welfare of their subjects at heart, but though they proclaimed the right of their peoples to be well governed, they did not acknowledge their right to govern themselves. The only monarch who had (sourly) learned the ABCs of freedom was, paradoxically, the one against whom the colonists were rebelling. The English were far freer than any peoples on the Continent. But the English reaction to the news from America is more interesting if we know how the shot was heard on the other side of the English channel.
Maria Theresa had ascended the throne in 1740 at the age of 23. Even then she realized that the old order could not survive, and set about instituting a series of effective reforms. Her scarcely less remarkable son, who succeeded his father as co-regent in 1765, produced the most thought- out exposition of the duties of an enlightened despot. They received the news of the Declaration at about the same time it reached London, and two weeks before it found its way through the heavy censorship into the daily press in Vienna. Taking a dim view of popular uprisings, Maria Theresa expressed to George III her "hearty desire to see the restoration of obedience and tranquility in every quarter of his dominions," and Joseph told the British ambassador, "The cause in which England is engaged ... is the cause of all sovereigns who have a joint interest in the maintenance of due subordination ... in all the surrounding monarchies."
The rulers feared that their subjects would see the American action not as a rebellion against a rightful monarch in his own territories—there had been plenty of rebel- lions against European sovereigns—but as the proclamation of a revolutionary doctrine of universal application, as the Declaration indeed announced it to be. Thus, although the Declaration was at last allowed through the censorship in Vienna, when the Wienerisches Diarium the next year explained the War of Independence as a clash between two political principles—monarchy and popular sovereignty—Maria Theresa was outraged, even though the paper had covered itself by printing an editorial saying that this view of the rebellion was mistaken.
Similarly, when the news of Lexington and Concord got through the censors into the Sanktpeterburgskie Vedemosti, the Americans were, in deference to the Empress Catherine, firmly called "rebels." In 1780, when Catherine read the Abbe Raynal's history of Europe's dominions overseas and came to his chapter on the American Revolution, she wrote to a friend: "The American record is filled with declarations in which there is too little that is reasonable and too much that is unbecoming impertinence."
In Belgium, which was then under the rule of Austria, it was clear that the subjects of the enlightened despots might take the American "impertinence" as an example. From as early as 1766, when the Gazette des Pays-Bas in Brussels reported the remonstrations of colonial assemblies in America, the Belgian press followed American affairs intently. In four Belgian newspapers and journals the Maryland Constitution was printed in 1777, the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, some of a collection of the constitutions of all 13 states in 1783, Virginia's Code of Civil and Criminal Laws in 1786, and in the following year the U.S. Constitution in full. This steady flow of news (including the reports of the war and of American victories) could only stir up the middle class in Belgium. They enjoyed neither national independence nor a constitution guaranteeing any basic political rights, while each day the Americans were remaking their political and civil society before the eye of the world. By 1787 a strong movement for independence and a new constitution was growing in Belgium.
In the debates that were provoked in Europe we can see how the shot was heard. We can follow them (as they were conducted in the press) through the 25 or so out-of-the-way historical monographs, memoirs, and so on, that are the main source of this story. Throughout the debates a constant appeal was made to the example of America. Liberty had been crushed in Poland, was struggling in Holland, said Lambert d'Outrement, a lawyer in Liege, but it had been maintained in England, and triumphed in America: "What will be the lot of the Austrian Low Countries?" There could be only one answer. Belgium would try itself. Toward the end of 1789 the States-General of the Austrian Netherlands deposed Joseph II and proclaimed the United States of Belgium. The Belgian Declaration of Independence (and the equivalent declarations of the provinces of Belgium, like the states in America) followed the American Declaration faithfully. In the Manifeste de la Province de Flandre (1790), "the Course of Human Events" became "un Concours de circonstances ... extraordinaires," and continued: "En conséquence ... au juge suprême de l’Univers ... a droit d'être un Etat libre et indépendant"—almost word for word the American original.
Thus, although the French Revolution had by then erupted, the inspiration was coming from America. The working people of Europe, it was said in the Belgian de- bates, must inevitably look to America. They had learned that conditions for the likes of them were better there, and many were emigrating. A telling use was made of America's distance from the mother country, since Belgium, like many of the territories of the Austrian Empire, was remote from the imperial capital and government in Vienna. Moreover when, during the War of Independence, the absolute monarchs of Europe entered into relations (and even alliances) with the Americans, they were in effect endorsing revolution. The monarchs might say that the American Revolution was intolerable, but by their actions they were telling their peoples that revolution was not a crime, but as d'Outrement said, "un beau monument élevé à la liberté."
The significance Europeans attached to America was underlined by the deftness and even courage with which editors across the Continent managed to circumvent the censorship. In 1775-76 Denmark was a significant power. It included Norway (and Greenland, a Norwegian possession), Schleswig and Holstein, Iceland, and three West Indian islands, St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John (which were later sold to the United States). Given the insanity of Christian VII, it was governed by a court party as an enlightened despotism, and as usual a significant part of the extensive bureaucracy was the ever watchful censorship.
On August 23, 1776, the Altonaischer Mercurius (a German-language newspaper published in Altona in Holstein) printed an edited version of the Declaration, which was then translated and printed at the top of the front page of the Kiobenhavske [Copenhagen] Tidender, the newspaper with the largest circulation in Denmark. In both papers it appeared uncut as far as the sentence "The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of absolute Tyranny over these States." The trouble was that the intermittently insane George III was one of the demented Christian's closest allies. So in the above sentence, the words "King of Great-Britain" were replaced by "the present ministry of Great Britain." But the Declaration continued with the long list of grievances against George, and it was all too likely that any Danish reader would have begun ticking off in his mind his own grievances against the Danish monarchy. Ingeniously, the Mercurius solved the problem by publishing the Declaration in two halves, the second (with the grievances) appearing on August 26, in which all the references to King George were replaced by the anonymous "Er" (he). This appeased the censors; it cannot have fooled the readers.
How different it was in the New World. Over in the West Indies, the only Danish newspaper, the Royal Danish American Gazette, published (significantly) in English, printed the complete Declaration as early as August 17, even placing it prominently on the front page, which was otherwise reserved for advertising. The Danes in the colonies seemed themselves to have become Americans.
It was not only the editors in Denmark (and elsewhere), nosy for news, who were excited by the events in America. As early as October 22, 1776, A. P. Bernstorff, the great Danish minister for foreign affairs, wrote to a friend: "The public here is extremely occupied with the rebels [in America], not because they know the cause, but because the mania of independence in reality has infected all the spirits, and the poison has spread imperceptibly from the works of the philosophes all the way out to the village schools." Those last eight words, from such a source, tell us something we need to know.
So does a firsthand glimpse of the popular mood in Copenhagen. The Aftenpost carried a column—as we would now call it—by one Edmund Balling, describing life in the city; it sounds like a city column by Jimmy Breslin or Mike Royko. Balling dropped into alehouses, which he described as "our political schools of Fencing, those bourgeois Art of War Listening Rooms, where our little Politici, during a Glass of Ale, a Pinch of Snuff and a Pipe of Tobacco," tossed about the issues of the day. At the end of 1776 he found them debating the War of Independence. One said the Americans were rebels, and "ought to be beaten over the Forehead like Bullocks"; another countered that "the English ought to be thrashed"; a third had no doubt that the English had got "something to chew on"; and a sausage-stuffer called it an "accursed War" because the rice from South Carolina had become so dear, and what could he now stuff his sausages with in place of meat? On January 12, 1778, Balling told of a man entering an alehouse (after reading the news, one guesses, of Burgoyne's defeat): "Good evening. Gentlemen! Ha! Ha! Have we the newspapers? Well, what does England say now? ... Yes, this War will likely make a rather considerable Change in Europe."
As in Belgium, the impact did not lessen even after America achieved its independence. In 1820 a Danish civil servant, C. F. von Schmidt-Phiseldeck, called the Fourth of July "this forever memorable day." And in our own time a Danish historian has said that "the Declaration of Independence had a decisive impact on the course of events leading to the attainment in 1849 of Denmark's first democratic constitution."
But as we come across the editors, their newspapers, and their readers, the European response is telling us something very important about the American Revolution itself. It was carried in the colonies and overseas by the assertiveness of the American middle class. One of George Ill's more apt comments was that his sovereignty was being challenged by a lot of "grocers." Marx was really saying no more when he declared that "the American Revolution sounded the tocsin for the European bourgeoisie," and gave "the first impulse to the European Revolution." Lenin later said the War of Independence was "one of those great, truly liberating, truly revolutionary wars"—something that cannot be said of the revolution he wrought in Russia.
Two vigorous merchant cities—Hamburg and Dubrovnik—illustrate the response of a newly aggressive merchant class in Europe. Hamburg was a free port, as most of its dock area still is (its official name even now is the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg), and since the Reformation had been the proud refuge of Protestants, other dissidents, and refugees. Ports are naturally liberal, being used to strangers, with their different cultures and ideas. When the Declaration was published in the Staats und Gelehrte Zeitung, its citizens naturally sympathized with the colonies in their claim to be a free trading nation, with which Hamburg could expand its commercial ties (as it did after the war), greatly reinforcing its prosperity. Completing the story, another cargo would eventually stream through Hamburg: a vast number of immigrants to the New World from Russia and Eastern Europe. Dubrovnik had risen to be a powerful merchant republic in the Middle Ages, and had existed since then (virtually independent) under the protection, in succession, of Venice, Hungary, and Turkey—until Napoleon, with his usual disrespect for history, abolished the republic in 1806, the same year in which he occupied Hamburg. Again, far away on the Adriatic, the citizens of a strong merchant port were stimulated by the news from America, a point made in a book published by the city of Dubrovnik to celebrate the bicentennial of the Declaration.
It is the response of the middle class in Europe that throws light on the attitudes in England. To the ruling class in England the Declaration of Independence did not herald the dawn of a new age, or introduce new abstract principles of freedom and equality that had a universal application. In fact, it seemed to them less of a threat than it did to the ruling monarchs on the Continent, since they enjoyed many of the freedoms the Americans were claiming. It was to them a very local document, a list (as indeed it was) of very local grievances. Neither it nor any shot, in their view, was heard round the world. Both had been aimed, after all, at them; and on the whole they took it like gentlemen.
Here was a war in which the First British Empire, as it is known to history, was falling, and it is natural we should wish that the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who was a member of Parliament throughout the war, had offered a long historical perspective or a few grand philosophical reflections on so great an event. But Edward Gibbon's attitude was not only devious; it was corrupt, even if in the accepted manner of the day. No one can blame him for wishing to write the great book, or for wishing to receive some patronage as he labored at his task. He looked, of course, to the government for an appointment, and accepted the post of one of the Lords Commissioner of Trade and Plantations. With this sinecure, his voice and vote were bought by George III and his ministers, which makes one appreciate even more the king's dig at him one day, "Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?"
At the end of the difficult parliamentary session in 1775, Gibbon was glad to get away, saying that "having saved the British I must destroy the Roman Empire." But this little jest was capped by an American. Horace Walpole reported with delight in a letter in 1781: "Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin ... said he would furnish Mr. Gibbon with materials for writing the History of the Decline of the British Empire." A lampoon went the rounds in London during the war. Attributed to Charles James Fox, a dauntless leader of the opposition and staunch friend of the Americans, two verses ran:
King George in a fright
Lest Gibbon should write
The history of England's disgrace
Thought no way so sure
His pen so secure
As to give the historian a place.
His book well describes
How corruption and bribes
O'erthrew the great empire of Rome;
And his rantings declare
A degeneracy there
Which his conduct exhibits at home.
We do not get wit like that from our politicians now.
Whether in Gibbon's own jest, Franklin's quip, or Fox's lampoon, there is nothing to suggest that the governing class in London could work itself into any great passion over the American war—neither the supporters nor the opponents of the American cause. (Though the consummate and by then aged orator William Pitt, for whom Pittsburgh was named, reinforced his impassioned philippic in defense of the American colonists by collapsing unconscious on the floor of the House at the end.)
We also know how the American news was received outside London. In December 1775 the daily journal of the Rev. James Woodforde (a country parson in Weston, Norfolk, of ordinary loyalty to the Crown) gave "notice of a Fast being kept on Friday next concerning the present war between America and us." Note that the colonists are not called subjects or rebels, as on the Continent, but America, as if they were already a nation. The war then seems to have aroused little interest until there was another official Day of Prayer in 1780, for it was by then clear that God was not pulling his weight. So the good parson "read the proper prayers on the Occasion, but there was no sermon preached. My Squire and Lady at the Church. ... Sister Clarke, Nancy, Sam and myself all took it into our heads to take a good dose of Rhubarb on going to bed." Rhubarb is an astringent purgative—a very English way of disposing of the news of fresh disasters, rather like taking a "nice cup o' tea" in the Blitz.
In 1781 he recorded the news that "Cornwallis and his whole army ... are all taken by the Americans and French in Virginia." That is all; not dismay, no commotion, no anger. When it was all over, the news of the Treaty of Versailles was a "joyful" event, though England had suffered a great defeat and lost a vast possession. There remained only the aftermath, an entry as late as December 9, 1785:"... to a poor soldier laterly [sic] arrived from America that had been wounded & is now ill gave 1 [shilling] and 6 [pence]"—a neglected veteran of an unpopular, unsuccessful war.
Throughout the war we could have found Horace Walpole at home in London, writing to his friends the letters that now fill 36 volumes in the Yale edition. One of Europe's most intelligent and cultivated men, he chose (happily for us) to be a spectator of great events rather than an actor in them. He returned again and again to the American question, urbane, tart, and outraged. Why are we in America? he asked, as 200 years later he might have asked about Vietnam. "We could even afford to lose America," he wrote as early as March 28,1774. After Washington's victory at Trenton he wrote: "What politicians are those that have preferred the empty name of sovereignty to that of alliance! and forced subsidies to the golden age of oceans and commerce." The Americans, he pointed out to a friend, "do not pique themselves upon modern good breeding, but level at the officers, of whom they have slain a vast number." This savage amusement at the fact that the Americans "impertinently" fired on English officers is a wholly accurate reflection of "the amazing heights which pro-Americanism could reach in London," as one researcher found it in even the popular novels of the day. The Boston Tea Party was to him the symbol of English official stupidity: "Mrs. Britannia orders her senate to proclaim America a continent of cowards, and vote it should be starved unless it drink tea with her."
By the end of 1777 Walpole was writing: "We have been horribly the aggressors." A week after the capitulation at Yorktown, but before he had news of it, he proclaimed: "The English in America are as much my countrymen as those born in the parish of St. Martin's in the Field; and when my countrymen quarrel, I think I am free to wish better to the sufferers than to the aggressors; nor can I see how my love of my country obliges me to wish well to what I despise. ... Were I young and of heroic texture, I would go to America." It is clear from all the evidence that the English people as a whole could not have their hearts in a war against their "countrymen."
But there was one exception to this generally unexcited and unideological response in England, and it is illuminated by the reaction on the Continent. The merchants of the City of London and of other expanding cities of the new middle class in England identified their own interests closely with those of the colonists. The London press, almost without exception, was the voice of this class. With the introduction of the tax on the colonists' trade in molasses and sugar in 1764, the London Chronicle at once reported from the west coast port of Bristol, which depended on the American trade, that "the principal merchants of the city intend to support with all their interest the independent free trade of the American colonies." In the numerous and remarkably free English newspapers we can trace how this argument from interest developed steadily into an ideological assertion. As the Americans, during those extraordinary ten years from 1765 to 1775, worked out the philosophical grounds on which they would claim independence, the English merchant class found itself examin ing and then adopting the same arguments.
In resisting taxation "without representation" by the English Parliament, the Americans (those "grocers") argued that in English custom and "natural law" there was a power above Parliament—in short, the Constitution in revolutionary thinking, in the work of the Founding Fathers, and forever afterward in the mind of America. The idea that Parliament was sovereign was then a fairly new development, and there were many at home who objected to it, but it was the American colonists who clarified the issue by their dogged resistance. Moreover, the English middle class had its own doubts about the justice of the parliamentary system as it then existed. The Industrial Revolution was reaching its flood, and beyond London many of the rising middle-class cities such as Manchester and Sheffield were not represented at all. So the American cry of "no taxation without representation" drew a strong echo from them.
When the news of the Boston Tea Party reached England, the London Packet called such resistance lawful and even honorable against "tyrannic" measures. After Lexington and Concord the London Evening Post said that "the prevailing toast in every company of true Englishmen is, 'Victory to the Americans, and re-establishment to the British Constitution.' " (No one was arrested or imprisoned in England for supporting the Americans.) Thus in England as in Europe the American cause had been translated into a universal cause—by a rising class. The American Revolution represented the spontaneously international ideology of this class, which was feeling its strength in Europe, growing assertive in England, and already established in America, even able to organize and arm itself for war.
Of all the dramatic assertions in the Declaration of Independence, none is more "impertinent" than the assurance with which the 13 colonies said they had decided to "assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station" to which they were entitled. Yet the presumption was not as great as it seems. As early as 1765 a correspondent in the London Magazine said: "Little doubt can be entertained, that this vast country will in time become the most prosperous empire that perhaps the world has ever seen." This was widely appreciated, and both the English and Europeans were aware of the rapid increase in America's population, and of Franklin's estimate that it would double every 25 years. Shortly after Lexington and Concord the Chester Chronicle quoted Bishop Berkeley’s poem, “Westward the course of Empire takes its way.”
Once the news of the fateful shot reached the courts of Europe, the monarchs were alert to the effect the American rebellion might have on the balance of power in Europe. George III at once dispatched a personal envoy to Catherine the Great, to request fewer than 20,000 Russian troops for help in suppressing the American insurrection. But Catherine did not have a high opinion of George, and refused to supply any soldiers or to make the treaty that Britain wanted. She and her government were extremely well informed about American affairs, and on receiving news of the Declaration, the counselor of the Russian Embassy in London wrote to the Russian foreign minister, N. I. Panin, saying that both it and the prosecution of a formal war against Britain "offer evidence of all the courage of leadership" in America.
King George had no better luck in Vienna. Austria had been allied with France since 1756, but by 1775 it was exhausted by the Seven Years' War, and urgently trying to resist the rise of Prussia in the east under Frederick the Great. Maria Theresa saw that Austria needed to secure its position in the west by friendship with both England and France, and by 1776 wished to revive her earlier friendship with England. In 1777 she wrote to her daughter Marie Antoinette (who had none of her inquiring intelligence or even savvy, and paid the price at the guillotine) that the "war in America" troubled her, as well it might since it pitted France and England against each other. She therefore skillfully maintained Austria's neutrality throughout the war, and forbade both English and American recruiting in Hapsburg lands.
This response of the European monarchs—Denmark also remained neutral, in spite of its alliance with England and its far-flung shipping and trading interests—was the clearest recognition that America had indeed become a new nation on something like equal terms with the oldest and most imperious in the Old World, at once acting and being accepted on the stage of Europe as one of the "Powers of the Earth."
It must be remembered that the enlightened despots were significant figures of the Enlightenment; Catherine corresponded regularly with Voltaire. There was therefore nothing particularly remarkable in the fact that the chief assistant to Panin as the Russian foreign minister was D. I. Fonvizin, whose plays boldly satirized the Russian aristocracy and the institution of serfdom. When Fonvizin traveled through Europe in 1777-78, he met Benjamin Franklin at a rendez-vous des gens de lettres, calling him in a letter to his sister "the glorious Franklin." (Franklin wrapped the European intellectuals around his little finger.) Another Russian, commenting on this meeting, wrote: "The representative of the young enlightenment of Russia was an interlocutor with the representative of young America." The excitement at such a meeting demonstrates yet another way in which the new United States, a child of the Enlightenment, impressed itself on Europe as already a mature nation.
The story of how the shot was heard round the world carries obvious instructions. Any notion that the War of Independence was only a rebellion falls to the ground. Both rulers and their subjects saw it as a revolution of universal appeal. The dynamism of that appeal was derived from the fact that the Americans had already built a great trading nation and created not only a strong middle class in the process, but a society that as a whole was middle-class in its temper and energy. What is more, as a result of the preparation between 1765 and 1775—ten of the most creative years in political thinking in the history of the world—the Americans entered the War of Independence with a profound political philosophy that immediately lit fires round the world. They are not yet extinguished.
The names of two unknown villages, Lexington and Concord, became household words even as far as Dubrovnik and St. Petersburg. And on any Fourth of July one cannot help thinking of the few minutemen who took their stand on a bridge and sent the drilled Redcoats running with their tails between their legs back into Boston.