First Kill All the Heroes

Printed from:

During the afternoon of Wednesday, April 19, 1775, Samuel Whittemore was confronted by something he never expected to see.

The British army was marching right through his village, retreating from Concord. To Whittemore and his fellow Patriots, it seemed like an invasion.

At 78 and crippled, though, there wasn’t much he could do about it.  Or was there?

Whittemore got himself behind a stone wall with a musket, a couple of pistols, and a sword, and he started firing at the British Army all by himself. A flanking party was sent to get him. He shot two or three of them and was about to go for another when he was shot in the face and bayoneted a bunch of times.

More on Whittemore later. But his actions suggest a question:  Is he a hero?  Or is he someone best forgotten because he doesn’t represent our cultural heritage?

Whittemore lived in what today is known as Arlington. He attacked British soldiers marching on or near what is today known as Massachusetts Avenue.

These days, Arlington’s elementary schools celebrate Colonial Day every spring, a festive day where third-graders come to school dressed in colonial costumes and take part in 1700s New England activities. You can get an idea of what it’s like in this Arlington Patch article from seven years ago.

But this year, school administrators decided to eliminate costumes.

You might ask:  Was someone being offensively portrayed? Is there some racial insensitivity going on?  Were the girls violating their school’s dress code?


Here’s the superintendent, Kathleen Bodie, on why school administrators initially decided to can costumes:

“The intent of the original decision was to create a more inclusive experience for all students in response to concerns expressed by families and community members who believe that because of their family’s history or cultural heritage, the historical narrative of Colonial Day has not been reflective of what their ancestors may have experienced.”

Let’s see … so there are some students in the Arlington elementary schools whose ancestors didn’t live in Arlington 250 years ago?

And therefore …?

The sense in this statement runs out almost immediately, but let’s play along.

The first question that comes to mind is:  How many people in Arlington can trace their ancestors back to the days of the colonists? How many pure-blood Yankees of English heritage dating back to 1700s New England do you find around here?

And if the answer is “Not many,” then how come this Colonial Day observance has been so popular over the years?

It’s because we all feel like we have a stake in the people who founded Massachusetts — and, thus, the country, since the American Revolution and the movement that led to it began here. We are fascinated by their experiences, and we identify with their fight for freedom.

Or do we?

The Arlington superintendent, under pressure from parents, decided last week to allow students to wear costumes to school on Colonial Day (which is Wednesday, May 17) — but they can also wear whatever else they want.

Next fall a committee will be formed to study how Colonial Day “fits into the social studies curriculum and how it can be meaningful, relevant, and inclusive for all students” — in other words, to gut it. The flap over Colonial Day is actually a good thing, she explained, because school officials can use it “to create a wider dialogue about issues of diversity and multiculturalism in our schools” — because, you know, they never talk about diversity and multiculturalism in the Arlington public schools.


After the British had finished shooting and bayoneting Samuel Whittemore, they left him for dead. Some townspeople found him, still alive, though in hopeless condition. They moved him to a doctor’s house so he could get some medical attention and die in peace.

Which he did.

Eighteen years later.

At age 96.

Of natural causes.

In 2005, thanks to Arlington schoolchildren, the Massachusetts Legislature proclaimed Samuel Whittemore the official hero of the commonwealth.

That’s only a dozen years ago. But given this Colonial Day business, you wonder if the Arlington kids would even be allowed to pursue such a thing today. Perhaps a helpful school administrator would steer them away from this person whose experience doesn’t speak to everyone in the Arlington public schools.

And maybe she’d be right.

Perhaps Samuel Whittemore isn’t part of our cultural heritage anymore.


Matt McDonald is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of New Boston Post.  See other columns by him here.