The Significance of Patriot's Day

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 15 2013 6:52 PM

The Significance of Patriot's Day

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A runner reacts near Kenmore Square after two bombs exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon.

Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

In his speech following today's explosions at the Boston Marathon, President Obama noted that today is Patriot's Day in Massachusetts. "It's a day that celebrates the free and fiercely independent spirit that this great American city of Boston has reflected from the earliest days of our nation," the president said during a briefing where he made it clear that we don't yet know who was behind today's attack. But Obama wasn't the first to mention the holiday in the wake of the attack—speculation had already started swirling on Twitter about the possible significance of the Massachusetts Monday holiday on which the marathon is held every year. 

With that in mind, a quick primer on Patriot's Day: It commemorates the opening battles of the American Revolutionary War, the battles of Lexington and Concord, both held on April 19, 1775. The holiday has become best known for the marathon and is in fact also referred to as "Marathon Monday." (Patriot's Day, we should note, should not be confused with Patriot Day, established on Sept. 11 to mark the World Trade Center attacks.)

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So why were people so quick to speculate about the holiday's possible significance? Undoubtedly because they were inspired by the fact that this week does contain a number of unhappy anniversaries: the Oklahoma City Bombing (April 19, 1995), the Waco assault (April 19, 1993), the Columbine School Shooting (April 20, 1999), and the Virginia Tech massacre (April 16, 2007), for starters. Two of those tragedies—the Virginia Tech massacre and the Waco assault—were on Monday, the Patriot's Day of those years. 

The Waco tragedy, in particular, has inspired some anti-government activists to mark something of a shadow version of Patriot's Day, on April 19. Patriot's Day in Massachusetts used to be commemorated only on April 19, which is indeed the anniversary of the Oklahoma bombing and the Waco tragedy. But Massachusetts switched its timing from the 19th to the third Monday in April back in 1969, way before either tragedy occurred. In a way, there are actually two Patriot's Days, both marking the same original historical event, but on different days, and with different meanings. 

Until we know the who, what, and why behind the attack, it's best to take these sorts of symbolic connections with a healthy dose of skepticism. As Obama explained this evening, "We still do not know who did this or why, and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts."

This post has been updated with additional information from President Obama's evening press conference, and for clarity.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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