Saturday, January 19, 2013

Paul Revere ... less successful than others on that night

Paul Revere, circa 1768-1770
(Painting by John Singleton Copley)
Paul Revere today gets most of the credit for warning American patriots at Concord and Lexington that British soldiers were marching toward them from Boston in April 1785, but Revere was among the least successful of many messengers on similar missions that night.  Revere did reach Lexington, where he told patriots Samuel Adams and John Hancock, but he was captured by British soldiers as he rode to on to Concord. They took his horse and released him, and he walked back to Lexington.

But many others also rode or walked or rang bells or shot guns that night to successfully spread word of the British advance (which was not unexpected). In his 2004 book Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past, historian Ray Raphael cites the work of another historian, David Hackett Fischer, who in 1994 identified dozens of people who were involved in passing along that night’s news through the New England countryside.

To be sure, Revere was a committed patriot who was involved in many of the events that led to the American Revolution.  But why has his Boston-to-Lexington ride, which was no great, singularly vital fete on a night when so many others made equal or greater contributions, won so much acclaim in popular American history? Revere himself made no special note of his actions that night in later accounts, and neither did his 1818 obituary. And historians over many decades didn’t mention it much, if at all, until the later 1800s – after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in January 1861.
“Paul Revere’s Ride” is a stirring, memorable piece of art, proof of Longfellow’s talent, from its very beginning:

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …”

And much for that reason, it became – and remains – well-entrenched in American culture even today. Unfortunately, its many historical inaccuracies have been repeated so much that they are often mistaken for fact.

“Although ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ has enjoyed more exposure than any other historic poem in American culture, it is riddled with distortions,” wrote Raphael. “These are not incidental – they are the very reasons the story has endured for almost a century and a half.”
So no, Paul Revere wasn't by any stretch the only person trying to warn other patriots that night, as Longfellow implies. And no, Paul Revere didn't reach his most important destination the village of Concord (although others did), as Longfellow wrote. And no, contrary to Longfellow, Paul Revere did not receive a signal from two lamps in the steeple of the Old North Church; Revere arranged for that signal to be sent. We could go on with troublesome parts of this supposed historical narrative set to the tune of great lyrical poetry ... but will end with a caution to avoid mistaking emotionally stirring art  whether in poetry, a novel, a painting, a film, or another medium  for historical fact.

No comments: