Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,—One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
The image has captured the imagination of American school children for almost 150 years. A lone rider, braving capture at the hands of the British, riding along the narrow country lanes and cobblestone streets of the picturesque towns and villages of New England, shouting out defiance to tyranny, raising the alarm “To every Middlesex village and farm,” his trusty horse carrying him on his ride into legend.
To bad it didn’t quite happen that way.
Longfellow’s poem immortalized Revere’s ride in a way that would never have occurred to the silversmith’s contemporaries. It wasn’t so much that the incident went unnoticed. It’s just that Longfellow took so many liberties with the facts surrounding the event as to obscure the real story of that night and by so doing, overshadow the real accomplishments of one of the more interesting characters in the entire revolution.
Let’s forgive Longfellow his myth making. The poet was, after all, using the ride to illustrate American themes – something almost unheard of in literature until that time. Along with his other great narrative poem Hiawatha, Longfellow has been credited with introducing the rest of the world to truly American motifs and myths. Paul Revere’s Ride, while historically inaccurate, nevertheless conveys the breathless spirit of resistance of the colonists to British rule.
Revere himself joined that resistance early on. Born in 1734, Revere has been described as a silversmith. This does him an injustice. He was much more the artist than the craftsman. His involvement in the earliest stages of the revolution was a consequence of his friendship with that scowling propagandist Sam Adams. He was a prominent member of the “Committee of Safety” that was formed to protect the rights of Massachusetts citizens against threats to liberty, both real and imagined, of the colonial government. And he was one of the grand jurors who, in 1774 refused to serve after the British Parliament made the justices independent of the people by having the colonial governor pay the salaries of the judges.
Sam Adams knew a good thing when he saw it and used Revere’s talents as an artist to further the cause of rebellion. He urged Revere to engrave several inflammatory caricatures of British politicians that Adams promptly had copied and distributed. Following the Boston Massacre in 1770, Revere engraved a seditious remembrance of that event that was also widely disseminated. This use of art in the cause of revolution wasn’t necessarily new, but it showed just how imaginative Adams could be.
Revere and Adams were also behind one of the most shocking events of the revolution, the Boston Tea Party. Adams was trying to provoke the British government and succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings. England closed the port of Boston and bivouacked troops in the city.
Which brings us to Revere’s ride. Or, more accurately, the part that Revere played on that momentous night. The redcoats decided that it was prudent to both capture the more radical elements of the Sons of Liberty, the group started by Adams and John Hancock as an adjunct to the colonial militia, as well as disarm the populace. To that end they sent two company’s of elite Grenadiers into the countryside to arrest Hancock, Adams, and Joseph Warren for treason as well as seize the cannon and powder of the local militia being stored at Concord.
Revere was a member of a group known as the North End Mechanics who patrolled the streets of Boston, keeping an eye on British military activity. When it became clear the British were ready to march, Revere borrowed a horse and rode off from Charleston to Lexington where Adams and Co. were staying. Duly warned, the trio of patriots made ready to flee. Before going, Warren sent both Revere and another friend of Adams’, William Dawes, on the ride that would echo down through the ages. They left Lexington around midnight and were joined by another patriot Samuel Prescott. Making their way to Concord, the three men alerted the farms and tiny villages along the way with the news that the red coats were on the march.
Around 1:00 AM, the little group ran into a road block manned by British regulars who had been told to stop the colonists from trying to communicate with one another. Revere was captured while Dawes and Prescott got away. Prescott eventually made it to Concord and alerted the militia there.
Revere was extremely cooperative with his captors. He told them that he had already warned Hancock and his friends and that 500 militia men were assembling at that moment to resist the British. That last part was pure bluff but the regulars didn’t know that. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, the British soldiers decided to return to barracks, releasing Revere around 3:00 AM.
But what about the lanterns in the North Church, the famous “One if by land, two if by sea?” Revere had actually asked a friend to be ready to do that to warn patriots on the other side of the river in Charlestown. By the time those lanterns were hung, Revere was gone. While he probably saw them, he didn’t need to know how the British were coming, just that they were on their way.
What all this goes to show is that, while the myth may be more dramatic than what actually happened, the reality of what was going on that fateful night is certainly interesting enough. Thanks to Revere, his friends avoided the gallows for they most certainly would have been convicted of treason. And given what happened the following day in Lexington and Concord, the work done by Revere, Dawson, and Prescott to arouse the countryside contributed in no small way to events that became known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”
Revere’s participation in the revolution was by no means over. He was commissioned a Major of infantry in the Massachusetts militia in April 1776; was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of artillery in November; was stationed at Castle William, defending Boston harbor, and finally received command of this fort. He served in an expedition to Rhode Island in 1778, and in the following year participated in the disastrous Penobscot Expedition. Upon his return from that fiasco, he was court martialed for failing to obey orders. The charges were trumped up by his commanding officer, trying to absolve himself of blame for the military disaster that cost of the lives of 500 men and 43 ships. Revere was acquitted.
After the war, Revere proved himself a canny businessman and bold entrepreneur. He took advantage of the religious revival sweeping the country after the revolution by manufacturing church bells, a business that made him wealthy. He also pioneered the production of copper plating in America and supplied the young country’s navy with copper spikes for the planking. In effect, he became one of the first successful industrialists in American history.
Where do we place Revere in the pantheon of American heroes? While not a Founding Father in that he didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence or serve in Congress, Revere played a very large role in acting as “the sharp end of the stick” the Founders sought to beat the British with. While not a part of some of the more unruly elements that took part in the Boston Massacre and the Tea Party, he and his friend Sam Adams were not above using those elements to further the cause of revolution, a goal for which he worked more than a decade to achieve. In that respect, perhaps we can call him a “Founding Brother.”
As we celebrate the 230th anniversary of his ride into history (as well as the poem that immortalized it), it’s good to remember that Revere was the quintessential American soul; an artist whose talents and ardent support for the cause of American liberty defined a generation of patriots who, to this day, we stand back and look on in awe, marveling at their accomplishments.
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—-
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
Welcome Michelle Malkin readers!
I’ve received two emails asking me to link to the entire Longfellow poem. Here it is.
If you like history, here’s a post I did on David McCullough’s recent lecture at Hillsdale college.