Listen, oh Buzzkillers, and you shall hear,
the true story of the Ride of Paul Revere
All American children grow up hearing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem that tells us this great story. On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere, a Boston silversmith and American patriot, jumped on his horse and rode through “every Middlesex village and farm” to warn the people that the British army had landed and were about to march inland. “The British are coming, the British are coming!” he yelled, and all good patriots were expected to get ready to fight them.
Alas, Buzzkillers, like many stories we know so well from the American Revolutionary period, “Paul Revere’s Ride” is more a product of mid-to-late 19th century nationalism than late 18th century patriotism. True, Paul Revere did warn fellow Massachusetts patriots that the British were coming, but the whole story, including why Longfellow wrote the poem, is far more complicated and interesting than that.
Paul Revere was indeed a Boston patriot. Revere, Joseph Warren, William Dawes, and many other like-minded people, set up a signalling system to warn fellow rebels of threatening British army movements. They were worried about two things if the British army moved inland: the first was that the British would try to disarm the rebel colonists, especially at Concord, where there was a large stores of weapons; the second was that rebel leaders at Lexington wouldn’t get the news of British army movements until it was too late, and they would be captured.
In mid-April 1775, Revere set up the “one if by land, and two if by sea” lantern signalling system with Robert Newman, the sexton of the North Church (now the Old North Church) in Boston. Sure enough, when the British were coming by sea, the two lanterns went up, and the early warning system that Revere, Warren, and Dawes (among many others) had set up, went into action.
The essential myth is that Revere rode on his own, when in reality, Dawes was also a leading rider, and most scholars agree that there were as many as 40 riders assigned to carry the warning to through northern and eastern Massachusetts. The system was quite impressive, and Dawes and Joseph Warren, in addition to the dozens of anonymous riders, deserve a great deal more popular credit than they get. It was a relay system that used the same basic idea of the “alarm and muster” warning network used during the French and Indian War.
The second myth is that Revere shouted “the British are coming!” as he rode. In the first place, most people in Massachusetts still considered themselves British and wouldn’t understand what he meant. “The British” did not equate to “the British army.” What he said, according to accounts at the time, was, “the Regulars are coming out,” by which he meant the Regular army, not the state militia. Everyone in Massachusetts would have understood that, because they knew of the tensions between the “regular” British army and the Massachusetts militia.
During the night, a British army patrol put up a roadblock at Lincoln, which was on the way to Concord. Revere, Dawes, and some other riders were stopped. Dawes and a few of the other riders got away, but Revere was caught and interrogated. Rather than try to talk his way out of it, Revere brazenly told the patrol that the countryside was being warned of Regular army movements and their hoped-for element of surprise had been ruined by the warning riders. Revere and some other captives were then marched toward the Lexington. When they got close, the town bell started ringing excitedly. One of the other captives told the British soldiers, “the town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men.” Then, the patrol decided to let Revere and other rebels go, and rode off to warn their nearby commanders. Revere then walked the rest of the way to Lexington and delivered all the intelligence he had gathered on the way. His mission was more or less accomplished.
Revere later served in various capacities in the colonial army throughout the rest of the Revolutionary War. During his lifetime, however, Revere’s ride was not the most celebrated thing about him. In addition to running his famous silversmithing company (which was highly innovative in developing mass production silverware), he had participated in the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and was active in Massachusetts politics for his entire adult life. Because he was one of many riders on the night of the 18th of April, the famous “Midnight Ride” was not even mentioned in his obituary when he died in 1818.
Why is his ride so famous now?
Fast forward to 1860, Buzzkillers, and into the study of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, already one of the most famous literary figures in the United States. 1860 was a rough time for the United States. The presidential election of that year was taken up with bitter conflicts over slavery and secession. Many southern states were agitating vigorously to secede. Longfellow, a strong abolitionist like many other artists and writers, feared that the United States was going to be torn apart. The nation needed to be warned, he thought, and what better way to do it than to write a poem about an early warning to the nation — Paul Revere’s ride.
Longfellow researched quite a lot about Revere and the ride, so he knew the actual history quite well. But he knew that the image of a single rider would seem more heroic, and would certainly be more dramatic in a poem. And he tinkered with other aspects of the historic ride quite a bit. But, remember, his purpose was to warn his readers that the United States in 1860 was in a desperate “hour of darkness and peril and need” and that they needed to “waken and listen to hear” the midnight ride of Paul Revere. He wasn’t trying to write an accurate history of the event.
The poem appeared in The Atlantic magazine in mid-December, 1860. “Paul Revere’s Ride” was an almost overnight sensation, but the State of South Carolina voted to secede on the 20th of December, and Longfellow’s version of Paul Revere’s ride failed to rouse the country to prevent it.
Like so many other aspects of American cultural history, the Paul Revere story has been partly invented, changed, and enhanced by later generations. And the motivations behind why Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” when he did are almost as interesting as the original events that inspired them.
David Hackett Fisher, “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1995).
Esther Hoskins Forbes, “Paul Revere and the World He Lived In” (1942 and 1999).
J.D. McClatchy (ed.), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems & Other Writings (2000).