Two hundred forty years ago last night, forty-year-old silversmith Paul Revere crossed the Charles River by rowboat, borrowed a horse in Charlestown, and set off for the villages of Lexington and Concord to inform the countryside that British regulars were coming their way in search of stockpiled weapons and ammunition. And the following dawn, two hundred forty years ago this morning, sixty to seventy militiamen assembled on Lexington Green to stare down the advancing British column. We will never know who fired first that April morning, but the shots that rang out changed the course of American history. The Declaration of Independence was still more than fourteen months in the future, but the Revolutionary War had begun.
If you’re interested in revisiting these critical few hours in the American past, here are four recommendations from four very different genres:
First, consider reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poetic account, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” The Cambridge resident and former Harvard professor was fascinated by New England’s history and was given to long romantic poems that brought to life episodes in the region’s past, albeit with a fair measure of poetic license. (See, for example, “The Song of Hiawatha” or “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” both penned in the 1850s.) Longfellow began his retelling of Revere’s adventure in the spring of 1860 and finished the poem in time to get it published in the January 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. As he wrote, he almost certainly was mindful of the sectional crisis that then jeopardized the nation, and literary experts suspect that the poem’s closing lines were intended as a wake-up call to contemporary patriots:
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.
Longfellow’s poem was historically inaccurate in several respects: Revere was not the lone rider commissioned by patriot leaders in Boston to sound the alarm in the countryside; the lighting of two candles in the Old North Church was not a signal to Revere but from him; and perhaps most egregiously, Revere did not make it to his ultimate destination of Concord. (He was arrested by a British patrol outside of Lexington and released a few hours later.) And yet Longfellow’s poem is worth our attention because, in a real sense, it is Longfellow who made Paul Revere a fixture in American memory. Before 1861 Revere was comparatively a minor player in the drama of the American Revolution as Americans imagined it. After 1861 Revere became an American icon, and the silhouette of the solitary rider galloping from house to house would become one of the enduring symbols of American patriotism. (If you don’t believe me, just ask Rush “Revere” Limbaugh.)
Second–and here I’m going from the sublime to the somewhat-less-than-sublime in popular culture–check out this clip from The Andy Griffith Show. The episode “Andy Discovers America” originally aired on March 4, 1963 and is one of my all-time favorites. I’m a huge TAGS fan to begin with, so how could I resist this scene where Andy Taylor tells Opie, Barney, and some of Opie’s schoolmates how our country began? In four and a half minutes you’ll get a classic southern storyteller’s account of both Paul Revere’s ride and the showdown on Lexington Green. It’s only slightly less historically accurate than Longfellow’s poem and, depending on your taste, a lot more fun.
Third, why not go to the source and read Paul Revere’s own account of his activities on the night of April 18, 1775? Revere recorded his experience in detail on two occasions. Shortly after the war broke out he gave a formal deposition, probably in response to a request from the Massachusetts provincial congress, which was trying to prove that the British had fired the first shot at Lexington. (Revere made his way back to Lexington after his release and was on the scene by dawn, but he swore that he did not see who fired first.) Then more than twenty years later he wrote a lengthy letter to the secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society recounting his actions on the 18th and 19th.
Finally, if you have the time, you would never regret reading David Hackett Fischer’s marvelous retelling Paul Revere’s Ride (Oxford University Press, 1995). Fischer, now retiring from Brandeis after a long and distinguished career (winning the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards), is one of my favorite historians, and Paul Revere’s Ride is one of my favorite works of history. Fischer is a master narrative historian–there aren’t many of those around any more–and he combines gripping prose with an absolutely scrupulous attention to factual evidence. You’d love it.
Within the narrative structure of the book—which is bounded tightly by the opening months of 1775—Fischer uses the twin figures of Revere and British commanding general Thomas Gage to drive the story and embody key ideas. Fischer writes, “For Thomas Gage, the rule of law meant the absolute supremacy of that many-headed sovereign, the King-in-Parliament. For Paul Revere it meant the right of a free-born people to be governed by laws of its own making. . . . Their differences were what the American Revolution was about.”
After devoting a chapter to each, the author then gradually broadens his focus to include an ever-increasing circle of characters. By the time that Fischer gets to the 19th of April, he is shifting back and forth (a chapter at a time) from the colonists to the British Army, and I marvel at how he so effectively offers the perspectives of both. In the process, he brilliantly enables the reader to see the drama as it unfolds. Indeed, one of my favorite sections in the whole book is an extended section in which he discusses how the British regulars were uniformed and armed.
Because of the book’s narrative structure it is not overtly argument driven, but I think that there are at least two main points that Fischer thinks it important to make. First, he repeatedly stresses that the colonists were working together in advance of the battles at Lexington and Concord. And so when the regulars marched toward Lexington, the countryside did not spontaneously erupt as individuals unilaterally reached for their hunting rifles and headed toward the sound of the fighting. Instead, there was organization in Boston and much prior planning for a variety of contingencies. When the British acted, Revere and other messengers did not simply ride from house to house awakening the countryside. Rather, they worked through community institutions—militia and churches—to mobilize the populace. Fischer drives home the significance of this distinction: “Paul Revere and his fellow Whigs of Massachusetts understood, more clearly than Americans of later generations, that political institutions are instruments of human will, and amplifiers of individual action. They knew from long experience that successful effort requires sustained planning and careful organization. The way they went about their work made a major difference that night.”
A second theme—implied more than explicitly stated, and yet woven throughout the story—involves the disjuncture between how the common people understood the events that were unfolding and how the story of the coming of the Revolution is usually told in the history books. Fischer makes very little mention of what might be called formal political philosophy. There is no allusion to taxation without representation, no discussion of the Stamp Act and Tea Act, no reference to natural rights or to the writings of John Locke or Thomas Jefferson. The characters who figure in this story simply believed that they should regulate their own affairs, and they bitterly resented British efforts to interfere with that. As they saw things, liberty “did not derive from abstract premises, but from tradition and historical experience.” Fischer concludes, “In America, it has always been so.”
Throughout, Fischer makes clear that there are things that we can learn from the revolutionary generation, and more than once he calls attention to ways that their values are different from those of the United States of 2015. Most prominently, Americans in 1775 tended to stress collective rights and individual obligations, whereas two hundred forty years later we have pretty much reversed that, stressing individual rights and collective obligations. “We have much to learn from these half-remembered men,” Fischer observes, “a set of truths that our generation has lost or forgotten. In their different ways, they knew that to be free is to choose. The history of a free people is a history of hard choices. In that respect, when Paul Revere alarmed the Massachusetts countryside, he was carrying a message for us.”