Paul Revere's Ride
A Historical Look at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Poem
I know of few poems that have had the lasting and far-reaching effects of Paul Revere’s Ride. Recite the first line of Longfellow’s poem and most Americans will answer with the second. That is a rare phenomenon.
It’s no secret that the facts of American history tend to elude her citizens. Perhaps that can be blamed on poems like this. Longfellow, being a poet, naturally took creative liberties with the historical aspects of his work in order to create a more page-worthy verse. Numerous players in the drama were combined into one midnight messenger, and little events and circumstances are left out of the narrative entirely. What is left is a sweeping and exciting, albeit exaggerated, poem. Not that this is a problem, of course. It’s no crime to be creative, and at the end of the day, it’s just a poem.
Still, since the events recorded in the poem are such a pivotal and beloved part of American history, I think it’s only fair to counter this great poem with great history. So let’s go back to those candlelit days and revisit what happened on that famous midnight ride.
The day was April 18, 1775, and tensions in Massachusetts had never been higher. Over the past several years, the Stamp Act, Tea Act, and Townshend Acts had been met with incidents like the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, and numerous other acts of protest. People were speaking with open hostility against Parliament and King George III. Everyday people were required by law to board and lodge any British troops that come knocking. British naval ships were occupying Boston Harbor, a show of force to quell the dissent in the Massachusetts Colony.
In response to this, the Colonists had amassed a cache of weapons and ammunition in Concord, waiting for the storm to break.
To combat the actions of the British, several secretive societies had sprung up, such as the Sons of Liberty and the Mechanics.
Enter Paul Revere, a silversmith by trade. He was a member of the Sons of Liberty and the Freemasons, together with his friend Dr. Joseph Warren and several other Founding Fathers. Motivated by resentment at the British for “taxation without representation” and other injustices, he played a personal role in the Boston Tea Party.
Meanwhile, Samuel Adams and John Hancock—two other influential Patriots—had been making trouble for themselves. Both being deeply involved in Massachusetts politics, and vehemently outspoken against the King, their words and deeds had long been a thorn in the side of the British.
April 18 proved to be a pivotal night for them. Having attended a meeting of the Provincial Congress, they suspected it would be dangerous to return to Boston before heading on to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and so they stayed at Hancock’s childhood home in Lexington.
Eventually, on April 18, General Thomas Gage gave the order to seize the weapons in Concord and arrest Adams and Hancock. This came as no surprise to Revere, however. He and his associates had been monitoring the movements of the British, receiving news from multiple informants. The British had been planning for weeks to mobilize against Concord by way of Lexington, and to arrest Adams and Hancock. What the Patriots didn’t know was how the British would travel, by land or sea. Not willing to wait until the last minute, Dr. Joseph Warren had commissioned Revere and his friend William Dawes to plan in advance how to counter this move.
When the order was finally given, Warren had the last piece of the puzzle: The British would travel by sea. Revere was given word and their plan was set in motion.
That night, William Dawes left Boston on horseback, while several Sons of Liberty watched from Charlestown across the bay. Meanwhile, Robert Newman, another Patriot, climbed the steeple of the North Church to deliver a signal with a pair of lanterns: “One if by land, two if by sea.” Both parties, the landward and the seaward, saw Newman’s lanterns and acted accordingly. In this way, the message was sent by two routes, land and sea, thereby doubling the chances that it would be successfully delivered.
While all this was going on, Revere rowed across the Charles River to find a horse waiting for him on the opposite shore. He and Dawes both rode for Lexington by different roads, secretly warning every house along the way. With every house they warned, more men set out to alert others, and from there more still, until the whole countryside knew what was happening. Eventually both met at midnight in Lexington and told Adams and Hancock of the impending danger. The pair relocated to Burlington at once.
But the job was not yet done. Revere and Dawes then proceeded to Concord. Along the way, they were joined by a Patriot named Samuel Prescott. A British roadblock intercepted their path. Thinking quickly, Prescott escaped and rode to Concord off-road, there to raise the alarm, but Dawes and Revere would go no further that night. After a brief confrontation with the soldiers, they eventually made their way back to Lexington.
A column of about 700 British troops met with 77 minutemen at Lexington, and it was there the first fight broke out. No one knows who fired first, but it went down in history as “the shot heard round the world,” so named by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Colonists retreated, and the British continued on to Concord to seize the weapons cache. Unfortunately for them, it had already been moved. Furthermore, Revere and Dawes’ warnings had wrought the desired effect: all the people they had alerted the previous night had taken up their weapons and convened in Concord, ready to fight against the enemy. With greater numbers, the Colonists retaliated against the British.
They followed the British all the way to Charlestown, firing from behind fences, walls and sheds, dropping the soldiers so quickly that many of them dropped their weapons and supplies in order to run faster.
Though more men were lost by the Colonists than by the British, this was an act unheard of. They had stood up to one of the strongest armies in the world and won. Word of their victory spread throughout the Colonies and back to England, and the chain reaction of events that started that day eventually led up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
So went the events of the Midnight Ride. I could call it Paul Revere’s Ride, but that would give him too much credit. In reality, what happened that night was not done by one man, but by many.
Sometimes I feel like too much emphasis is put on Revere. We immortalize him in our poetry, in our history books, and in our statuary. We talk about him as though he were a god of patriotism. He is the original American hero, the brave Patriot who took to the streets and helped to change the world.
But is he really that important? Was he singing his own praises even as he rode through the night? I doubt it. He, like so many others of his time, believed in something more important. That something was what drove him out into the night, crossing rivers and raising alarms, and kept him going in the face of opposition. It manifested itself in the words and deeds of thousands of colonists, and led to the birth of a new nation. “A cry of defiance and not of fear.”
It may be due to Longfellow's poem that we focus so much on Paul Revere, which I think would have disappointed Longfellow. Reading his poem, I realized that Longfellow understood what Revere was fighting for, felt with him, and wished to immortalize that, rather than the man. It isn’t the messenger we should revere, but the message. At the close of the poem, Longfellow tells us: “Through all our history, to the last… the people will waken and listen to hear… the midnight message of Paul Revere.” What could be more worthy of a poem than the spirit of Revolution that raged on in Revere’s heart, and the hearts of Joseph Warren, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock? As long as we remember what they were fighting for, as Longfellow did, then Paul Revere's Ride will not have been written in vain.