James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

by James M. Lindsay
April 18, 2011

Paul Revere rides towards Concord, MA on April 18, 1775. (courtesy National Archives)

Paul Revere rides toward Concord on April 18, 1775. (Courtesy the National Archives)

All revolutions begin with a single act that changes everything. America’s began on April 18, 1775, when British General Thomas Gage ordered 700 British Army regulars under the command of Lt. Col. Francis Smith to set out from Boston, Massachusetts under the cover of night to arrest Samuel Adams (the patriot, not the beer) and John Hancock (the man who signed the Declaration of Independence in letters large enough for King George III to read, not the insurance company) in Lexington and to capture the guns and ammunition that the colonists had stored in Concord. The mission failed, in good part because of the daring of one Paul Revere.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Revere’s exploits in a poem that every American schoolchild once knew by heart: “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Its opening two stanzas are as thrilling as any words put to paper:

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.

Okay, so Longfellow wrote his poem eighty-five years after Revere jumped on his horse and he got a lot of the historical details wrong. For instance, he failed to mention William Dawes, Samuel Prescott, and other riders who fanned out across eastern Massachusetts to spread the alarm that the “British are coming!” (Truth be told, they shouted “The Regulars are coming out!”) And while Revere made it to Lexington in time to warn Adams and Hancock, he fell into the clutches of British soldiers before he reached Concord.

But Revere did leave behind an account of his evening on horseback. The Paul Revere House, which is a wonderful place to visit in Boston’s North End, offers up a virtual midnight ride. And you can read the definitive book on Paul Revere’s ride by one of America’s greatest historians, David Hackett Fischer.

Revere died in 1818 at the age of eighty-three. He is buried in the Old Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston. Both Adams and Hancock are buried there as well.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Rob V

    At the risk of sounding pedantic… Henry W. Longfellow never wrote a poem called “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” He did, however, write one with the title “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

  • Posted by Sage Observer

    Your great piece on Paul Revere’s ride reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis in “Tipping Point,” which has it that Revere was far more successful in alerting the public than Dawes, and his analysis is that though both had the same mission, and were working similar territory, “Revere’s news tipped and Dawes’s didn’t because of the differences between the two men. This is the Law of the Few.”

    As you may know, Gladwell took his facts from David Hackett Fisher’s book, which you cite. And his conclusion is:

    “Here, then, is the explanation for why Paul Revere’s midnight ride started a word-of-mouth epidemic and William Dawes’s ride did not. Paul Revere was the Roger Horchow or the Lois Weisberg of his day. He was a Connector. . .

    “But William Dawes? Fischer finds it inconceivable that Dawes could have ridden all seventeen miles to Lexington and not spoken to anyone along the way.. But he clearly had none of the social gifts of Revere, because there is almost no record of anyone who remembers him that night.”

    Fischer goes on to elaborate that, “Along Paul Revere’s northern route, the town leaders and company captains instantly triggered the alarm. On the southerly circuit of William Dawes, that did not happen until later. In at least one town it did not happen at all. Dawes did not awaken the town fathers or militia commanders in the towns of Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown, or Waltham.”

    To which Gladwell adds, “Word-of-mouth epidemics are the work of Connectors. William Dawes was just an ordinary man.” And in another chapter, he moves on to the equally critical aspect of the success of Revere’s ride — that he had a “sticky message,” i.e., “The British [Regulars] are coming.” Had the message been to announce an inventory sale on his silverware, the results would have been far different.

    Who knew? So if Longfellow were to update his poem, he might write:

    Listen my children and don’t you forget
    That when there is trouble place your bet
    On Connectors, like Revere, not plain folk, like Dawes
    Or else you be drawin’ some mighty short straws

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