All revolutions begin with a single act that changes everything. America’s began 236 years ago tonight 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.