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 Mailbag: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere–An Update

by James M. Lindsay
April 19, 2011

A woman mails envelopes at the James A Farley Post U.S. office in New York on April 15, 2010. (Mike Segar/courtesy Reuters)

A woman mails envelopes at the James A Farley Post U.S. office in New York on April 15, 2010. (Mike Segar/courtesy Reuters)

Yesterday’s post on “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” attracted a couple of comments.

One noted that the title Longfellow gave to his poem was “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Yes, he did. But it is better known as “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Sometimes practice trumps intent. Just ask any constitutional lawyer.

A second comment came from Garry Mitchell, who drew an unexpected connection to Malcolm Gladwell. The observation is worth quoting in full:

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

Really good stuff, Garry.

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