Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was unarguably one of America’s greatest poets of the 19th century. His works, such as the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha and Hyperion, a Romance made him one of the first fireside poets in the United States. Criticized by many, including fellow poet Walt Whitman, of imitating the European forms, his themes were, nevertheless, uniquely American. We find evidence of this in his most famous poem: “Paul Revere’s Ride,” written in 1860 and published a year later. The poem is a romanticized account of Paul Revere’s feat on the early morning of April 18th, 1775, as he rode to alert the Massachusetts countryside of the approaching British troops. Although the poem is fraught with historical inaccuracies, it promoted a largely forgotten American patriot and silversmith into a hero of the Revolutionary War.
The Fictional Paul Revere Rides Into Legend
The poem opens with the lines: “Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,” which is an indication that the verses have more to do with storytelling, i.e. fiction, than with reality. Paul Revere is by his horse, waiting for a signal from the church tower whether the British will advance by land or sea. Once he sees the signal (two lamps indicate that the British are coming by sea), he springs to his saddle and embarks on his famous ride. Longfellow sings that “the fate of a nation was riding that night,” as Revere rode through Medford town, Lexington, and finally Concord to alarm the country folk. “Through the night went his cry of alarm / To every Middlesex village and farm,” which implies that Revere yelled from horseback and knocked on doors of the locals. The people heard his horse’s hoofs and woke up to hear “the midnight message of Paul Revere.”
The American Colonies On the Eve of the Revolutionary War
Before we are ready to disseminate what truly transpired on that fateful April evening in 1775, we have to explore the context of the Midnight Ride. Estimates show that at the time the first shot of the Revolutionary War was fired in Lexington, only two-fifths of the colonists supported the revolution. In fact, during the war, up to a third of American colonists fought on the British side or actively supported King George III. These early American monarchists were called Royalists.
On the other side were American patriots who famously cried out “No taxation without representation,” which was in accordance with John Locke’s social contract theory. In other words, they didn’t wish to be any less Englishmen than their compatriots in London. Paul Revere, a renowned Boston silversmith and engraver, was one of these dissidents, having joined The Sons of Liberty in 1765. Having been rebuffed by the Crown (they had to pay taxes but had no representatives in the Parliament), American colonists decided to arm themselves and formed minuteman units. These units were part of local militias that operated independently from the British army, with which they would soon engage in a bloody war.
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The British Raids and the “Shot Heard Round the World”
The Intolerable Acts of 1774 (sometimes referred to as the Coercive Acts) stripped the colony of Massachusetts of its autonomy, as a form of punishment for the Boston Tea Party that took place the year before. This enraged the colonists who were more than ever ready to defy the Crown, forming military units that would be up in arms in a matter of minutes.
On the British part, general Thomas Gage, the military governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, wanted to avoid a full-scale war by seizing arms and powder from American Patriots. As part of that effort, he ordered frequent military raids on store houses and armories across New England. After the Powder Alarm in 1774, colonists started stockpiling armament away from Boston, most notably in Worcester and Concord. It was during one of these expeditions that the “shot heard round the world” that started the Revolutionary War was fired in Concord, as the British forces were confronted by armed colonists at Lexington Green. American patriots were previously warned by messengers on horseback arriving from Boston; one of which was Paul Revere.
The Midnight Ride of the Real Paul Revere
As a member of Boston’s middle class and a skilled silversmith, Paul Revere was among the few Patriots who had remained in Boston following the Governor’s crackdown on Wigs. This meant he could track the movement of the British troops, so in the days leading to April 18th, he had instructed the sexton of the North Church to light a lantern in the belfry. One lantern would be lit if the British left Boston via land and two by sea. The latter option was the case and Revere rowed across the Bay into Charlestown, from where he would alert the countryside on horseback.
As he covertly alerted the settlements along the way, villagers would dispatch mounted messengers of their own, so it is estimated that there were several dozens of riders that night. Along with another compatriot, William Dawes, Revere arrived in Lexington around midnight. There they met with Samuel Adams and John Hancock to put into action the “alarm and muster” system, dating back to the Indian Wars period. Later that night, the two men, accompanied by doctor Samuel Prescott, set out to Concord.
However, the three riders didn’t get far, as they were detained at a roadblock in Lincoln set up by a British army patrol. While on horseback, Prescott was able to jump a wall and complete his ride, making it all the way to Concord and even continuing further on. Dawes also eluded capture but soon fell off his horse while attempting to make it back to Lexington. Paul Revere was the only rider who was captured by the British patrol and held at gunpoint. His account of the event tells us that the regulars first questioned him before taking him back to Lexington. Midway, they heard a shot from the direction of Lexington, upon which the British soldiers decided to alarm their superiors at once, confiscating Revere’s horse. Now on foot, Revere returned to Lexington and assisted in the evacuation of John Hancock and his family following the skirmish at Lexington Green.
“The British Are Coming?”
As you might have noticed, the real events of that April night don’t correspond neither with Longfellow’s poem nor with the folklore myth surrounding the Midnight Ride. Speaking of the latter, many people still have the romanticized image of Paul Revere riding through New England and shouting “The British are coming!”
The truth couldn’t be more different, as his mission was covert in the sense that only the American patriots needed to hear the notice. Were any of the Loyalists to hear the news, they would have dispatched riders of their own to warn the approaching redcoats. Having said this, the real message was probably more tacit and mundane, as Revere would have probably whispered: “The Regulars are on the move.” “The Regulars” was the colloquial term for the official colonial military forces prior and during the Revolutionary War. Regardless of this, the phrase “The British are coming” has made its way into popular culture, serving as the title for books, songs, and movies in contemporary times.
What Else Did the Poem Get Wrong?
Once we compare the real Midnight Ride with Longfellow’s poem, we notice several inconsistencies. Firstly, Paul Revere’s glory rests on the fact that in the poem he reached Concord, while in reality he was captured. Even the poem’s title is misleading, as it suggests that Revere rode alone, even though he was accompanied by Dawes and Prescott; not to mention several dozen local riders dispatched by Middlesex villages as the alarm was raised.
Furthermore, it’s implied that the fictional Revere shouted from horseback, as “through the night went his cry of alarm,” and even knocked vehemently on people’s doors: “…a knock at the door / And a word that shall echo forevermore!” This would be plausible if all of the colonists supported the revolution but in reality, many of them were loyal to the Crown. Even if it was true that “every Middlesex village and farm” was in support of the American cause, the countryside was nevertheless swarming with British patrols, which the real Paul Revere found out the hard way. Finally, several references to “his steed” are misleading, as Revere rode a borrowed horse, since he came to Charlestown by boat.
The Poetics of Paul Revere’s Ride
Even though it was fraught with historic inaccuracies, Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” is accurate when it comes to the overall theme of patriotism and the fight for freedom. Using poetic license, the American poet embodied in the Boston silversmith, Paul Revere, all the personal traits of American patriots who fought in the Revolutionary War. To name a couple of examples, his name is French (although he never spoke French), indicating that the new country would be open to all nationalities; the signal beacon is lit from a church spire, which suggests that colonists are Christian; Revere rides alone but he is a symbol for all of the riders dispatched that night, etc.
All in all, the romanticized aura Longfellow created around Paul Revere confers hope to the coming generations of Americans:
“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.”