- Historic Sites
The Man, the Myth, and the Midnight Ride
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Even for those of us who have not heard or do not remember Longfellow’s poem, the name of Paul Revere awakens a familiar, tingling image. The dark shape, the passionate drumming of hoofs throwing up little geysers of dirt, the arm upflung, the voice riding down the moon-silvered air: “To Arms! The British are coming!” So he has ridden into history—coiled, committed, ready for great beginnings.
But now conjure up another scene. It is just past dawn on April 19, 1775. Behind the Lexington meetinghouse some fifty or sixty rural militiamen stand in an amateurish huddle, not sure of what they will do when rumor hardens into fact and British regulars come tramping up the road from Boston. As they wait, two men emerge from the Buckman Tavern, across that very road. They are carrying a large trunk. One of them is stout, middle-aged, and has the rumpled look of a man who has been working all night. The two pass through the crowd of militiamen without a word. When they are “half a gun shot distance” away, the advance guard of British regulars suddenly appears, and halts briefly. Then a shot rings out—and only then does the stout man turn his head. As he later reported: “I saw the smoake in the front of them [the British], they imeaditly gave a shout rann a few pace and then fired. I could distinguish first !regular firing and then platoons.” But he did not rush back to join the fighting, or help the wounded. Instead, he methodically continued hauling his load.
The stout man was Paul Revere. The trunk belonged to John Hancock, chairman of the Massachusetts provincial assembly, illegally convened in defiance of British orders. It held enough treasonable papers to hang a good handful of rebellious Bostonians, and Revere’s task in the gray morning light was to help get it to Hancock so that Hancock could take it with him in his flight from arrest. As Esther Forbes, Revere’s best modern biographer, has noted, the urgency of the assignment left the spent midnight rider no time for distraction. “He went on with Hancock’s trunk,” she says, “with that simple absorption in what was to be done at the moment which characterizes the whole man. Embattled farmers might stand and shots [be] fired that would be heard round the world. He gave them one glance and went on with his job.”
The gap between the explosive Revere of the equestrian statues, and the rotund man of forty trudging away from the gunfire at Lexington, appears to separate art from life, truth from fable, the heroic from the human. But appearances deceive, and there is more than one kind of hero. Paul Revere’s ride was a minor incident in the American Revolution, virtually unrecorded by his contemporaries. It became romantically inflated only when the fiftieth anniversary of independence inspired an outburst of patriotic legend making. Longfellow’s rhymed account appeared in 1863, in the full surge of Civil War celebration of Yankee virtues, and it freely sacrificed accuracy to inspiration.
Yet if Paul Revere had been home in bed on that celebrated night, he would still have an honored niche in United States history. As a silversmith, he was one of the finest practical artists that colonial society produced, and many of his surviving cream jugs and trays and coffeepots and bowls are deservedly museum pieces today. He also founded what is now the Revere Copper and Brass Corporation, and in consequence is legitimately enrolled among the prime architects of American industry. He notched these achievements in art and business without the benefit of any special advantages of birth, being an immigrant’s son who inherited only the most modest expectations. In one sense, the root purpose of the American Revolution was to make opportunities for people like him. Viewed in that light, his life as a whole is suffused with a meaning—perhaps even with a kind of heroism—that goes far beyond those few hours on the Cambridge-to-Concord road that Longfellow preserved in his jingling cadences.
Gallic blood flowed in Paul Revere’s veins. In 1685, France’s King Louis xiv rekindled the expiring fires of religious warfare by his revocation of the Edict of Nantes and fresh legal assaults on his Protestant subjects, who went by the name of Huguenots. In the ensuing years thousands of them were harried out of their homeland and fled to England, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the British provinces in North America. The last group included a thirteen-year-old boy named Apollos Rivoire, who was deposited on a wharf in Boston one wintry day late in 1715 or early in 1716.