- Historic Sites
The Man, the Myth, and the Midnight Ride
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
It was to Matthias that the now-aging former Son of Liberty showed qualities of the new Americanism. Matthias had reproached the Americans for breaking away from Britain and allying themselves with the French, “this vermin and scum of the earth.” Paul’s answer was that he, too, had once shared such “despicable sentiments of the French Nation,” but now looked “with more impartial eyes” and found them “brave, humane, generous and polite.” Then he tore into a retaliatory, sizzling recital of British atrocities. But at the end, he became a kindly booster of immigration. His closing sentence is irresistibly endearing:
The perennial need of shillings to share pushed Revere, finally, into not only one, but two or three additional careers. By 1786 he was back at the goldsmith’s business, but he had also opened a new shop at a location near Fanueil Hall. There he sold, not dry goods and paper as before, but something he must have felt more at home with—"hard Goods, consisting of Pewter, Brass, Copper, Ironmongery, Plated, Jappaned and Cutlery Wares, Files, Tools etc. for Goldsmiths, Jewellers, Clock and Watch Makers … Crucibles, very neat Scales Beams …, Jacks, Looking Glasses, etc, etc. Constant Attendance given, and the smallest Favours gratefully acknowledged. ”
Next, he found it practical and desirable to move from selling other men’s metallic goods to making his own. In 1788 he erected a “Furnass” in North Boston, and went to casting stoves, anvils, forge hammers, and other heavy ironware. Sometime soon afterward he moved to a new location where he could conveniently walk to his foundry.
But someone who had worked with the bright, flexible beauty of silver was not likely to rest forever content as a sooty ironmonger, bringing squat, black creations to birth out of sand molds. In 1792 the bell of Boston’s Second Church cracked. Paul Revere—we may guess perhaps with eagerness—offered to recast it. No one in the city knew how, for bellmaking was no simple task. The finished product must sing both loud and sweet; the mixture of metals (copper, tin, zinc, lead, and even some silver) be precisely right, the thickness perfect, the cooling time estimated with an artist’s nicety. Revere plunged into the job, first asking questions of a bellmaker at Abington, Massachusetts, and gathering up all available information.
When he finally finished his first effort, the sound was “harsh and shrill,” but the supporters of the Second Church loyally subscribed to pay Revere, and he went unswervingly onward, learning more. Ultimately, he and his son, Joseph Warren Revere, cast almost four hundred bells in a long history of serving customers throughout the growing United States. Some, used on shipboard, went to remote corners of the earth. (One, on the U.S.S. Constitution , was carried away in the famous fight with the Guerriere during the War of 1812.)
Always in Revere there was an alloy of bluntness mingled with the molten precious metal of his talent. When he finished that first bell he did not inscribe it, as was the traditional practice, with some Biblical verse such as, “Lord, open thou my mouth and my tongue shall sing forth thy praise.” Instead, he made his bell a historic marker, full of both personal and civic pride: “The first bell cast in Boston. 1792. P. Revere.”
And then, at age sixty-five, which would have been the end of life for someone less energetic, came the final achievement. In the lygo’s, Boston’s shipyards got busy again making ships for the reviving mercantile trade, and also for the infant American navy. Revere saw a chance to combine patriotic and profit motives. Seagoing vessels needed rustproof copper fittings—and why should they not be domestically made? To Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert in 1798 he wrote: “I understand that you have advised the Committee for building the Frigate in Boston not to send abroad for anything they can get manufactured in this Country; those Sentiments have induced me to trouble you with this letter. I can manufacture old or new Copper, into Bolts, Spikes, Staples, Nails, &c. or anything that is wanted in Shipbuilding.” He got the contract, and his fittings went to sea in the Constitution and the Essex .
But there was more to come. Ships and buildings, in 1800, protected the joints in their wooden planking with copper sheathing, impervious to rain, to salt water, and to barnacles. But producing it was much harder than making copper spikes and nails. As with bell casting, it required firm control of the annealing process of slow heating and cooling, in order to get sheets of metal thin and supple enough to bend, yet tough enough to last. Revere, in 1800, wrote to Massachusetts congressman Harrison Gray Otis that he believed he had the knack, and could be of service if the government would help him.