- Historic Sites
The Man, the Myth, and the Midnight Ride
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Revere wanted Otis to use his influence to get Federal assistance in two forms: a large supply of costly sheet copper, and a loan for acquiring a factory and machinery. With that help, he could fill contracts expeditiously. He received enough encouragement from the navy-minded outgoing Federalist administration so that he could begin. He bought a site on the east branch of the Neponset River in Canton, Massachusetts, and there set up a copperrolling mill. It was touch and go at the start. Jefferson’s Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith, apparently tried to undo his predecessor’s pledge, crisply writing Revere: “I know of no law which authorizes this Department to lend money for the creation of copper works.” To which Revere replied: “I had no doubt but the present Administration would have fulfilled what the last had engaged. It is exceeding hard that an individual should suffer when he is exerting himself for the good of the Government.” He was rescued by the award of a contract for sheathing the dome of the new Massachusetts State House, which paid him—on time—$4,232 for 7,675 pounds of sheathing and 789 pounds of copper nails. But he continued to nag at Washington, which had ordered material from him but was dilatory about paying. “You must be sensible,” he wrote to the Navy Department in 1803, “that it requires a Considerable Capital to carry on a Business the stock of which cannot be purchased but with Cash.”
In the end, however, the partnership of public and private enterprise worked. In establishing his works at Canton, which became the nucleus of the Revere Copper enterprise that is still alive and well, the founder put up some $25,000 of his own, but got nineteen thousand pounds of scarce copper from the United States, plus the requested $10,000 loan. So, on his seventieth birthday, in 1805, Paul Revere, mechanic and artisan, was Paul Revere, industrialist. By 1813 he was producing three tons of copper a week, some of it for such innovative purposes as boilers in Robert Fulton ‘s early steamships.
He was to live a good thirteen years beyond his allotted threescore and ten, a respected elder citizen of Boston. He was remembered as “a thick-set, roundfaced, not very tall person, who always wore small-clothes,” a benign relic of grand old days, as Boston clattered on into the nineteenth century. When he finally died in May of 1818, he left not only the copperworks and his other enterprises, but property to be divided among five living children and a number of orphaned grandchildren, to the handsome amount of $30,000. He was a success.
Revere was not given to speechmaking. But in 1795, he had to face an audience and deliver an address at the laying of the cornerstone of the new Massachusetts State Capitol building. “Worshipfull Brethern,” he began on that occasion, “I congratulate you on this auspicious day;—When the Arts and Sciences are establishing themselves … in our happy country, a Country distinguished from the rest of the World by being a government of Laws, where Liberty has found a safe and secure abode.” And he ended, “May we, my Brethern, so square our actions thro life as to show the World of Mankind, that we mean to live within the compass of Good Citizens. …”
A country of arts and sciences, of laws, and of liberty—that was the kind which called out Revere’s kind of patriotism. And to “square” one’s actions, to respect boundaries, and to regulate and symmetrize life—that was the sum of his moral outlook. His life was a testament to a bygone community, built on a base of achievement by “Good Citizens,” who still knew and trusted each other.
The ride that made him famous that moonlit April night was only one act that came normally to such a citizen, of such a republic.