- Historic Sites
The Man, the Myth, and the Midnight Ride
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Apollos carried with him the Huguenot virtues so carelessly undervalued by King Louis—diligence, economic ambition, prudence, and a hunger for skill and independence. He was apprenticed to John Coney, one of Boston’s thirty-two gold- and silver-smiths. Within twenty years, he underwent changes that millions of other refugees would experience after him. He learned not only how to work in silver but how to speak English. He changed his name to Paul Revere, which fit into Bostonian mouths easier than Apollos Rivoire. He joined a church, set upa shop, married an American girl, and moved her into a house of his own. She was Deborah Hitchbourn, descended on both sides from families whose sturdy roots ran back to earliest Massachusetts. The wedding was in 1729. A daughter was born in 1732. And in December of 1734, nature bestowed upon him who had been Apollos a son to carry on his new American name. The infant boy was baptized Paul on January 1, 1735, by the new calendar then coming into use.
Paul Revere the younger was slated to follow in the footsteps of the “middling sort” of Bostonians—artisans, small traders, yeoman farmers and seafarers—like his Hitchbourn ancestors. He had some slight public schooling, enough to give him a clear handwriting and a style of expression which sometimes limped grammatically but always proceeded straight to an unambiguous meaning. His real education, however, came when he was set to work to learn his father’s trade, as befitted the eldest boy.
If he had not been marked for a silversmith—or had proved inept at the work—Paul would probably have been “bound out,” at around eight, to some other craftsman. The apprenticeship system was a first-class educational device that fused job training, social indoctrination, and personal development. The apprentice learned from an expert the manual and mental arts and mysteries of some craft by actual practice. In addition, he would sleep in the master’s house, be fed and washed and spanked by the master’s wife, would flirt with (and sometimes marry) the master’s daughter, and would march stiffly to Sabbath and other prayers with the master’s household. (Girls, in a sense, were all “apprenticed” to their mothers in homemaking.) There were, of course, cruel, neglectful, and exploitive masters. But with luck a child could move slowly from infantile dependency to socially useful productivity, which was the inward grace and outward sign of adulthood.
For Paul this process went on in his own home. There would be other learning, too. As he ran errands through the narrow, twisting streets, he would meet all sorts and conditions of people—swarthy-looking sailors ashore, handsomely dressed men of wealth followed by their black slaves, wagon drivers profanely urging their beasts along, farmers in from the country with firewood and chickens to sell. In the shop itself there was always conversation as men stopped by to do business with his father. From the gossip of servants and printers’ journeymen and merchants and deacons and lawyers’ clerks he would learn the social and economic anatomy of his community.
His Boston was really a small town of about seventeen thousand population, on a little peninsula thrust like a hand into the cold waters of the harbor. Its “fingers” were the wharves whose stout timbers were the foundation of Bostonian wealth. At them were tied the little two- and three-masted vessels that bobbed into the North Atlantic with holds full of dried fish, cured hay, ponies, salted meat, cheeses, barrel staves, planks, shingles, and rum. A traveler in 1744 counted over a hundred ships in the bay, “besides a great number of small craft.” On Caribbean and African and Mediterranean coasts, the skippers of such ships traded their cargoes for slaves, sugar, fruit, wine, and coffee, for bank drafts on London and Amsterdam, and for kegs and chests of silver coin—all of which paid for the British-manufactured goods that New England needed.
Boston’s leading men were those who owned these ships and who dealt in their cargoes. When trade prospered, they endowed churches and built houses; they kept lawyers and notaries busy; and they rained a flood of orders on harness makers and tailors, wigmakers and glaziers, carpenters and weavers and cobblers—and silversmiths. When trade failed, all these suffered. Even nearby farmers knew that their fate was linked to Boston’s freedom of commerce; as early as 1650 an observer said of them that “if the merchant trade be not kept on foot, they fear greatly their corne and cattel will lye in their hands. ”
Paul must have almost automatically absorbed these lessons in the underpinnings of a mercantile society. Suddenly, at nineteen, they took on a sharp new reality for him. His father died in July, 1754, leaving him the male head of a family that included himself, his mother, four sisters, and two brothers. By the time he was twenty-one and could legally operate his own business, he was already seasoned in responsibility. But he had also spent a few months as a soldier.