- Historic Sites
The Man, the Myth, and the Midnight Ride
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
In the spring of 1756, France and Great Britain were fighting their fourth North American war in sixty-five years—the third since Apollos Rivoire had been born. A Massachusetts provincial force marched out to join other colonials and British regulars facing the French at the head of Lake George, where they threatened both New York and the Bay Colony. With the colonials went a 21-year-old artillery second lieutenant, bearing a commission made out to “Paul Revere, Gentleman”—a significant ranking—and reposing the special trust of Governor William Shirley in his “Loyalty, Courage and good conduct.”
Paul saw little fighting, and the army returned to its base in late autumn and disbanded. But the expedition had special meaning for his later life. For one thing, fighting the French was something of a rite of passage for a New England boy. French Canada lay close by, a great beast whose shadow darkened every Yankee hope for growth. It was a work of merit to singe its paws and hear its groans resound across the sea to the Popish Louis xv, king of the “Frogs” (whose grandfather, it happened, had driven Paul’s father into exile).
But there was more. A provincial militia was no plumed troop. Service in it was a civic duty; the law creating the Massachusetts militia in 1643 declared that “as piety cannot be maintained without church ordinance … nor justice without lawes and magistracy, no more can our safety & peace be preserved without military orders & officers.” Paul’s fellow soldiers were his neighbors. The officers were amateurs at war—landowners, judges, fishingboat skippers—but their power to enforce discipline came from whatever respect they had earned at home, not from their epaulets. The army was a slice of the community on the march, doing a needed job.
And it was an army of artificers. The provincials did not sparkle on the parade ground, but they fended spectacularly for themselves in the wilderness. Whatever they needed they knocked together on the spot from improvised materials—sledges to haul cannon, boats for transport, huts to fend off bad weather, traps and fish nets to augment rations. Revere had joined a band of civilian soldiers who practiced the “trade” of war as they did others. His own experience in metalwork prepared him to service heavy guns, just as his year with the forces got him unknowingly ready for a role in the Revolutionary army.
Returned to the pleasant ways of peace, Paul lived out his next eight years in establishing himself as a master of his craft. He made a great variety of objects for customers ranged along the steps of class progression. For wealthy merchants like Thomas or John Hancock, or for high public servants like the Hutchinsons, the Olivers, and the Bernards, there would be expensive items like solid silver punch bowls, chafing dishes, salvers. They followed the prevailing London styles, with lacy edges, bell-like curvatures, lithe ebony handles, crouching ornamented legs with feet like paws. But he gave all of them a proportion, balance, cleanness, and strength that enhanced rather than euphemistically disguised their utilitarian purposes.
For somewhat lesser folk—lawyers, men of the cloth, physicians, and “mechanicks” who, like himself, kept their own shops—there were smaller things: shoe buckles, spoons, earrings, bracelets, sword hilts, spatulas and probes, babies’ rattles, dog collars, baptismal basins. For the plainest people, the unpropertied dock workers, day laborers, tapsters, grooms, streetwalkers, he made nothing.
It was around his thirty-fifth year that his friend and junior by three years, John Singleton Copley, painted him. Revere’s reputation was already strong, for Copley confined his subjects to Bostonians of distinction. Revere is not formally posed for the portrait. He is in shirt sleeves, in his shop, working on a teapot—soberly rubbing his fleshy jaw as he considers what step comes next, and regarding you with candid eyes, a man much at peace with himself.
That peace was, most probably, deepened and tested by the growing responsibilities of a family man. On August 17, 1757, Revere married twenty-year-old Sarah Orne. Early the next year she bore him a daughter. Thereafter, with the certainty of birds returning northward, there was a new young Revere born every other late winter or early spring—each evidently conceived when the preceding one was old enough to toddle. Eight times altogether Sarah was brought to childbed, and, as was not unusual in that time, she buried three of her children who fell victim to infant ills. Then, aged thirty-seven and three months, she herself died in May, 1773. Paul, as was also the fashion of the times, did not remain a widower long. Nothing hints that he did not love Sarah. But it did not become a man in the prime of life to mourn long, and keep a solitary bed, especially with five young ones.under fifteen needing care. Within six months of the funeral, he courted and wed Rachel Walker. She would live forty years at his side, and also bear him eight more children. In wooing her, Revere made the appropriate romantic gestures, though he was clearly a man who molded spoons and basins more easily than words. Still, on the back of a bill to “Benj. Greene” for gold buttons, a pair of silver shoe buckles, and a mending job, there is a “riddle poem.”