- Historic Sites
The Man, the Myth, and the Midnight Ride
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Busied by such a number of mouths to feed, Revere branched into other lines of work—especially when times grew hard in the unsettling years after 1765. There was, for one thing, the engraving of copper plates for prints. The surviving examples are mostly patriotic effusions, the most celebrated being a mechanical representation of the Boston Massacre in which stiff redcoats with gimlet eyes pump a volley into a pile-up of reproachful innocents. But Revere undertook other illustrative work, too, such as plates for an edition of The New-England Psalm-Singer: or, American Chorister , by William Billings, a native of Boston, and also pictures for a short-lived Royal American Magazine commenced by Revere’s friend Isaiah Thomas, who would ultimately become the most successful publisher in the young United States. The illustrations for Thomas numbered among them scenes from Cook’s Voyages , a view of “Harvard Colledge,” and a portrait of Benjamin Church, an early New England Indian fighter, which was in fact a copy of a painting of someone else altogether. Revere had no more hesitation about appropriating other men’s drawings than Shakespeare did about stealing plots. He knew himself to be a crude draftsman no doubt, but he would turn his hand to whatever involved delicate metalwork and earned a needed shilling. He would mend umbrellas, make frames for spectacles, and even replace missing “Fore-Teeth” with “artificial ones, that looks as well as Natural, & answers the End of Speaking to all Intents.” Even with all these sidelines, he had to rent out part of his shop for income, he had his property temporarily attached for a debt of £ 10 in 1765, and he had to struggle to meet the payments on a mortgage of £ 60 which he assumed in 1770 on a house that was already old. (It is the one that still stands, with its seventeenth-century dark timbers and its tiny windows looking out at today’s Boston, gently tugging at the attention of tourists.)
Yet with all these enterprises afloat, Revere had time for a community life whose energy centers were the taverns frequented by Bostonian artisans and professional men. Revere was a friendly man, evidently (though not one to be stepped on; in 1761 he was fined six shillings and sevenpence for a fist fight with a cousin-in-law)—and a joiner. He belonged to the Saint Andrew’s Lodge of the Masonic Order, and to a group known as the North Caucus, and to another, the Long Room Club, which met over the shop of Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printers of the Boston Gazette . Here he met friends like James Otis, who could spellbind listeners with manic surges of oratory on behalf of colonial rights; round-faced Sam Adams, shrewdest of political calculators and crowd manipulators; Sam’s country cousin from Braintree, John Adams, a serious young Harvard graduate, troubled about his prospects in life, and as stiff and uningratiating with other men as Sam was genial; Joseph Warren, a baby-faced young doctor who found that the practice of “physick” left him time for such good works as the rebuking of tyrants; John Hancock, who already had about him the air of good humor, vague highmindedness, self-importance, and unwillingness to give offense that would earmark the successful candidate for election to high office.
Revevere and these associates, on nights pungent with pipe smoke and the smell of hot punch, planned a variety of undertakings, from appropriate funerals for fellow members, to street lamps for the city, to nullifying royal influence in Boston. They all shared some assumptions so common among them as to need little formal articulation. One was confidence in their own capacity to be successful in whatever they undertook. Another was the conviction that “Americans” in the colonies had received from the king (to whom they swore true faith and allegiance) all the “rights of Englishmen,” which included absolutely the right to govern—and especially to tax—themselves by locally elected representatives to town meetings and provincial assemblies. From these certainties a cluster of other ideas grew like branches on a stout trunk: that the unpropertied and unproductive classes—mobs and aristocrats—were untrustworthy; that monopolies and special favors granted to royal favorites were destructive to initiative; that any interference by London with American economic growth (through such laws as those barring new westward expansion, or local manufacturing, or trade anywhere in the world) was unfair; that, all things taken together, British efforts to dip revenues out of colonial wealth were heavy blows at liberty.