April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
The Man, the Myth, and the Midnight Ride
Even for those of us who have not heard or do not remember Longfellow’s poem, the name of Paul Revere awakens a familiar, tingling image. The dark shape, the passionate drumming of hoofs throwing up little geysers of dirt, the arm upflung, the voice riding down the moon-silvered air: “To Arms! The British are coming!” So he has ridden into history—coiled, committed, ready for great beginnings.
But now conjure up another scene. It is just past dawn on April 19, 1775. Behind the Lexington meetinghouse some fifty or sixty rural militiamen stand in an amateurish huddle, not sure of what they will do when rumor hardens into fact and British regulars come tramping up the road from Boston. As they wait, two men emerge from the Buckman Tavern, across that very road. They are carrying a large trunk. One of them is stout, middle-aged, and has the rumpled look of a man who has been working all night. The two pass through the crowd of militiamen without a word. When they are “half a gun shot distance” away, the advance guard of British regulars suddenly appears, and halts briefly. Then a shot rings out—and only then does the stout man turn his head. As he later reported: “I saw the smoake in the front of them [the British], they imeaditly gave a shout rann a few pace and then fired. I could distinguish first !regular firing and then platoons.” But he did not rush back to join the fighting, or help the wounded. Instead, he methodically continued hauling his load.
The stout man was Paul Revere. The trunk belonged to John Hancock, chairman of the Massachusetts provincial assembly, illegally convened in defiance of British orders. It held enough treasonable papers to hang a good handful of rebellious Bostonians, and Revere’s task in the gray morning light was to help get it to Hancock so that Hancock could take it with him in his flight from arrest. As Esther Forbes, Revere’s best modern biographer, has noted, the urgency of the assignment left the spent midnight rider no time for distraction. “He went on with Hancock’s trunk,” she says, “with that simple absorption in what was to be done at the moment which characterizes the whole man. Embattled farmers might stand and shots [be] fired that would be heard round the world. He gave them one glance and went on with his job.”
The gap between the explosive Revere of the equestrian statues, and the rotund man of forty trudging away from the gunfire at Lexington, appears to separate art from life, truth from fable, the heroic from the human. But appearances deceive, and there is more than one kind of hero. Paul Revere’s ride was a minor incident in the American Revolution, virtually unrecorded by his contemporaries. It became romantically inflated only when the fiftieth anniversary of independence inspired an outburst of patriotic legend making. Longfellow’s rhymed account appeared in 1863, in the full surge of Civil War celebration of Yankee virtues, and it freely sacrificed accuracy to inspiration.
Yet if Paul Revere had been home in bed on that celebrated night, he would still have an honored niche in United States history. As a silversmith, he was one of the finest practical artists that colonial society produced, and many of his surviving cream jugs and trays and coffeepots and bowls are deservedly museum pieces today. He also founded what is now the Revere Copper and Brass Corporation, and in consequence is legitimately enrolled among the prime architects of American industry. He notched these achievements in art and business without the benefit of any special advantages of birth, being an immigrant’s son who inherited only the most modest expectations. In one sense, the root purpose of the American Revolution was to make opportunities for people like him. Viewed in that light, his life as a whole is suffused with a meaning—perhaps even with a kind of heroism—that goes far beyond those few hours on the Cambridge-to-Concord road that Longfellow preserved in his jingling cadences.
Gallic blood flowed in Paul Revere’s veins. In 1685, France’s King Louis xiv rekindled the expiring fires of religious warfare by his revocation of the Edict of Nantes and fresh legal assaults on his Protestant subjects, who went by the name of Huguenots. In the ensuing years thousands of them were harried out of their homeland and fled to England, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the British provinces in North America. The last group included a thirteen-year-old boy named Apollos Rivoire, who was deposited on a wharf in Boston one wintry day late in 1715 or early in 1716.
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.
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.”
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.
Paul was not an orator or a writer, but he understood all these propositions and had a knack for putting them crisply in a small frame. Toward the end of the Revolution, he wrote a letter to a Rivoire cousin who had settled in Guernsey, an English-owned island. In the letter, he explained the war as if for the benefit of a beginner. Britain, he said:
With ideas such as that running through his mind, it was natural for Revere to be one of the strong figures in Boston’s resistance from the start—to be what was called a “high Son of Liberty.” Long before April 18,1775, he had compiled a record of hostility to “Brittain” that no London jury would have faited to find treasonable. The specifications of the indictment might have run as follows:
—in 1765, said Paul Revere engraved the plate for a cartoon on the Stamp Act, entitled “A View of the Year 1765,” and did later append a card to these representations describing the cartoon as “The odious Stamp Act represented by the Dragon, confronted by Boston with drawn sword.”
—in 1768, Revere made a punch bowl in honor of Massachusetts legislators who signed a “Circular Letter” urging the other colonies to join in a boycott of British goods until the Townshend taxes were repealed. And he did further engrave a plate for a cartoon condemning seventeen signers who rescinded their names under pressure. Called “A Warm Place Hell,” it shows them being prodded into the jaws of a fire-breathing beast.
—in 1770, Revere did engrave the well-known malicious and scandalous depiction of the so-called “Boston Massacre.”
—in 1771, on the anniversary of said “Massacre,” March 5, he placed illuminated transparencies in the windows of his house, one of them a figure of a woman “representing AMERICA sitting on a Stump of a Tree, with a Staffin her Hand & the Cap of Liberty on the Top thereof—one foot on the head of a Grenadier lying prostrate grasping a Serpent.”
—on December 16, 1773, Revere was almost surely one of a band of “Mohocks"—Bostonians gotten up as Indians—who marched, over one hundred strong, from the Green Dragon tavern down to Griffin’s wharf, seized the chests of taxed, imported tea in the holds of three ships lying there, and dumped them into the water. In proof whereof is the fact that a widely known “Rallying Song of the Tea Party” sung afterward included these lines:
—and on the day following the said “Boston Tea Party,” Revere rode to carry the news of it to New York and Philadelphia, and on at least three other occasions acted as a courier for those planning to disobey the lawful acts of their sovereign.
It is that last errand which brings into focus the most familiar image of Paul—the one that has obliterated so many others: Revere the messenger. How he came to be cast in that role shows something about his taste in recreation. By 1773, Paul Revere owned a mare, which he kept in a barn behind his house on land belonging to his back-yard neighbor, Manasseh Marston. This was in no way a business necessity. Boston was still a “walking city” (and therefore warmed by a familiarity among both enemies and friends that we shall not likely ever again know). Revere could do all the coming and going he needed to afoot. But he evidently enjoyed riding, and probably spent many holidays cantering into the countryside for bird shooting, fishing, and rural pleasures.
Being in possession of a horse, he was picked in the fall of 1773 to ride out to several neighboring towns with messages from the Boston Committee of Correspondence. And on the morning of December 17,1773, he was an eager recruit to spread the good word of the taxed, despised tea floating in Boston’s bay. We know, because one of the letters he carried declared: “The bearer is chosen by the committee from a number of gentlemen, who volunteered to carry you this intelligence.” A thirty-eight-year-old “gentleman,” with no sleep the previous night, who asked to be sent at once on a seven-hundred-mile round trip at the beginning of winter obviously had to be a man who enjoyed the saddle.
Revere made the round trip to Philadelphia in just eleven days, a remarkable performance considering that any kind of harsh weather not only soaked and chilled riders, but often washed out ferry services and mired horses in dun-colored slop. Only someone capable of getting the most out of himself and his mount could make such good time. Revere had the needed skill and stamina, plus the discretion to keep his business to himself at wayside inns, and the intelligence to amplify on hastily written messages. He was, as Dr. Thomas Young described him in a letter to New Yorker John Lamb in May of 1774, “Steady, vigorous, sensible and persevering.”
The news that Revere carried that month was bitter. Britain struck back at Boston savagely after the Tea Party. Her port was to be closed, and thus her economic life destroyed, until the tea was paid for. The Massachusetts legislature was suspended. Violators of the king’s peace could be carried to London for trial, far from the help of sympathetic local justice. And five thousand troops,'almost one for every three Bostonians, would be quartered on the inhabitants to guarantee compliance. The implementation of these “Intolerable Acts” began to set the stage for Revere, Longfellow, and other legend makers.
By the start of spring in 1775, the situation had become swollen and ugly. Occupied Boston was being kept alive by food shipments from the outside. The colonies were planning to send delegates to a second Continental Congress to continue the work of the first one, held the preceding year, in propagandizing, petitioning, and planning economic retaliation. Throughout Massachusetts and elsewhere, provincial militiamen were quietly laying aside whatever supplies of war they could gather, obviously getting ready to replace words with weapons if that time came.
General Thomas Gage, commander of the British forces (and now governor of Massachusetts) was an intelligent officer who underestimated neither realities nor his Yankee “subjects.” He knew that thousands of minutemen were around him, buzzing angrily whenever they got fresh news. He fortified the narrow neck of land linking Boston to the mainland to protect himself against their suddenly swarming down on the city. And he hoped to keep things further under control by quick raids to seize stock piles of munitions in provincial hands. The first week in April he sent out a private, John Howe, disguised as a local rustic looking for odd jobs, to walk to Worcester and back to spy out the land. Private Howe’s report was not cheering. The Tories were far outnumbered, he said. The locals were preparing for action. There were caches of supplies for the “rebels” at Worcester, forty-eight miles away, and at Concord, only sixteen miles out. And if Gage sent out an army, even of ten thousand, to get them, “not one … would get back alive.” Gage nonetheless planned some action—a quick sortie by some eight hundred men on the night of Tuesday, April 18, to seize or destroy the stores at Concord and get back to Boston before the next nightfall. It was to be a swift and top secret movement.
But there was no hope of concealment. It was impossible, in a small town, to disguise any break in the garrison’s routine, especially when sharp eyes watched every British move. Paul Revere was one of a thirty-member committee that was formed specially to observe the redcoats. They met at the Green Dragon, and swore on the Bible to keep their own doings dark (unaware that one member, Doctor Benjamin Church, was a turncoat and spy). By Saturday, when Gage began to get together the necessary small boats to carry his strike force across the Charles River, Revere and his friends knew generally what was afoot.
Here, legend and what might be called counterlegend must be precipitated out from fact. Longfellow has left generations with the impression that Revere alone aroused the countryside. On the other hand, demythologizers since his day have tried to downgrade the mission by “exposing” the fact that Revere did not get as far as Concord, but was captured by the British, while another rider went on with the news. The story as Revere told it, however, supports neither of these versions fully. Revere was actually sent only to Lexington, which he did reach before his interception. His basic mission that night was executed. But more surprising to most readers will be the fact than an early warning had been given two days before the famous ride, and by Revere himself.
Revere wrote the story three times. First there was a quick deposition of some fifteen hundred words, done in draft and then repolished. It was probably prepared soon after the event, at the request of Massachusetts authorities who were trying to pin the blame for the war’s opening blasts on the British. (It says something about Revere that, patriot though he was, he scrupulously stuck to what he had actually seen, and never claimed to know who fired the first shot at Lexington.) In 1798 he wrote an expanded and more sedate version for Jeremy Belknap, Corresponding Secretary of the young Massachusetts Historical Society. The later version differs only in small particulars from the first two. Revere’s memory held up well over nearly a quarter of a century, and piecing together elements of all three accounts—plus a few details from other memoirs—furnishes the truth.
On Saturday, the fifteenth, Joseph Warren, the leading Son of Liberty then left in Boston, conferred with Revere. Clearly, the British were planning a strike at the stores at Concord. But they might also choose to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, who were staying in Lexington at the parsonage of a Hancock cousin-in-law, the Reverend Jonas Clark, partly because Boston was too hot for them, and partly because they were soon to leave for Philadelphia. Someone should warn them.
On the next day, Revere did just that. It is not clear whether he rode by land over the Neck, concocting some story to tell the British sentries, or whether he went by water across the wide mouth of the Charles River emptying into the bay. What is certain is that he delivered his message, and that the Concord minutemen began to hide their cannon and powder. He then came back to Charlestown and spoke with Colonel Richard Conant ofthat town’s militia. He said that as soon as the Boston intelligence network knew exactly when, how, and in what strength the British were coming, they would hang the famous “Lanthorns” in the easily visible belfry of Christ Church (which only came to be called the North Church some years after the Revolution). One lantern if the British marched by land over the Neck; two if they came by boats across the Charles Riveras well. That way, even if Gage sealed the town tight, someone in Charlestown would see the sign and spread the word.
Despite Longfellow, the two lanterns were not signals to Paul Revere, waiting “booted and spurred” in Charlestown. They were from him, intended to do the job of alerting if he could not.
On Tuesday afternoon, the eighteenth, Gage sent a patrol of officers out to guard the roads and block messengers. But they were not to give away their purpose. He also had the man-of-war Somerset moved into the river’s mouth to guard against any water crossing. By eight that evening he had his picked companies falling in, with full field equipment, on the Common, which then ran to the water’s edge, and boats gathered at the foot of it to ferry them over. By ten o’clock, Doctor Warren’s spies had full details, and he sent for Revere “in great haste.” Warren told him that William Dawes already had been sent over the Neck toward Lexington, and that Revere should go as well, to tell Hancock and Adams that the hunt was on.
Revere immediately made contact with the sexton of Christ Church, aß-year-old Robert Newman, whose brother was the church organist. Newman slipped through the dark streets, noiselessly let himself into the church, and hung the two lanterns, for a brief time, in the steeple. Then, to avoid possible encounters with curious onlookers, he crawled out of a back window onto a roof, and thence got down to the ground and crept home.
Revere, meanwhile, went to his house, got his boots and cloak, and then went to find Thomas Richardson and Joshua Bentley, two friends who would serve as his oarsmen. Revere simply says that he had a boat in “the North part of the Town,” and that they made their way to it. But there are two charming traditional tales. One is that Revere suddenly realized he had forgotten to bring rags to muffle the oars. So either Richardson or Bentley led them to a house where one of them had a sweetheart, and stopped beneath the window. There was a signal, some muffled conversation, and then a flannel petticoat—“still warm,” the legend says enticingly—fluttered down. The other story, preserved by the grandchildren of one of Revere’s sons-in-law, is that Paul had forgotten his indispensable spurs, but luckily had been followed by his little dog. So he attached a note to the animal’s collar and sent him home, and in a short while, back he came with the spurs, tied around his neck by Rachel.
In any case, around ten-thirty the rowers got their boat, somehow unnoticed, past the menacing dark bulk of the Somerset , despite the fact that “It was then young flood, the Ship was winding, and the moon was Rising.” On the Charlestown side Revere met Conant, who told him that the signals had been received. He also spoke to Richard Devens, who had seen nine of Gage’s officers—later, Revere changed it to ten—riding up toward Concord, and warned him to watch out. Revere told them “what was Acting, and went to git me a Horse.” He got one from “Deacon Larkin"—John Larkin—and remembered in the 1790*8, with the true pleasure of a horseflesh enthusiast, that it was “very good.” Around eleven, with the night “very pleasant,” he began to ride the twelve miles to Lexington, which he would cover in an hour.
He started up the road that led directly to Lexington, but had not gone far before he saw two mounted men approaching him. In the moonlight he recognized the holsters and cockades of British officers. Swinging around, he galloped back to a fork in the road, shaking off his pursuers in the process. Then he took another branch leading across the Mystic River to Medford. He awakened the captain of the minutemen there, then went on to Menotomy (now Arlington), recrossed the Mystic, and continued to Lexington, giving the alarm at “almost every House.” When he arrived at the parsonage, it was to find an eight-man guard around it, arid a sleepy Jonas Clark, who stuck his head out of the window but did not recognize the silhouetted rider. Clark said that he had no wish to disturb Adams and Hancock, who had retired, and especially the two ladies who were with Hancock, his Aunt Lydia and his sweetheart (and later wife), Miss Dolly Quincy. He reproached Revere for making noise, at which point, according to an account of 1825, Revere shouted : “Noise ! You’ll have noise enough before long. The Regulars are out.” At that, Hancock, who was not asleep, recognized the voice outside and called, “Come in, Revere, we are not afraid of you .”
So in went Revere to say that nearly a thousand redcoats were on the way (and indeed, at that very moment they were reassembling from the boats in the Cambridge marshes). He was surprised to find that William Dawes was not there, and feared that he had been captured. But in half an hour, Dawes arrived. They both sat down to eat and drink something, and then it was decided that they should go on to see that word had gotten to Concord. As they rode off, they were overtaken by a Dr. Samuel Prescott, who had been out late, courting. It turned out that he was both a Son of Liberty and a resident of Concord, and he volunteered to join them in giving the alarm to the inhabitants on the way to the town.
And then the plans unravelled. While Dawes and Prescott were talking to someone at a house, Revere suddenly saw two officers ahead of him. Prescott rode up to join him. Dawes, who disappears from Revere’s account, may have bolted away then. It turned out that he was later thrown from his horse, so even Dawes did not finish the ride. The British shouted at Revere, “God damn you, stop. If you go an inch further, you are a dead man.” Suddenly there were four Britishers, surrounding the two with drawn guns and directing them into a roadside pasture. As they got in, Prescott hissed to Revere, “ Put on! ” They wheeled their horses in opposite directions and galloped hard. Prescott leaped a low stone wall—and did finally get to Concord with the word. But Revere, trying to reach a wood at the pasture’s edge, was not so lucky. From it burst six other officers, who drew pistols and told him to get down.
The commander of the party seemed “much of a Gentleman.” He said, “Sir, may I crave your name.” “Revere,” was the answer. “What!” he said. “Paul Revere?” Revere’s reputation was known to any intelligent Briton who had been billeted in Boston for some months.
A brief comedy ensued. The four British officers, sticking to their cover story, told Revere that they were merely looking for deserters. Revere allowed himself a bit of gloating. He said he knew better, but they would “miss their Aim.” He had aroused the towns, and soon five hundred Americans would be there. One of the British answered that his side had fifteen hundred on the way, and so, in mutual bluffing, the two parties stood there at the beginning of a war. But Revere’s news had upset the British. The gentlemanly officer rode up to the group on the road, and a moment later down came Major Edward Mitchell of the 5th Regiment, at a full gallop and in a rage. He clapped his pistol to the courier’s head and said he wanted truthful answers, or Revere’s brains would be scattered in the dirt. Nothing daunted, the silversmith answered that he “esteemed” himself “a Man of truth,” and was not afraid. For good measure, he demanded to know by what right a peaceable citizen was detained on the highway.
Mitchell pressed a few questions, then had Revere searched for arms and ordered him to mount. As he did so, he took his bridle; but Mitchell jerked it from him. “By God Sir, you are not to ride with reins. ” So, despite a promise not to make any further runs for it, Revere was led, first by an officer and then by a “Serjant” with orders to shoot at the first false move. Mitchell then surprised Revere by ordering four mounted men out of concealment in the bushes. They were locals whom the patrol had earlier stopped. The whole group now rode at a “prittie smart” pace (one hears Revere’s Yankee twang in the words) toward Lexington. Several officers vented their anger and frustration on Revere, calling him “damned Rebel, &c., &c.” One said to him, “You are in a damned critical situation.”
But it was the British whose problems were critical. Within a half mile of Lexington, with dawn smells invading the chill air and the moon waning, they heard the sound of shots. The major asked Revere what it meant, and Revere told him with immense satisfaction that it was a signal volley “to alarm the Country.” Mitchell was furious, but helpless. He now had no time to lose in rejoining his main force, or he would himself be the surrounded quarry. Prisoners would only slow him down, so he ordered the saddles and bridles cut from the local men’s horses and drove them off before releasing the captives. Revere’s “very good” mount had caught Mitchell’s eye, however. He looked at the small and tired horse of the sergeant leading Revere, and spoke a quick command. Revere got down and the sergeant replaced him on Deacon Larkin’s beast, who thereupon disappeared, an equine draftee into His Majesty’s forces. The sergeant’s horse was stripped of its gear and sent with a slap into the night, and then the British rode off, leaving Revere to trudge back in darkness to the parsonage, probably arriving around three or four in the morning.
There he found arguments in full cry. Hancock was polishing up his sword and cleaning his pistol, ready to fight alongside the minutemen. Sam Adams was trying to persuade him to spare himself for more important responsibilities. Dolly wanted to return at once to Boston, and they were working to convince her that it would be safer to wait. Finally caution carried the day. Dolly and Aunt Lydia stayed put, and Hancock and Adams started out in a chaise for Woburn. Revere accompanied them for a couple of miles, then returned with John Lowell, Hancock’s clerk, to see how close the British were, and to “git” the trunkful of papers. While carrying it through the militia ranks he did hear commander Parker say words to the effect of: “Lett the Troops pass by and do not molest them without they bigin first.” Then there was the shot, the ensuing roar of volleys, and Revere and Lowell “made off with the Trunk.”
The famous ride was over. But Revere’s life was not. He still had more than half of it to live—forty-three years and three weeks exactly, and he would make every moment of them count for something useful.
In the immediate aftermath of Lexington, Paul dared not return to Boston. He was suddenly one of the sad creations of civil conflict, a refugee. For a few weeks there was an informal exchange of populations: countryside Tories fleeing into Boston to seek the protection of the king’s army, and Boston “Patriot” families escaping from the town. Gage, hard pressed to feed the population, willingly let them go provided they took no firearms or merchandise with them. Sometimes his under-officers added conditions of their own. Rachel Revere came out with all the children (except fifteen-year-old Paul, left to keep an eye on things) early in May. But first she had to “give” some veal and beef, two bottles of beer, and one of wine to the sergeant who made out the official passes. With her came furniture and clothes which Revere badly needed, especially “linen and stockings.” Still a conscientious head-of-household, Revere arranged to have a Tory, Isaac Clemmens, run the shop “if he is a mind … to do so” (he was), and promised to send his mother and sisters, if they stayed in the occupied zone, “all the cash and other things in my power. ”
To keep that promise took much effort. Revere made do by charging Massachusetts five shillings a day for his services as an express rider, plus expenses, which included a shilling a day for the board of a horse. He also engraved and printed the new paper money which the state issued. For a year he lived in Watertown, a few miles up the Charles. It was a small capital-in-exile whose one hundred houses had trouble sheltering crowds of Bostonians. But in the spring of 1776 the British evacuated Boston (taking with them over a thousand Tories—Americans expelled from their homeland, as they saw it, for choosing the side of law and order). And Revere and others came back to reweave their old lives. One of the first, sad things that Revere did was to identify the body of Joseph Warren, dug up from Bunker Hill, where he had fallen during the battle of the previous June, by recognizing the two false teeth he had wired into the doctor’s mouth.
Then Revere entered the army. He did not get a commission in Washington’s forces, as he apparently desired, but in the home guards that remained to protect Massachusetts after younger men had gone southward. “I did expect,” he wrote to John Lamb, an old friend in April, 1777, “before this to have been in the Continental Army, but do assure you, I have never been taken notice of, by those whom I thought my friends, [and] am obliged to be contented in this States service.” Then he added an astringent note. “I find but few of the Sons of Liberty in the army.”
The “States service,” in which he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, was mostly garrison duty in charge of the artillery on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. One of the main command problems was to keep his men equipped by their parsimonious government. “Most of their blankets are woren out,” runs one of the colonel’s official reports: “They have received no pay … many have no shoes, and but one shirt.” He did go out on one fruitless expedition to drive the British from Newport, Rhode Island, in 1778, and wrote to Rachel : “It is very irksome to be separated from her whom I so tenderly love, and from my little Lambs” (of whom there were eight bleating for support), “but were I at home I should want to be here. It seems as if half Boston was here.”
The following summer brought another adventure, this time with a result that has occasionally fed the fires of debunking—namely, Revere’s court-martial for alleged disobedience and cowardice. But the facts are far from discreditable to him. In July of 1779 a Massachusetts force was sent to dislodge a British garrison at Castine, Maine (then a part of Massachusetts), near the mouth of the Penobscot. It included nineteen armed vessels and twenty transports, many captained by undisciplined privateersmen. There were about eighteen hundred militiamen from the bottom of the manpower barrel, and an “artillery train” of only seven guns, under Colonel Revere. The expedition seems to have been commanded by a committee of land and sea officers, and the ensuing catastrophe was predictable.
On the fourteenth of August, a British squadron of four warships arrived. The American fleet promptly scattered upriver, the captains beaching their craft and blowing up their stores. The troops, panicked at the loss of their transports, scrambled mutinously for safety. Revere was separated from his men in the confusion. He looked for them from a small boat on the river, and went aboard a surviving transport to stay overnight. Next day he cruised in search again, then camped ashore the second night. Finally, three days after the “battle,” he caught up with them in the vicinity of present-day Augusta. Characteristically, he supplied them with “what Money I could spare” and ordered them to march overland to Boston.
A tempest of faultfinding broke over the heads of all involved. Massachusetts army and navy officers fired accusations at one another with more zeal than they had displayed against the British. Revere was relieved of command at Castle Island on September 6 and sent home, accused of cowardice and insubordination. He himself sought the court-martial to clear his name. His defense was sturdy. Cowardice? “I never was in any Sharp Action, nor was any of the Artillery; but in what little I was, no one has dared say I flinched. … My particular business was to be where my cannon were.”
And disobedience? His orders had been effective “during the continuance of the Expedition.” “Surely no man will say that the Expedition was not discontinued, when all the shipping was either taken, or Burnt, the Artillery and Ordinance Stores, all destroyed. I then looked upon it that I was to do what I thought right.”
It was not until 1782 that the court finally convened. It acquitted Revere of the only two formal charges. One was that he had wrongfully refused to yield up a boat demanded by a general. Ironically, the officer in question was General Jeremiah Wadsworth, the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The other charge was disregard of orders on the retreat. Not only was Revere innocent of both, said the court, but with unconscious humor it awarded him “equal honor as the other officers in the same Expedition.” Little enough, but gratifying to a man always insistent on doing what he “thought right.”
Revere’s army career, all in all, had been utilitarian rather than romantic, like his French and Indian War service. As it happened, its most significant moments for his future had been in the spring of 1777, when he was briefly sent to the State Furnace at Titicut to learn something about the casting of cannon. His teacher was Colonel Lewis Ansart, born Louis de Maresquelle, a French foundryman who had come to Boston in 1776, aged thirty-four, as one of those foreign volunteers for liberty whose skills were indispensable to the provincial Americans.
In 1782, with the Revolution over and Revere approaching what was then considered old age (he would be fortyeight in December), he had to establish himself in a new line of work. He went on making silver, in new fashions. But Boston, badly hurt by a postwar depression in trade, could not offer a maker of luxuries enough work to sustain an enlarging clan of grandchildren and in-laws, all of whom Revere felt obligated to encourage and assist. For a while, he thought of turning merchant. He put a son in charge of the goldsmith’s shop, and opened a store handling fabrics, writing paper, sealing wax, playing cards, wallpaper, pencils, spectacles, pumice stones, fish lines, a little hardware. Around this time he wrote to his cousin Matthias Rivoire that he was trading “some to Holland,” and added, “I did intend to have gone wholly in to trade.” But he lacked enough capital. Still, he bragged a bit that he was “in middling circumstances and very well off for a tradesman,” having a wife and eight children alive, the eldest daughter married and the eldest son trained to Revere’s own profession.
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.
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.