Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer

To date, the book that has captivated me the most this year is Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. This meticulously research account of Revere’s ride is a must read for teacher who teaches the revolutionary period. Full of interesting antidotes, little known facts and compelling action, Fisher has put together a read that I am planning to excerpt for my students next fall. Paul Revere’s Ride will not only engage them with Fischer’s writing, but intrigue them to learn more about this remarkable hero of the early revolution.

One of my favorite poems is “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”. Published on a wide scale in 1861, this lengthy masterpiece of Longfellow’s is in my opinion, a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the poem that I love so much is full of historical flaws and inaccuracies. In fact, I am almost embarrassed to admit that I like it, as I think of myself as a fairly current student of History.

Fischer, among others, has taught me just how wrong Longfellow’s poem is and where the major inaccuracies about Revere’s ride come from. Generally, I believe that most of America has learned about Revere’s ride from Longfellow’s poem and not from scholarly products on the man and his adventures in 1775. The first principle myth that Fischer revels is that Revere rode alone. On the contrary, Revere was one of two major riders out of Boston that night. He and William Dawes road from the British infested town of Boston via two different routes to guard their message against capture. Secondly, Longfellow neglects to highlight in his poem that Revere and Dawes ignited an explosion of other alert riders that evening. These additional riders took messages about the British on the march north and south of Boston; as far as Connecticut and New Hampshire. Thirdly, Longfellow never mentions in his poem that Revere and many others had been ‘alert riding’ for quite some time by the 18th of April. They were experienced and they had made the surrounding towns well aware of their roles and their alert system. Additionally, Longfellow omits that General Gage and the British command was very much aware of all of the ‘alert riding’ going on prior to the 18th. In fact, patrols were deployed to thwart as many alerts as possible that night. It’s hard to conclude with the mentioning the fact that Longfellow depicts Revere completing his mission and terminating his “Midnight Ride” in Concord Towne. Fischer reminds us that Revere was actually captured by one of those British patrols with William Dawes. A young doctor by the name of Prescott completed the Revere/Dawes alert in Concord after meeting them by chance not far from Merriam’s Corner.

The ‘Paul Revere myths’ created by Longfellow were a great necessity to this country when the poem was written in 1861. At the time, the country was at the brink of Civil War and the war seemed inevitable at the time. This country needed a patriotic super hero, and Longfellow worked hard to produce it through his classic poem. The most ironic part of this part of history is that the country always had a super hero in Paul Revere. In 1861, Paul Revere was not as extensively researched as he is today. Longfellow could never be expected to know as much about Revere and everything that was connected with him as Fischer gives us in Paul Revere’s Ride. Longfellow’s understanding of the Ride created a true folk hero through a tremendously enjoyable poem. What Fischer reveals to us are a myriad of reasons why America always had a true hero in Paul Revere.


  1. Dan:
    I like your comparison of the poem and Fischer's book in this post. Some of my students are doing long term research projects on revolutionary figures, and of course Revere is on the list. I lent out my Fischer book to the student who chose him to use as a scholarly secondary source. She has said that it is one of her best sources, of course. She also asked me if she could use Longfellow's poem as a primary source. I pointed out to her that it was written almost 100 years later, so she could use it to discuss the misconceptions many Americans have about Revere, and then take it upon herself to tell the real story. Because of the curriculum maps in our district, she hasn't yet learned about the nation's fragile state in 1861, but I hope her research will help her gain the perspective you describe so well in your post.

  2. See the link below to access a letter (written circa 1798) from Paul Revere to Jeremy Belknap (first secretary of the MA Historical Society) that describes his ride and events on April 19th. Click for the link

    It would add an additional point of comparison with the Longfellow poem and could be an exercise for students in working with primary sources, conflicting accounts, and historiography. It's also great "history detective" work.