Modern history


image Paul Revere Remounted

Paul Revere? Ain’t he the Yankee who had to go for help?”

—old Texas joke

OUR BRITISH FRIENDS had never heard of him. “Paul Revere?” one asked incredulously, as we led him captive along Boston’s Freedom Trail, “a midnight ride?… captured by us?”

Our visitor was a man of learning. We were as surprised by his ignorance, as he was by the story itself. In our mutual astonishment we discovered the enduring strength of national cultures in the modern world.

Nearly everyone who has been raised in the United States knows of Paul Revere. The saga of the midnight ride is one of many shared memories that make Americans one people, diverse as we may be. Even in these days of national amnesia the story of Paul Revere’s ride is firmly embedded in American folklore. His name is so familiar that it has become a general noun in American speech. During the Presidential election of 1992, a Republican journalist ambiguously described a defeated Democratic candidate as “an economic Paul Revere.” Whether that phrase was intended to mean a heroic messenger of alarm, or a messenger who failed to reach his destination, was not immediately clear. 1

Ambiguity is an important part of the legend of Paul Revere, and a key to its continuing vitality. The story has been told so many different ways that when Americans repeat it to their children, they are not certain which parts of the tale are true, or if any part of it actually happened. They are also divided in how they feel about it. A curious paradox of American culture is the persistence of two parties who might be called the Filiopietists and Iconoclasts. Both have been strongly attracted to the legend of Paul Revere, for opposite reasons. Filiopietists love to celebrate the midnight ride. Iconoclasts delight in debunking it.

Together, these two parties have produced a large literature on an inexhaustible subject—poetry in abundance, fiction, oratory, essays, humor, criticism, and popular biography. One of the earliest films on American history was Thomas Edison’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” in 1914. American composers have given us several musical versions of the event—a march, a suite, and even an operetta. American artists have created many imaginative paintings and prints. American scientists have contributed monographs on the meteorology, astronomy, and geology of Paul Revere’s ride. The most imaginative works are the many children’s books the story has inspired. The most bizarre are the fables concocted by cynical Boston journalists every April 18, in their annual search for a new angle on an old story.

But one genre is strangely missing from this list. Professional historians have shown so little interest in the subject that in two centuries no scholar has published a full-scale history of Paul Revere’s ride. During the 1970s, the event disappeared so completely from academic scholarship that several leading college textbooks in American history made no reference to it at all. One of them could barely bring itself to mention the battles of Lexington and Concord. 2

The cause of this neglect is complex. One factor is a mutual antipathy that has long existed between professional history and popular memory. Another of more recent vintage is a broad prejudice in American universities against patriotic events of every kind, especially since the troubled years of Vietnam and Watergate. A third and fourth are the popular movements called multicultural-ism and political correctness. As this volume goes to press, the only creature less fashionable in academe than the stereotypical “dead white male,” is a dead white male on horseback.

Perhaps the most powerful factor, among professional historians at least, is an abiding hostility against what is contemptuously called histoire événimentielle in general. As long ago as 1925, the antiquarian scholar Allen French fairly complained that “modern history burrows so deeply into causes that it scarcely has room for events.” 3 His judgment applies even more forcefully today. Path-breaking scholarship in the 20th century has dealt mainly with social structures, intellectual systems, and material processes. Much has been gained by this enlargement of the historian’s task, but something important has been lost. An entire generation of academic historiography has tended to lose sense of the causal power of particular actions and contingent events.

An important key here is the idea of contingency—not in the sense of chance, but rather of “something that may or may not happen,” as one dictionary defines it. An organizing assumption of this work is that contingency is central to any historical process, and vital to the success of our narrative strategies about the past.

This is not to raise again ill-framed counterfactual questions about what might have happened in the past. It is rather to study historical events as a series of real choices that living people actually made. Only by reconstructing that sort of contingency (in this very particular sense) can we hope to know “what it was like” to have been there; and only through that understanding can we create a narrative tension in the stories we tell about the past. 4

To that end, this inquiry studies the coming of the American Revolution as a series of contingent happenings, shaped by the choices of individual actors within the context of large cultural processes. It centers on two actors in particular. One of them is Paul Revere. Historians have not placed him in the forefront of America’s revolutionary movement. He held no high offices, wrote none of the great papers, joined few of the large deliberative assemblies, commanded no army, and did not advertise his acts. But in another way he was a figure of very high importance. The historical Paul Revere was much more than merely a midnight messenger. He was also an organizer of collective effort in the American Revolution. During the pivotal period from the Fall of 1774 to the Spring of 1775, he had an uncanny genius for being at the center of events. His actions made a difference, most of all in mobilizing the acts of many others. The old Texas canard that remembers Paul Revere as the “Yankee who had to go for help,” when shorn of its pejoratives, is closer to the mark than the mythical image of the solitary rider. His genius was to promote collective action in the cause of freedom—a paradox that lies closer to the heart of the American experience than the legendary historical loners we love to celebrate. 5

The other leading actor in this story is General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British forces in America and the last Royal Governor of Massachusetts. General Gage has rarely been remembered with sympathy or respect on either side of the water. He was not a great commander, to say the least. But he was a man of high principle and integrity who personified the British cause in both its strength and weakness. In the disasters that befell him, Thomas Gage was truly a tragic figure, a good and decent man who was undone by his virtues. During the critical years of 1774 and 1775, he also played a larger role than has been recognized by scholars of the American Revolution. It was his advice that shaped the fatal choices of leading British ministers, and his actions that guided the course of American events. Without Thomas Gage there might well have been no Coercive Acts, no midnight ride, and no fighting at Lexington and Concord.

One purpose of this book is to study that series of events as a sequence of choices by Paul Revere, General Gage and many other leaders. Another purpose is to look again at the cultures within which those choices were made. In that respect, Paul Revere’s ride offers a special opportunity. It was part of a larger event, vividly remembered by people who were alive in 1775 as the Lexington Alarm.

Most readers of this book have lived through similar happenings in the 20th century. We tend to remember them with rare clarity. To take the most familiar example, many of us can recollect precisely what we were doing on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, when we learned that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Many other events in American history have had that strange mnemonic power. This historian is just old enough to share the same sort of memory about an earlier afternoon, on December 7, 1941. More than fifty years afterward, I can still see the dappled sunlight of that warm December afternoon, and still feel the emotions, and hear the words, and recall even trivial details of the place where my family first heard the news of the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor.

It was much the same for Americans who heard the Lexington Alarm in 1775. They also would long remember how that news reached them, and what was happening around them. Many of their recollections were set down on paper immediately after the event. Others were recorded later, or passed down more doubtfully as grandfathers’ tales. These accounts survive in larger numbers than for any other event in early American history. Taken together, they are a window into the world of Paul Revere and Thomas Gage.

When we look through that window, we may see many things. In particular we can observe the cultures that produced these men, and the values that framed their attitudes and acts. From a distance, the principles of Paul Revere and Thomas Gage appear similar to one another, and not very different from those we hold today. Some of the important words they used were superficially the same—words such as “liberty,” “law,” “justice,” and what even General Gage himself celebrated as “the common rights of mankind,”

But when we penetrate the meaning of those words, we discover that the values of Paul Revere and Thomas Gage were in fact very far apart, and profoundly different from our own beliefs. Paul Revere’s idea of liberty was not the same as our modern conception of individual autonomy and personal entitlement. It was not a form of “classical Republicanism,” or “English Opposition Ideology,” or “Lockean Liberalism,” or any of the learned anachronisms that scholars have invented to explain a way of thought that is alien to their own world.

Paul Revere’s ideas of liberty were not primarily learned from books, or framed in terms of what he was against. He believed deeply in New England’s inherited tradition of ordered freedom, which gave heavy weight to collective rights and individual responsibilities—more so than is given by our modern calculus of individual rights and collective responsibilities. 6

In 1775, Paul Revere’s New England notions of ordered freedom were challenged by another libertarian tradition that had recently developed in the English-speaking world—one that was personified in General Thomas Gage. Its conception of liberty was more elitist and hierarchical than those of Paul Revere, but also more open and tolerant, and no less deeply believed. The American Revolution arose from a collision of libertarian systems. The conflict between them led to a new birth of freedom that would be more open and expansive than either had been, or wished it to be. To explore the cultural dimensions of that struggle is another purpose of this book.

We shall begin by meeting our two protagonists, Paul Revere and Thomas Gage. Then we shall follow them through eight months from September 1, 1774, to April 19, 1775—the period of the powder alarms, the Concord mission, the midnight ride, the march of the Regulars, the muster of the Massachusetts farmers, the climactic battles of Lexington and Concord, and the bloody aftermath.

To reconstruct that sequence of happenings, the best and only instrument is narrative. Whatever one might think of Paul Revere’s ride as myth and symbol, most people will agree it is a wonderful story. Edmund Morgan observes that the midnight ride is one of the rare historical events that respect the Aristotelian unities of time and place and action. For dramatic intensity few fictional contrivances can hope to match it.

This book seeks to tell that story. Its purpose is to return to the primary sources, to study what actually happened, to put Paul Revere on his horse again, to take the midnight ride seriously as an historical event, to suspend fashionable attitudes of disbelief toward an authentic American hero, and to move beyond the prevailing posture of contempt for a major British leader. Most of all, it is to study both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect.

To do those things is to discover that we have much to learn from these half-remembered men—a set of truths that our generation has lost or forgotten. In their different ways, they knew that to be free is to choose. The history of a free people is a history of hard choices. In that respect, when Paul Revere alarmed the Massachusetts countryside, he was carrying a message for us.

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