Paul Revere’s Ride
A portrait by John Singleton Copley, circa 1770 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The Patriot Rider’s Road to Revolution
Town born! Turn out!
—Boston street cry, 1770
IN OUR MIND’S EYE we tend to see Paul Revere at a distance, mounted on horseback, galloping through the dark of night. Often we see him in silhouette. His head is turned away from us, and his features are hidden beneath a large cocked hat. Sometimes even his body is lost in the billowing folds of an old fashioned riding coat. The image is familiar, but strangely indistinct.
Those who actually knew Paul Revere remembered him in a very different way, as a distinctive individual of strong character and vibrant personality. We might meet the man of their acquaintance in a portrait by his fellow townsman John Singleton Copley. The canvas introduces us to Paul Revere at about the age of thirty-five, circa 1770. The painter has caught him in an unbuttoned moment, sitting in his shirtsleeves, concentrating on his work. Scattered before him are the specialized tools of an 18th-century silversmith: two etching burins, a steel engraving needle, and a hammering pillow beneath his arm. With one hand he holds an unfinished silver teapot of elegant proportions. With the other he rubs his chin as he contemplates the completion of his work.
The portrait is the image of an artisan, but no ordinary artisan. His shirt is plain and simple, but it is handsomely cut from fine linen. His open vest is relaxed and practical, but it is tailored in bottle-green velvet and its buttons are solid gold. His work table is functional and unadorned, but its top is walnut or perhaps mahogany, and it is polished to a mirror finish. He is a mechanic in the 18th-century sense of a man who makes things with his hands, but no ordinary things. From raw lumps of metal he creates immortal works of art.
The man himself is of middling height, neither tall nor short. He is strong and stocky, with broad shoulders, a thick neck, muscular arms and powerful wrists. In his middle thirties, he is beginning to put on weight. The face is round and fleshy, but there is a sense of seriousness in his high forehead and strength in his prominent chin. His dark hair is neatly dressed in the austere, old-fashioned style that gave his English Puritan ancestors the name of Roundheads, but his features have a sensual air that calls to mind his French forebears. The eyes are deep chestnut brown, and their high-arched brows give the face a permanently quizzical expression. The gaze is clear and very direct. It is the searching look of an intelligent observer who sees much and misses little; the steady look of an independent man.
On its surface the painting creates an image of simplicity. But as we begin to study it, the surfaces turn into mirrors and what seems at first sight to be a simple likeness becomes a reflective composition of surprising complexity. The polished table picks up the image of the workman. The gleaming teapot mirrors the gifted fingers that made it. We look more closely, and discover that the silver bowl reflects a bright rectangular window that opens outward on the town of Boston. The artisan looks distantly toward that window and his community in a “reflective” mood, even as he himself is reflected in his work. As we stand before the painting, its glossy surface begins to reflect us as well. It throws back at us the lights and shadows of our own world.
To learn more about Paul Revere is to discover that the artist has brilliantly captured his subject in that complex web of reflections. This 18th-century Boston silversmith was very much a product of his time and place. For all of his Huguenot origins, Paul Revere was a New England Yankee to the very bottom of his Boston riding boots. If we can see him in Copley’s painting, we can also hear him speak in the eccentric way he spelled his words. His spelling tells us that Paul Revere talked with a harsh, nasal New England twang. His strong Yankee accent derived from a family of East Anglian dialects that came to Boston in the 17th century, and can still be faintly heard today.
When Paul Revere’s friends wrote in defense of their cherished charter rights, they spelled “charter” as chattaer, with two t’sand one r, and probably pronounced it with no r at all. All his life Paul Revere spelled “get” as git. His mother’s maiden name of Hitchborn was written Hitchbon in the town of Boston, which was pronounced Bast’n. His friends wrote mash for “marsh” and want for “weren’t,” hull for “whole” and foller for “follow,” sarve for “serve” and acummin for “coming.” They favored biblical cadences such as “we there abode” and homely expressions such as “something wet and misty.” This was the folk-speech of an Anglo-American culture that was already six generations old by 1775, and deeply rooted in Paul Revere’s New England. 1
But in another way, the provincial ring of Paul Revere’s Yankee speech could mislead us. Just as in the surfaces and subtle depths of Copley’s painting, there was more to this man than met the ear. His simple New England twang belied a remarkable complexity of character and culture—the complexity of the nation that he helped to create. Paul Revere was half French and half English, and always entirely American. He was second-generation American on one side, and old-stock American on the other, and cherished both beginnings. He was the product of a Puritan City on a Hill and a lusty, brawling Atlantic seaport, both in the same American town. He thought of himself as an artisan and a gentleman without the slightest sense of contradiction—a new American attitude toward class. He was a man on the make, consumed with personal ambition; and yet he was devoted to his community. He believed passionately in the rule of law, but he assaulted his own kinsman, and did not hesitate to take the law into his own hands. He helped to start a revolution, but his purpose was to resist change and to preserve the values of the past. He was Tocque-ville’s American archetype, the “venturous conservative,” consumed with restless energy and much attracted to risk, but never questioning the great ideas in which he always believed. His ideas were a classic example of what Gunnar Myrdal has called the American creed: “conservative in fundamental principles … but the principles conserved are liberal, and some, indeed, are radical.”
His temperament was as American as his ideas. Like many of his countrymen he was a moralist and also something of a hedonist—a man who sought the path of virtue but enjoyed the pleasures of the world. He suffered deeply from the slings of fortune, and yet he remained an incurable American optimist, even an optimistic fatalist. His complex identities were a source of happiness and fulfillment to him—not of frustration or despair. Paul Revere was many things and one thing, quintessentialy American.
The story of this American life begins 3000 miles away, on the small island of Guernsey in the English Channel. The year was 1715. Peace had recently returned to Europe after a long war, and the sea lanes were open again. On the isle of Guernsey, a small French lad named Apollos Rivoire, twelve years old, was taken by his uncle to the harbor of St. Peter Port. He was put aboard a ship, and sent alone to make his fortune in America.
Like so many immigrants who came before and after him, this child was a religious refugee. He was from a family of French Huguenots, and had been born in the parish of Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, thirty-eight miles east of Bordeaux in the valley of the Gironde. That region had been a hotbed of French Calvinism until the cruel Catholic persecutions of Louis XIV. Some of the Cal-vinist Rivoire family were forcibly converted to the Roman Church. Others fled abroad—among them young Apollos Rivoire, who was sent to his uncle Simon Rivoire in Guernsey, and later bound as an apprentice to an elderly silversmith in Calvinist New England, where many Huguenots were finding sanctuary. 2
Apollos Rivoire sailed to Boston on November 15, 1715, six days before his thirteenth birthday. He entered the shop of a gifted Yankee artisan, and showed a rare talent in his craft. As more of his work has come to light, experts have studied it with growing respect. A small token of his skill is a set of tiny sleeve buttons that survives today in an American museum. Their delicate tactile beauty has a grace and refinement and sensuality that set them apart from the often austere art of Puritan New England. They are among the finest gold work that was done in British America. 3
In 1722, his master died. Apollos Rivoire bought his freedom from the estate for forty pounds, and set himself up as a goldsmith in Boston. It was not easy to get started. At least three times he was in court for debts he could not pay. 4 Another problem was his name, which did not roll easily off Yankee tongues. After it was mangled into Reviere, Reveire, Reverie, and even Rwoire, the young immigrant changed it to Revere, “merely on account that the bumpkins pronounce it easier,” his son later explained. Paul Revere was a self-made name for a self-made man, in the bright new world of British America. 5
Like many another French Huguenot, this young immigrant moved freely among New England Puritans who shared his Cal-vinist faith. But the two cultures were not the same, as Apollos Rivoire discovered when the first Christmas came. French Huguenots celebrated the joy of Christ’s birth with a sensuous feast that shocked the conscience of New England. Puritans sternly forbade Christmas revels, which they regarded as pagan indulgence, and proscribed even the word Christmas because they believed that every day belonged to Christ. In 1699, Boston magistrate Samuel Sewall reprimanded a townsman for “partaking with the French Church on the 25 [of] December on account of its being Christmas-day, as they abusively call it.” 6
These artifacts testify to the extraordinary skill and creativity of Apollos Rivoire, the father and teacher of Paul Revere. The small sleeve buttons (made circa 1730) are among the finest surviving gold work ever done in British America. Their delicate floral pattern and swirling leaf border are common design motifs of the period, but their deceptively simple shape and proportions are very distinctive, and exceptionally difficult to manufacture. The various elements are brought together in a design that combines vitality and symmetry with high success. In the same manner, the silver tankard above (made by Apollos Rivoire circa 1750) develops the conventional designs of English craftsmanship with a distinctive flair that was unique to its gifted maker. The result is an extraordinary synthesis of refinement and strength. (Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery and the Henry Francis Dupont Winterthur Museum).
Despite these differences, or perhaps because of them, Huguenots and Puritans intermarried at a rapid rate. Of all French weddings in Boston before 1750, no fewer than 88 percent were to an English spouse. One of these mixed marriages was that of Apollos Rivoire. In 1729 he married a Yankee girl named Deborah Hitchborn and became part of her large family, which supplied the other side of Paul Revere’s inheritance. 7
The history of the Boston Hitchborns is a classic American saga. The founder was Deborah’s great-grandfather, David Hitch-born, who came to New England from old Boston in Lincolnshire during the Puritan Great Migration. He appears to have been a servant of humble rank and restless disposition. For some unknown offence, a stern Puritan magistrate sentenced him to wear an iron collar “till the court please, and serve his master.” 8
The second generation of Hitchborns left servitude behind and became their own masters—still very poor, but proud and independent. The third generation were people of modest property and standing; among them was Thomas Hitchborn, proprietor of Hitchborn wharf and owner of a lucrative liquor license that allowed him to sell Yankee rum to seamen and artisans on the waterfront. The fourth generation were solid and respectable Boston burghers; they included Thomas Hitchborn’s daughter Deborah (1704-77), a godfearing Yankee girl who married the gifted Huguenot goldsmith Apollos Rivoire, owned the Puritan Covenant in Boston’s New Brick Church, and raised her children in the old New England way. The fifth generation began with her eldest surviving son, the patriot Paul Revere, who was baptized in Boston on December 22, 1734. 9
Paul Revere grew up among the Hitchborn family—he had no other in America. His playmates were his nine Hitchborn cousins. When the time came to baptize his own children, all were given Hitchborn family names except the patronymic Paul. He never learned to speak his father’s language. In 1786 he wrote, “I can neither read nor write French, so as to take the proper meaning,” But he cherished the emblems of his French heritage—a silver seal from the old country, a few precious papers, and the stories that his father told him. In a mysterious way, something of the spirit of France entered deep into his soul—a delight in pleasures of the senses, an ebullient passion for life, an elan in the way he lived it, and an indefinable air that set him apart from his Yankee neighbors. 10
Boston in 1775
A view of the North End from Beacon Hill. The large warship in the harbor is HMS Somerret, and the highest steeple is the Old North Church. Ink and watercolor dran ing. (Librar) of Congress)
At the same time, he became a Yankee too. His mind and character were shaped by the established institutions of New England—family, school, church, and the town itself. Probably he learned his letters in a kitchen school where ancient Puritan dames kept order with their pudding sticks, and little Yankee children learned to recite the alphabet as if it were a prayer. At about the age of seven, he was sent to Boston’s North Writing School, famous for its stern Calvinist pedagogues who specialized in purging the old Adam from obstreperous youth. Their methods were harsh, but highly effective. Paul Revere gained a discipline of thought without losing his curiosity about the world. His teachers made him a lifelong learner; all his life it was said that he “loved his books.” 11
In a larger sense, the town of Boston became his school, and the waterfront served as his playground. An engraving he later made of Boston’s North Battery shows three boys splashing in the harbor near his childhood home. One of them might have been young Paul Revere. 12 The Boston of his youth was very different from the city that stands on the same spot today—closer in some ways to a medieval village than to the modern metropolis of steel and glass. In 1735, Boston was a tight little town of 15,000 inhabitants, crowded onto a narrow hill-covered peninsula that sometimes became an island at high tide. From a distance the skyline of the town was dominated by its steeples. Boston had fourteen churches in 1735, all but three of them Calvinist. Despite complaints of spiritual declension by the town’s Congregational ministers, the founding vision of St. Matthew’s “City on a Hill” was still strong a century after its founding. Such was the rigor and austerity of this Puritan community that Samuel Adams called it a “Christian Sparta.” 13
The town was not welcoming to strangers. From the mainland it could be entered only through a narrow gate across the slender isthmus called Boston Neck, or by ferry from Charlestown. On Boston Neck the first structure that greeted a traveler was a large and well-used gallows. In Charlestown, the road to the ferry led past a rusted iron cage that held the rotting bones of Mark, an African slave who had poisoned his master. The slave’s accomplice had been burned at the stake.
But there was also another side of Boston. This City on a Hill was a busy seaport. No part of the town was more than a few blocks from salt water. The housefronts echoed to the cry of oystermen with bags of bivalves on their shoulders, shouting “Oise, buy-ni-oise: here’s oise!” Lobstermen pushed their barrows, “always painted red within and blue without,” calling “Lob, buy Lob!” as they went along the streets. 14 On the waterfront the boys of Boston darted to and fro beneath bowsprits and mooring lines, while fishermen unloaded their catch and artisans toiled at their maritime trades. Seamen in short jackets strolled from one tavern to the next, and prostitutes beckoned from alleys and doorways. “No town of its size could turn out more whores than this town could,” one 18th-century visitor marveled. All this was part of the education of Paul Revere. 15
Inside Boston’s North End where Paul Revere lived most of his life, visitors found themselves in a maze of crooked streets and close-built brick and wooden houses, with weather-blackened clapboards and heavy forbidding doors. The inhabitants were closely related by blood and marriage, intensely suspicious of strangers, and firmly set in their ancestral ways. In time of danger, an ancient cry would ring through the streets: “Town born! Turn out!” 16
Even as a child, Paul Revere entered into Boston habits. Near his house was a handsome brick church, variously called Christ Church, North Church, or the Eight Bell Church, after its carillon of English bells. One bell was inscribed “We are the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America AR Ano 1744.” 17 The great bells fascinated the boys of the North End. In their early teens, Paul Revere and his friends founded a bell ringers’ association. They sent a petition to the Rector, proposing that “if we can have liberty from the wardens of Dr. Cuttler’s church, we will attend there once a week on evenings to ring the bells for two hours,”
That document tells us many things about Paul Revere and his road to revolution. These boys of Boston drew up a solemn covenant, and instituted a government among themselves very much like Boston’s town meeting. They agreed that “we will choose a moderator every three months whose business shall be to give out the changes and other business as shall be agreed by a majority of votes then present … all differences to be decided by a majority of voices,” Membership was restricted as narrowly as in a New England church or town. The boys decided that “none shall be admitted a Member of this society without a unanimous vote,” They also covenanted not to demean themselves by Roman Catholic corruptions, and promised to work for their rewards: “No member,” they voted, “shall begg money of any person.” 18
This simple document, drawn up by Boston boys barely in their teens, summarizes many of the founding principles of New England: the sacred covenant and the rule of law, self-government and majority vote, fundamental rights and free association, private responsibility and public duty, the gospel of service and the ethic of work, and a powerful idea of community.
Another of those principles was the doctrine of the calling. Paul Revere was taught that every Christian had two callings—a special calling to work in one’s vocation, and a general calling to do Christ’s work in the world. The great Boston divine Cotton Mather explained this idea in a homely metaphor that would have been instantly clear to any boy who lived near Boston’s waterfront. Getting to Heaven, said Cotton Mather, was like rowing a boat with two oars: pull on one oar alone, and the boat will spin in circles.
All his life, Paul Revere pulled on both oars. He became an apprentice to his father and mastered the special calling of “gold-smith,” working sometimes in that precious metal, but more often in silver, and later in copper and brass as well. When his father died in 1754, Paul Revere took over the business at the age of nineteen and became the main support of his family. 19 He worked hard, survived difficult times, and gradually became affluent, though never rich. He was known in town as a man who knew the value of money. Even his most intimate relationships were cast in terms of cash accounts. He looked faithfully after his widowed mother, but charged her room and board in his own home. This was the custom in Boston, where everyone was expected to pay his way. 20
Bell Ringers’ Agreement, circa 1750 This covenant was signed by seven boys of Boston, including Paul Revere at about the age of fifteen. It is in the possession of the Old North Church.
Paul Revere applied his artisan’s skills to many profitable tasks. He made frames for miniature portraits by John Singleton Copley. He studied the difficult art of copper-plate engraving, and did many illustrations for Boston printers. As a sideline he learned a method of “setting false teeth,” and advertised that “persons so unfortunate as to lose their Fore-Teeth by Accident, and other-ways, to their great detriment not only in looks but speaking may have them replaced with artificial ones … by PAUL REVERE Goldsmith.” 21
But his major employment before the Revolution was as a silversmith. Much of his business in this thrifty Yankee town consisted of mending and repair work. In 1763, he billed Peter Jenkins for “making a fellow to your buckle.” His account books were filled with similar charges for “mending bruises” or patching holes in silver vessels. 22 Many of Boston’s leading Whigs were his customers. He sold a freemason’s medal to James Graham; a new brandy cock to Sam Adams who had worn out his old one; and a bosom pin to the beautiful Mrs. Perez Morton, whose portrait by Gilbert Stuart is one of the glories of American art. 23 At the same time, he also supplied the extravagant tastes of the new Imperial elite. In 1764, he charged Andrew Oliver, Junior, son of Boston’s much hated Imperial Stamp Officer, for “making a sugar dish out of an Ostrich egg.” 24
Paul Revere also made small items of gold, but most of all he was known for his silver. The products of his shop are interesting in many ways, not least for what they reveal about the personality of their maker. His best work was executed to a high standard— the more difficult the piece, the greater the skill that it displayed. But the silver that came from Paul Revere’s shop also showed a highly distinctive pattern of minor flaws. Experts observe that his silver-soldering was not good, his interior finish was sometimesslovenly, and his engraving was often slightly off-center. Paul Revere was never at his best in matters of routine, and tended to become more than a little careless in tedious and boring operations. But he had a brilliant eye for form, a genius for invention, and a restless energy that expressed itself in the animation of his work. Two centuries later, his pieces are cherished equally for the touchmark of their maker and the vitality of his art. 25
At the same time that Paul Revere worked at his special vocation, he also served his general calling as a Christian and churchgoer, citizen and townsman, husband and father. In August 1757 he married his first wife, Sarah Orne. Little is known about this union. The first baby arrived eight months after the wedding—a common occurrence in mid-18th-century New England, where as many as one-third of the brides in Yankee towns were pregnant on their wedding day. Eight children were born in swift succession. 26Sarah died in 1773, worn out by her many deliveries. Paul Revere buried her in Boston’s bleak Old Granary Burying Ground beneath a grim old-fashioned Puritan grave marker with a hideous death’s head and crossbones, which were meant to remind survivors of their own mortality. 27
Five months later Paul Revere married Rachel Walker, a lively young woman of good family, eleven years his junior. According to family tradition they met in the street near his shop. It was a love match. Paul Revere wrote poetry to his wife—”the fair one who is closest to my heart,” A draft of one love poem survives incongruously on the back of a bill for “mending a spoon.” Rachel returned his affection. She was a woman of strength and sunny disposition, deeply religious and devoted to her growing family. Eight more children were born of this union, which by all accounts was happy and complete. 28
But in another way this family was deeply troubled. The dark shadow of death loomed constantly over it. Of Paul Revere’s eleven brothers and sisters, five died in childhood and two as young adults. Among his sixteen children, five were buried as infants and five more in early adulthood. He was only nineteen when his father died, and forty-two when he lost his mother. Many of these deaths came suddenly, with shattering force. The children died mostly of “fevers” that struck without warning. Whenever his babies took sick, Paul Revere was overcome by an agony of fear for his “little lambs,” as he called them. Their numbers did not diminish the depth of his anxiety. Even his ebullient spirits were utterly crushed and broken by their death. 29
In Paul Revere’s time, many people suffered in the same way. Their repeated losses gave rise to a fatalism that is entirely foreign to our thoughts. Rachel once wrote to her husband, “Pray keep up your spirits and trust yourself and us in the hands of a good God who will take care of us. Tis all my dependence, for vain is the help of man.” 30
Most people were fatalists in that era, but their fatalism took different forms. The Calvinist creed of New England taught that the “natural man” was impotent in the world, but with God’s Grace he became the instrument of irresistible will and omnipotent force. This paradox of instrumental fatalism was a powerful source of energy and purpose in New England. It also became a spiritual force of profound importance in Paul Revere’s career. 31
On the Puritan Sabbath, he went faithfully to church. All his life Paul Revere belonged to Boston’s New Brick Church, often called the “Cockerel” after the plumed bird that adorned its steeple vane. His children were baptized there, as he himself had been. It was said that he attended church “as regularly as the Sabbath came.” 32
On weekdays he served his community. Like Benjamin Franklin, another Boston-born descendant of Puritan artisans, Paul Revere became highly skilled at the practical art of getting things done. When Boston imported its first streetlights in 1774, Paul Revere was asked to serve on the committee that made the arrangements. When the Boston market required regulation, Paul Revere was appointed its clerk. After the Revolution, in a time of epidemics he was chosen health officer of Boston, and coroner of Suffolk County. When a major fire ravaged the old wooden town, he helped to found the Massachusetts Mutual Fire Insurance Company, and his name was the first to appear on its charter of incorporation. As poverty became a growing problem in the new republic, he called the meeting that organized the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, and was elected its first president. When the community of Boston was shattered by the most sensational murder trial of his generation, Paul Revere was chosen foreman of the jury. 33
With all of these activities he gained a rank that is not easily translated into the conventional language of social stratification. Several of his modern biographers have misunderstood him as a “simple artizan,” which certainly he was not. 34 Paul Revere formed a class identity of high complexity—a new American attitude that did not fit easily into European categories. All his life Paul Revere associated actively with other artisans and mechanics and was happy to be one of them. When he had his portrait painted by Copley he appeared in the dress of a successful artisan. 35 At the same time he also considered himself a gentleman, and laid claim to an old French coat of arms that was proudly engraved on his bookplates. This was not merely a self-conceit. A commission from the governor in 1756 addressed him as “Paul Revere, Gentleman.” In 1774, Boston’s town meeting also recognized him in the same way. On his midnight ride he dressed as a gentleman, and even his British captors ceremoniously saluted him as one of their own rank, before threatening to blow out his brains. One officer pointed his pistol and said in the manner of one gentleman to another, “May I crave your name, sir?” 36
The immigrant Apollos Rivoire changed his name, but kept his French identity, and engraved an elegant coat of arms on his bookplate. His American son Paul Revere thought of himself as both an artisan and a gentleman, and laughed even at his own pretensions—a new American attitude toward class. With self-deprecating humor, he modified the family arms on his bookplate to include a jolly British lion, a jaunty Gallic cock, and the militant American motto, Pugna pro Patria.Both bookplates are in the American Antiquarian Society.
Paul Revere’s idea of a gentleman was distinctively American, and very different from its European usage. Once he defined a gentleman as a man who “respects his own credit.” Later in life, when dealing with the trustees of an academy who had failed to pay for one of his bells, Paul Revere wrote scathingly, “Are any of the Trustees Gentlemen, or are they persons who care nothing for character?” 37 The status of a gentleman for Paul Revere was a social rank and a moral condition that could be attained by self-respecting men in any occupation. European writers understood the idea of a “bourgeois gentilhomme” as a contradiction in terms, but in the new world of British America these two ranks comfortably coexisted, and Paul Revere was one of the first to personify their union. In his own mind he was an artisan, a businessman, and a gentleman altogether. 38
In 1773 Paul Revere married Rachel Walker, his second wife. He wrote her love poems on the back of his shop accounts, and in 1784-85 had this miniature painted on ivory, probably by Joseph Dunkerly. It is set in a handsome gold frame that her husband probably made himself. Paul Revere had sixteen children (eight by Rachel) and at least 52 grandchildren. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
This house stood on Boston’s North Square nearly a century before Paul Revere bought it in 1770. He lived here until 1780, later moving to a three-story brick mansion at Charter and Hanover streets. In the summer, the Revere family kept a country cottage at Cantondale. But always he will be associated mainly with the house where he was living in 1775. This early postcard captures the busy street life of Boston’s North End from Paul Revere’s era to our own time. (Paul Revere Memorial Association)
He was also an associating sort of man. When he died, a newspaper reported that his body was followed to the grave by “troops of friends.” In Boston he had many boon companions. He kept a small boat on the waterfront and a riding horse in his own barn next to his house in Boston, and he liked to fish and shoot, and ride for recreation across the Massachusetts countryside. He knew the inside of many taverns in the town, and enjoyed a game of cards or backgammon, and signed a petition to permit a playhouse in a town that had banned actors for two centuries. 39
Among his many friends, Paul Revere was known for candor and directness, even to a fault. He was in the habit of speaking his mind; and when words failed him, sometimes he used his fists. In 1761, at the age of thirty-six, he came to blows with Thomas Fos-dick, a hatter who had married one of Paul Revere’s many Hitchborn cousins. Nobody remembers what the quarrel was about. Something that Thomas Fosdick said or did so infuriated Paul Revere that he attacked his kinsman.
New England did not tolerate that sort of violence. Paul Revere was hauled into Boston’s Court of Common Pleas, where a stern New England judge found him guilty of “assaulting and beating” his kinsman, ordered him to pay a fine, and made him give bond for his good behavior. But the fine was only six shillings, eight pence; and one of Paul Revere’s bondsmen was the brother of the victim. Whatever the facts, both the judge and at least one member of the Fosdick family appear to have felt that Thomas Fosdick got what he deserved. The incident did not lower Paul Revere’s standing in the town. 40
He was a gregarious man, always a great joiner. In 1755 he joined the militia as a lieutenant of artillery, and served in an expedition against Crown Point during the French and Indian War. 41 After he returned in 1760, he became an active Mason, and in 1770 was elected master of his lodge. Freemasonry was deeply important to Paul Revere. All his life he kept its creed of enlightened Christianity, fraternity, harmony, reason, and community service. Often he was to be found at the Green Dragon Tavern, one of the grandest hostelries in Boston, which his lodge bought for its Masonic Hall. 42
Another of his haunts was a tavern called the Salutation, after its signboard that showed two gentlemen deferring elaborately to one another. Here Paul Revere was invited to join the North Caucus Club, a political organization—one of three in Boston, founded by Sam Adams’s father as a way of controlling the politics of the town. The North Caucus was a gathering of artisans and ship’s captains who exchanged delegates with the other Caucuses and settled on slates of candidates before town meetings. 43
Paul Revere was also invited to join the Long Room Club, which met above a printing shop in Dassett Alley, where Benjamin Edes and John Gill published the Boston Gazette. This secret society was an inner sanctum of the Whig movement in Boston—smaller and more select than the North Caucus. Its seventeen members included the most eminent of Boston’s leading Whigs. Most had been to Harvard College. Nearly all were lawyers, physicians, ministers, magistrates, and men of independent means. Paul Revere was the only “mechanic.” 44 The printing shop of Benjamin Edes below the Long Room Club became a favorite meeting place for Boston Whigs. In the Fall of 1772, John Adams happened by Edes’s office. Inside he found James Otis, “his eyes, fishy and fiery and acting wildly as ever he did.” Standing beside him was Paul Revere. 45
Another political rendezvous was a tavern called Cromwell’s Head, whose owner Joshua Brackett was a friend and associate of Paul Revere. Its signboard, which was meant to symbolize the Puritan origins of Boston Whiggery, hung so low over the door that everyone who entered was compelled to bow before the Old Protector. Paul Revere was one of the few men who was comfortable in all of these places. Each of them became an important part of Boston’s revolutionary movement. 46
In 1765, the town of Boston was not flourishing. Its population had scarcely increased in fifty years. Business conditions were poor. Many artisans and merchants fell into debt during this difficult period, including Paul Revere himself, who was temporarily short of cash. In 1765, an attempt was made to attach his property for a debt of ten pounds. He managed to settle out of court, and was lucky to stay afloat in a world depression.
This was the moment when Britain’s Parliament, itself hard pressed, unwisely decided to levy taxes on its colonies. America instantly resisted, and in the summer of 1765 Paul Revere joined a new association that called itself the Sons of Liberty. In the manner of Freemasonry, its members exchanged cryptic signs and passwords, and wore special insignia that might have been made by Paul Revere—a silver medal with a Liberty Tree and the words “Sons of Liberty” engraved on its face. 47
The Sons of Liberty or Rescinders’ Bowl was made by Paul Revere for the subscribers whose names appear around the rim. It commemorated the ninety-two Massachusetts legislators who defied the King’s command to rescind a Circular Letter that summoned all the colonies to resist the Townshend Acts. The bowl is embellished with liberty poles, liberty caps, Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and John Wilkes’ polemic, No. 45 North Briton. The inscription condemns “the insolent Menaces of Villains in Power,” (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The Sons of Liberty took a leading part in Boston’s campaign against the Stamp Act. When Parliament at last repealed the hated tax, Paul Revere helped to organize a public celebration on Boston Common. He engraved a design for a large paper obelisk, illuminated by 280 lamps and covered with symbols of liberty and defiance. 48
That moment of triumph was short-lived. In 1767, desperate British ministers tried again to tax America, in a new set of measures called the Townshend Acts. The legislature of Massachusetts responded with a Circular Letter to its sister colonies, urging all to resist as one. British leaders were so outraged that the King himself ordered the Massachusetts Circular Letter to be rescinded. The legislature refused by a vote of 92 to 17. Paul Revere was commissioned by the Sons of Liberty to make a silver punch bowl commemorating the “Glorious 92,” The “Rescinders’ Bowl” became a cherished icon of the American freedom. 49
While the Massachusetts legislature acted and resolved against the Townshend duties, Paul Revere organized resistance in another way. The taxes were to be enforced by new customs officers. Many were corrupt and rapacious placemen. When these hated men appeared in Boston, the Sons of Liberty turned out on moonless nights with blackened faces and white nightcaps pulled low around their heads. More than a few customs commissioners fled for their lives. On one occasion a Boston merchant noted in his diary, “Two commissioners were very much abused yesterday when they came out from the Publick dinner at Concert Hall. … Paul Revere and several others were the principal Actors.” 50
The British government answered Boston’s defiance with a massive show of force. On September 30, 1768, a British fleet sailed into Boston harbor, and anchored in a great ring around the waterfront, their decks cleared for action and cannon trained on the town. Paul Revere watched with mounting anger as two regiments of Regulars landed on Long Wharf with weapons loaded, and marched into the heart of his community. Afterward he went back to his shop, got out a sheet of copper, and made an engraving of that “insolent parade,” as he called it. 51
Immediately after the Boston Massacre in 1770, Paul Revere reissued this print of an event that had happened two years before. It represents the landing of the Regulars with loaded weapons, while ships of the Royal Navy trained their guns on the town. He wished to portray a tyrannical government in the act making war upon its own people. The town of Boston, with its many exaggerated steeples and wharves is meant to appear pious, industrious and entirely innocent. (American Antiquarian Society)
The coming of the Regulars increased the violence in Boston. The soldiers were sometimes the aggressors, but more often they were the victims of assaults by angry townsmen. Finally on the cold winter night of March 5, 1770, the soldiers fired back at their tormentors. Five people were killed. The ancestral cry of “Town born! Turn out!” echoed once again through narrow streets, and Boston came close to revolution. 52 Paul Revere did another engraving of a drawing by Henry Pelham titled “Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street,” The print helped to create an image of British tyranny and American innocence that still shapes our memory of the event. 53
Revere and his fellow Whigs did not hesitate to use violence to promote their ends, but they did so in a very careful way. The Boston Massacre threatened to alienate moderates from their cause. Instantly they took counter measures. They made certain that the British soldiers received a fair trial and Paul Revere helped to supply the evidence. In 1771 they prudently organized a movement in town meeting to build a more secure powder magazine away from the docks and in a safer part of town. The petition was signed by John Hancock, Sam Adams, and Paul Revere. 54
The best known of Paul Revere’s engravings was his print of the Boston Massacre (1770). Like most of his projects, many people had a hand in it. The drawing was by Henry Pelham (who was not happy that Revere beat him to the market). It was printed by Benjamin Edes, colored by Christian Remick, and widely copied in America and Europe. Of the many impressions that survive, half are in original frames that were also made by Paul Revere. (American Antiquarian Society)
For the trials that followed, he drew another pen-and-ink diagram of the Massacre, showing more accurately than the print the positions of the soldiers and the townspeople who were killed. (Boston Public Library)
The Boston Massacre was accompanied by other acts of violence which the Whig leaders channeled toward their own ends. Paul Revere was increasingly prominent in this effort. In 1770 a frightened customs officer fired into a mob that had gathered before his house, and killed a boy named Christopher Seider. 55 The town made the child into a martyr. On the anniversary of his death a huge crowd gathered in a silent demonstration. The chosen place was the home of Paul Revere, which was specially illuminated for the occasion. Every window in his house showed a brightly lighted scene—on one side the Boston Massacre; on the other, the ghost of the murdered boy; in the center an allegorical female figure of America with a liberty cap on her head, grinding a British grenadier beneath her heel. The Boston Gazette reported, “In the evening, there was a very striking exhibition at the dwelling house of Mr. Paul Revere, fronting old North Square … the spectators, which amounted to many thousands, were struck with solemn silence and their faces covered with melancholy gloom.” 56
After the Boston Massacre, Parliament retreated yet again. The Regulars were withdrawn from Boston, and the Townshend duties were repealed, except for a symbolic tax on tea so small that British ministers believed even Boston might be willing to swallow it. It was a fatal miscalculation. When the tea ships reached America in 1773, the response was an explosion of anger throughout the colonies. Boston was not the first American town to refuse the tea, or the most violent, but it acted with its usual panache. Paul Revere and his mechanics staged a brilliant piece of political theater. They covered their faces with lamp black and red ochre, dressed themselves as Indians (the symbol of American freedom in the 18th century), and emptied the East Indian tea chests into Boston harbor. The Tea Party was organized in a highly sophisticated way. The men were divided into different groups, and told the names only of their own section commanders—a classic example of cellular organization that would be used in other movements of a very different nature. 57 Immediately afterward a Boston street ballad called “The Rallying of the Tea Party” identified only two leaders by name: Dr. Joseph Warren and “bold” Paul Revere:
Rally Mohawks! Bring out your axes,
And tell King George we’ll pay no taxes
On his foreign tea …
Our Warren’s there, and bold Revere
With hands to do and words to cheer
For Liberty and laws.
These men carefully controlled their acts of violence in defense of what they called “Liberty and laws,” Even as they hurled the tea into Boston harbor, they replaced a broken lock to demonstrate that their quarrel was not against property or order. One man who stole a small amount of tea for his own use was made to run the gauntlet, and his coat was nailed to the whipping post. Those symbolic gestures were lost on British leaders. 58
After the Tea Party, Boston took the lead in creating a network of committees and congresses throughout the colonies. Here again Paul Revere played a prominent role. On December 17 1773, he had made one of the first of many revolutionary rides. Boston’s town meeting issued a formal justification of the Tea Party, and appointed a committee of leading citizens to visit towns throughout New England. It asked Paul Revere to travel on the same errand to the Whigs of New York and Philadelphia. From late 1773 to 1775, he made at least five journeys to those cities. Each trip was a major expedition on 18th-century highways. Sometimes he rode his own large gray saddle horse. On one occasion he traveled in a small carriage. 59
As great events followed rapidly, he was on the road again and again. Parliament responded to the Tea Party with statutes that closed the port of Boston, abrogated the charter of Massachusetts, curtailed most town meetings, created a new system of courts in the colony, and authorized Imperial officers to send Americans to Britain for trial. London called these punitive measures Coercive Laws; America knew them as the Intolerable Acts. When news of their passage reached Boston in early 1774, Paul Revere made a ride to New York and Philadelphia, to help concert methods of resistance. 60
In the summer, representatives from towns in Suffolk County, met together, and agreed to a set of resolutions drafted by Dr. Joseph Warren. These “Suffolk Resolves” proclaimed the Intolerable Acts to be unconstitutional and recommended sanctions against Britain. They also urged the people of Massachusetts to form their own government, and prepare to fight in its defense.
After the vote, Paul Revere saddled his horse and carried the Suffolk Resolves to Philadelphia. His mission was urgent. The Continental Congress was in session and waiting for news from New England. Revere left Boston on September 11, 1774, and reached Philadelphia on September 16, nearly 350 miles on rough and winding 18th-century roads in the unprecedented time of five days. The next day, Congress agreed to a ringing endorsement of the Suffolk Resolves—a decisive step on the road to revolution. Paul Revere started home again on September 18, and was in Boston on the 23rd, with news that greatly encouraged resistance in New England. He had only a few days with his new bride. Then he was off again to visit leaders in New York and Philadelphia on September 29, and was back by October 19. Perhaps a bit saddle-sore, he traveled in a sulky. 61
There were other short trips in New England. These journeys were reported in the Gazettes, and noticed with alarm by Imperial leaders. In January, 1775, when Paul Revere rode from Boston to a gathering of Whigs in Exeter, New Hampshire, Royal Governor John Wentworth wrote, “Paul Revere went express thither yesterday noon. It portends a storm rather than peace.” 62
For two years, Paul Revere became the Mercury of the American Revolution. Often he was called a “messenger,” “courier,” or “express,” which understated his role. A Tory writer described him grandly as “Paul Revere, silversmith, ambassador from the Committee of Correspondence in Boston to the Congress in Philadelphia,” which exaggerated his function. 63 He was less than an ambassador, but more than merely a messenger. His importance as a leader had grown steadily with the revolutionary movement.
Other men were more prominent in the public eye—Sam Adams, John Hancock and Joseph Warren. But none was truly in charge. There were no controlling figures in Boston’s revolutionary movement, which was an open alliance of many different groups.64Here was the source of Paul Revere’s importance. He knew everyone and moved in many different circles. In Boston this great joiner helped to link one group to another, and was supremely good at getting things done.
An indicator of his importance, and a clue to the much-misunderstood structure of the revolutionary movement, may be found in a comparison of seven groups of Boston Whigs (Appendix D). Altogether they included 255 men. The great majority (82%) were on only one list. Nobody appeared on all seven of them, or even six. Two men, and only two, were on as many as five. One was Joseph Warren. The other was Paul Revere.
The revolutionary movement in Boston was not small, tightly controlled, and hierarchical. It was large, open, diverse, complex and pluralistic, a world of many circles. Paul Revere and Joseph Warren moved in more of these circles than any of the other Boston leaders. This gave them their special roles as linchpins of the revolutionary movement. They were not the people who pulled the strings (nobody did that), but they became leading communicators, coordinators and organizers of collective effort in the cause of freedom. 65
There was a limit to how high Paul Revere could rise in public life. He never had a classical education, and could not write the great papers or deliver the polished speeches. Another Whig leader, Dr. Thomas Young, wrote condescendingly of Revere, “No man of his rank and opportunities in life deserves better of the community,” a biting Boston phrase that suggested something of the social constraints in his world. 66 After independence, Revere sometimes complained that he was not promoted to high public office. But behind the scenes, and among his many friends, Paul Revere became a major leader by 1774, more so than is recognized by academic historians, who understandably tend to be more interested in talkers and writers. Paul Revere was an actor and a doer. His leading role came to him because he was a man who other men could trust to keep his word and get things done, and also because he was deeply committed to the common cause of liberty.
Paul Revere did not think of that cause as we do today—not as the beginning of a new era. He regarded British Imperial measures as “newfangled” innovations, and believed that he was defending the inherited folk rights of New England: its ancient custom of self-government, its sacred idea of the covenant, and its traditional way of life. 67
We misunderstand Paul Revere’s revolutionary thinking if we identify it with our modern ideas of individual freedom and tolerance that later spread through the world. Bostonians had very different attitudes in 1775. Samuel Adams often spoke of what he called the “publick liberty,” or the “liberty of America,” or sometimes the “liberty of Boston.” Their idea of liberty was both a corporate and an individual possession. It had a double meaning in New England, akin to the Puritan idea of a special and general calling and Cotton Mather’s two oars. It referred not only to the autonomy of each person’s rights, but also to the integrity of the group, and especially to the responsibility of a people to regulate their own affairs. We remember the individual rights and forget the collective responsibilities. We tend to interpret Thomas Jefferson’s ambiguous reference to the “pursuit of happiness” as an individual quest, but in 1774 Paul Revere’s town meeting spoke of “social happiness” as its goal.” 68
Also distinctive to this culture was its idea of equality. The motto of Boston’s Sons of Liberty was “Equality Before the Law.” They did not believe in equality of possessions, or even equality of esteem, but they thought that all people had an equal right to be judged according to their worth. Paul Revere’s business associate Nathaniel Ames wrote:
All men are by Nature equal
But differ greatly in the sequel. 69
For Paul Revere and “town-born” Boston these principles did not derive from abstract premises, but from tradition and historical experience. In America it has always been so. Milan Kundera has recently reminded us that “the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” This was Paul Revere’s road to revolution. It was also his message for our time. 70