Modern history

artParticipant Historians: The Myth of Injured Innocence

While Gordon was publishing the first account, the Whig leaders themselves kept silent. Many had sworn a vow of secrecy about their activities, and were guarded even in conversation with one another. One of their sons remembered that as late as the early 19th century, the story of the signal lamps and the midnight ride was “common talk at my father’s, where they often met, although I can call to mind they were careful of calling names, having some fear of liability.” 4

Fear of liability was not the only factor. The silence of the Whigs also had another cause. The elaborate preparations that lay behind the midnight ride did not fit well with the Whig image of Lexington and Concord as an unprovoked attack upon an unresisting people. Here was the first of many myths that came to encrust the subject—the myth of injured American innocence, which the Whigs themselves actively propagated as an instrument of their cause.

To maintain that interpretation, the earliest written account of the midnight ride by Paul Revere himself appears to have been suppressed by Whig leaders. In the aftermath of the battles Revere and many other eyewitnesses were asked to draft a deposition about the first shot at Lexington. He produced a document that was doubly displeasing to those who requested it. Revere refused to testify unequivocally that the Regulars had fired first at Lexington Common. He also added an account of the midnight ride that suggested something of the American preparations that preceded the event.

Other depositions were rushed into print by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and circulated widely in Britain and America, but Revere’s testimony was not among them. It did not support the American claim that the Regulars had started the fighting, and revealed more about the revolutionary movement than Whig leaders wished to be known. Paul Revere’s deposition was returned to him. It remained among his private papers, unpublished until 1891. 5

The myth of wounded innocence was given wide currency by Whig leaders. It dominated the first American accounts of the battles of Lexington and Concord—and most graphically appeared in drawings that were commissioned by Whig leaders themselves. Two weeks after the battles, the artist Ralph Earl was relieved of duty as a Connecticut militiaman, and asked to make a set of sketches of the events at Lexington and Concord. Earl walked the ground, interviewed survivors, and met with Whig leaders. He prepared a series of four drawings. The first and most important represented the fighting at Lexington as a slaughter of American innocents, who appeared mainly to be trying to get out of the way. Earl showed a disciplined formation of Regulars firing a deliberate volley on command into the backs of the militia, who were dispersing peaceably and making no effort to resist. 6

This myth of American innocence became an instrument of high importance in the events that it purported to describe. It strengthened the moral foundations of the American side, and weakened the ethical underpinnings of the Imperial cause. There was little room in this interpretation for the careful preparation that lay behind the American alarm system, and even less for the elaborate efforts that set the machine in motion. Among Whig leaders, a conspiracy of silence surrounded the midnight ride for many years after the event.

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