Modern history

artChildren of the Founders: The Myth of the Patriot Fathers

Despite the reticence of Whig leaders, oral reports of Paul Revere’s ride continued to spread through New England, and passed rapidly into the realm of regional folklore. A child of the Revolution remembered that “we needed no fairy tales in our youth. The real experiences of our own people were more fascinating than all the novels ever written.” 7 In that spirit, the children of Boston learned the story of the signal lanterns and the midnight ride as it passed from one person to another. “I have heard it told over many times, and never doubted,” recalled Joshua Fowle of his Boston boyhood, “I knew in my young days many of the prominent men who took an active part in the doings of those days. Paul Revere lived near me. … It was common talk.” 8

That common talk made Paul Revere a local hero throughout New England. After the Revolution was over, his exploits began to be set down on paper, sometimes in highly inflated ways. The growth of his reputation as a regional folk-hero was evident as early as 1795. To mark the twentieth anniversary of the event, a Yankee bard who signed himself Eb. Stiles composed an epic poem about the midnight ride that endowed the hero and his horse with more than mortal powers:

He raced his steed through field and wood

Nor turned to ford the river,

But faced his horse to the foaming flood

They swam across together.

He madly dashed o’er mountain and moor,

Never slackened spur nor rein

Until with shout he stood by the door

Of the Church on Concord green.

Never mind that the actual ride of Paul Revere ended short of Concord, or that the nearest equivalent to a foaming flood was a sluggish stream called the Mystick River, which he crossed without getting his feet wet. It was in the nature of a mythic hero to transcend the limits of mundane fact. So it was with Eb. Stiles’s poetic image of Paul Revere. 9

As the mythmaking grew more extravagant, the newly organized Massachusetts Historical Society decided to issue a documentary record of the event. Jeremy Belknap, corresponding secretary of the society, approached Paul Revere and asked him to contribute a history of the midnight ride for publication in its Proceedings. Revere’s account, which finally arrived in 1798, twenty-three years after the event, was brief, understated, and self-effacing. It also strongly supported the Whig interpretation. Before it went into print, Revere carefully deleted from his first draft an incautious phrase that described his attempt to attack the British patrol when he first sighted it—an aggressive impulse that was not consistent with the myth of American innocence. Revere intended his account to be anonymous. He signed it “A Son of Liberty in 1775,” and requested Belknap, “Do not print my name.” Belknap ignored the request, and identified Revere as the author without permission.

Through Paul Revere’s lifetime, the reticence of the revolutionary generation continued. It appeared even in his obituary, which abundantly praised his private life and public service, but made no mention of the midnight ride or any of his clandestine activities before the Revolution. The conspiracy of silence continued. 10

In the years after Revere’s death in 1818, however, attitudes began to change. Published accounts of the midnight ride began to multiply. Some came from surviving eyewitnesses who confirmed the factual accuracy of Paul Revere’s letter to Belknap, and added colorful details to his laconic interpretation of the event.

Several of these narratives emerged from a bizarre dispute between the towns of Lexington and Concord over the question of who fired the first shot. Immediately after the battles, as we have seen, Whig leaders had been at pains to demonstrate that the Regulars had fired first. Fifty years later, their descendants battled furiously over the question of which town deserved the honor of being first to fire back. Concord lawyer Samuel Hoar started the controversy in 1824. In a speech of welcome to the Marquis de Lafayette, Hoar claimed that his town was the scene of “the first forcible resistance” to British arms.

Outraged citizens of Lexington responded by collecting depositions from surviving militiamen in their town, who now testified that the first American shots were fired not at Concord’s North Bridge but on Lexington’s village green, after the Regulars had fired at them. The citizens of Acton joined in, with impassioned testimony that their forebears had fired the first American shots and suffered the first losses at the North Bridge after the militia of Concord had cravenly refused to take the lead. The inhabitants of West Cambridge (later the town of Arlington, earlier the hamlet called Menotomy) offered further evidence that the heaviest fighting of the day occurred neither in Concord or Lexington, but in their village. 11

These polemics generated much fresh evidence about the battles, and also produced some new material on Paul Revere’s ride. They also helped to transform the prevailing interpretation of those events. The men who actually did the fighting in 1775 had cultivated an image of themselves as innocent and even passive victims of British aggression. The next generation remembered them in a very different way—as bold, active, and defiant defenders of home and hearth.

The new interpretation most vividly appeared in the changing iconography of the fight at Lexington. The earliest prints of the battle, which had represented it as a slaughter of the innocents, gave way to new images that showed increasing ardor on the American side. In 1830 a lithograph showed some of the militia firing back at the British. By 1855 an engraving by Hammatt Billings for Charles Hudson’s History of Lexington had most of the Americans actively in the fight. In 1886, a painting by Henry Sandham for Lexington’s town hall represented all of the militia standing firm and fighting bravely in heroic postures of defiance. 12

A parallel transformation also occurred in the image of Paul Revere. Even his own deposition of 1775 (which Whig leaders had thought too candid for publication) represented his own role as that of a peaceable citizen, innocently deprived of his liberty by a party of violent and blasphemous British officers who “stopped me on the highway, and made me a prisoner I knew not by what right.” 13

In the 19th century, newly published eyewitness accounts portrayed him in a different light as an active and aggressive leader, boldly organizing resistance in Boston, concerting military preparations, shouting his alarm to Sergeant Munroe, and actively hurling defiance at his British captors. 14 This new image of Paul Revere appeared in depositions by Elijah Sanderson and William Munroe, in anniversary orations, and in a book called History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (1849). Its author, Richard Frothingham, was an antiquarian historian of Charlestown. He published fresh material from the papers of Richard Devens, the Whig leader who helped Paul Revere on his way, and was one of the first scholars to recognize in print the range and importance of Paul Revere’s activity in the revolutionary movement. He wrote, “Paul Revere, an ingenious goldsmith, as ready to engrave a lampoon as to rally a caucus, was the great confidential messenger of the patriots and the great leader of the mechanics.” 15

image

The Monument at Concord’s North Bridge, a pastoral painting by Fitzhugh Lane. (Concord Free Public Library)

As this interpretation took hold, the first biographical sketches of Paul Revere began to be published. Chief among them was a long essay published anonymously by Boston editor Joseph Buckingham in his New England Magazine (1832). Buckingham himself had not been born until 1779, but he knew Paul Revere, interviewed his friends, and acquired some of his manuscripts. Informants told him that Revere was “one of the persons who planned and executed one of the most daring projects which characterized the times—the destruction of tea.” Buckingham represented Paul Revere as a major Whig leader, and described his many Revolutionary activities, several for the first time. He also reprinted Revere’s letter to Jeremy Belknap about the midnight ride, commenting that it “contains incident enough to supply a novelist with the basis of a romance.” The figure that emerged from Buckingham’s sketch was a strong and active leader in the forefront of the Revolution. 16

Ten years later, Alden Bradford included a life of Paul Revere in a volume on distinguished men in New England. These writings began to celebrate Paul Revere not only for what he did but who he was. Daniel Webster described him as “a man of sense and character, and of high public spirit, whom the mechanics of Boston ought never to forget.” Webster himself could not quite remember what Paul Revere did for a living, but he was very clear about the large meaning of his life. 17

In the mid-19th century, cities and towns throughout Massachusetts began to commemorate Paul Revere in their place names. Boston’s May Street became Revere Street in 1855. Other Revere streets appeared in the towns of Arlington, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Hudson, Hull, Lexington, Maiden, Medford, Milton, Quincy, Sudbury, Weymouth, Winthrop, and Woburn. In 1871, the entire Boston suburb of North Chelsea took the name of Revere. Many other places were so named in New England, but few in the nation at large. Paul Revere was still mainly a regional hero. 18

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!