Modern history

artMyths for Imperial America: Colonel Revere as a Man on Horseback

Thanks largely to Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere’s stature increased steadily during the late 19th century, and spread throughout the United States. Towns were named after him not merely in New England, but also in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Missouri.

The centennial celebrations of the American Revolution that began in 1875 also in-spired much popular interest in his life and work. Many celebrations were held in that year, when President Ulysses Grant himself came to Lexington and Concord. The Old North Church began to keep the custom of its annual “lantern ceremony.”

The Paul Revere of the late 19th century began to be given a new persona, that was thought to be more meaningful in a different era of American history. During this period he was commonly called Colonel Revere, the military title that came to him later in the War of Independence. Increasingly he became a militant symbol of American strength, power and martial courage.

In 1885 the city of Boston decided that this man on horseback needed an appropriate equestrian monument. It sponsored a prize competition that was won by an unknown young artist named Cyrus Dallin, an American sculptor who later came to be widely known for his muscular Puritans, melancholy Indians, heroic pioneers, and courageous soldiers of the Civil War. Dallin’s monumental Paul Revere was the proverbial man on horseback, a militant figure standing straight up in his long stirrup leathers, in a costume that was cut to resemble a Continental uniform. The midnight rider appeared as a strident symbol of American power, with bulging muscles, a military appearance, and a murderous expression. To complete the effect, even the horse was transformed. Deacon Larkin’s mare Brown Beauty suffered the indignity of being changed into a stallion, and given the head of a Greek war horse, and the body of a Renaissance military charger.

There was an interpretative problem in the first design of Dallin’s sculpture. It was called “Waiting for the Light,” and showed Paul Revere in Charlestown, looking back toward the Old North Church for the lantern signal.” The committee liked the conception, and awarded its prize to Dallin. But critics forcefully pointed out that the interpretation was an error borrowed from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Dallin was sent back to his studio, and produced another version of Paul Revere, as militant as before, but without Longfellow’s errors. The ensuing controversy, however, destroyed the momentum for the project, and the money could not be found to construct a full-scale bronze statue. Dallin’s sculpture remained a plaster model for many years, which he redesigned at least seven times. But even in its unfinished state, it captured the spirit of yet another myth of the midnight rider. In this latest incarnation, Paul Revere became less a man than a military monument. He was made to personify the new union of power and freedom in a Great Republic that was beginning to flex its muscles throughout the world. 23

The interpretative mood in this era was also captured by a piece of music titled “Paul Revere’s Ride; a March-Two Step,” published in 1905 by E. T. Paull, a prolific composer of popular music. This musical version of the midnight ride began with the faint hoofbeats of a galloping horse. It advanced through movements that the composer called the “The Cry of Alarm,” “The Patriots Aroused,” “The Call to Arms” (double fortissimo), the Battle of Lexington and Concord (triple fortissimo), and “The Enemy Routed” (quadruple fortissimo). The piece was advertised as “one of E. T. Paull’s greatest marches,” no modest claim for the composer of “The Burning of Rome” and “Napoleon’s Last Charge.” His rendition of the midnight ride was “respectfully inscribed to the Daughters of the American Revolution.” 24

In Boston, the Daughters of the American Revolution actively promoted the reputation of Paul Revere. They took an active part in the rescue and preservation of Paul Revere’s home, which had become a rundown tenement in Boston’s North End. To preserve it, a voluntary society was founded with the name of the Paul Revere Memorial Association. It acquired title to the house, restored it with high enthusiasm, and opened it to the public in 1908 as a shrine of the Revolution. Today, the Paul Revere House is the only 17th-century building that survives in what was Old Boston. 25

In 1891, the first full-length biography of Paul Revere was published by Elbridge Henry Goss, a Boston antiquarian. It was a classic specimen of a two-volume Victorian “Life and Letters” biography, mainly a compendium of primary materials in two thick volumes, handsomely embellished with many illustrations and facsimiles. Goss was mostly interested in his subject as Colonel Revere, a political and military figure. Nearly 100 pages (of 622 in the two volumes together) were devoted to the Penobscot Expedition alone. Very little attention was given to Revere’s private life.

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The Filiopietists in Full Cry. This musical version of the militant Paul Revere had a grand crescendo scored quadruple fortissimo. (Brandeis University Library)

The major contribution of the work was to assemble and reprint primary evidence of Revere’s public life. Goss was given access to Revere manuscripts by the family. He published for the first time many letters and documents, including Revere’s deposition on the midnight ride, and also collected much colorful testimony from Boston families who preserved the folklore of the event. Every subsequent student of Revere’s life is heavily in Goss’s debt for the materials that he collected. Wherever possible, the author allowed Paul Revere to speak for himself. His chapter on the midnight ride consisted entirely of a transcription of Revere’s fullest account, with explanatory footnotes. 26

The larger purpose of the book was to celebrate Paul Revere’s qualities of character, as one of Boston’s “truest, most noble and patriotic sons.” In 1891, Elbridge Goss expressed a complete confidence that Revere’s reputation would continue to grow. “As time goes on,” he wrote, “such lives as his will be studied, honored, cherished and remembered with still greater reverence.” 27

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