Modern history

artU.S. v. The Spirit of ‘76: Paul Revere and the American Anglophiles

Goss’s prediction proved to be right in one way, but wrong in another. Revere continued to be studied, but not always with “greater reverence.” In the 20th century, strong countervailing tendencies also began to appear. One of them was a new sympathy in the United States for the British side of the American Revolution. The late 19th century was a moment of Anglo-American rapprochement, when writers on both sides of the Atlantic suddenly discovered a sense of solidarity among the “Anglo-Saxon” nations. One result in academic scholarship was the “imperial school” of George Louis Beer and Charles Maclean Andrews, who rewrote early American history from the perspective of London and the Empire. Another was a circle of antiquarians who included Elizabeth Ellery Dana, Charles Knowles Bolton, and especially William Clements (1861-1934), a wealthy Michigan industrialist, and Harold Murdock (1862-1934), a prominent Boston banker.

This circle of American Anglophiles studied the outbreak of the Revolution as an Anglo-Saxon Civil War. They searched British homes and archives and unearthed many new primary sources on the Revolution, which they purchased from their impoverished owners and carried home in triumph to the United States. At the same time they also contributed many secondary studies, laboring to explode the patriot myths of American innocence on the one hand and British oppression on the other. 28

They showed no animus against the more conservative American revolutionaries, who were regarded as Anglo-Saxons too (even one who was half Huguenot), but they were strongly hostile to America’s Revolutionary myths. Paul Revere continued to be celebrated by these authors, but more for his character than his cause. One called him a “man of solid substance,” who was “quite unconscious of the heroic figure which he was to make in history.” At the same time Longfellow’s legend of the midnight ride was derided, and the patriot myths were furiously attacked. Behind this work lay a dream of Anglo-Saxon solidarity that was as romantic in its own way as Longfellow’s myth of the lone rider. 29

The American Anglophiles produced a large crop of monographs on the battles of Lexington and Concord. Among them was Frank Coburn’s study, The Battle of April 19, 1775, privately published in 1912. Coburn reconstructed the details of the battle with great care, and traced on his bicycle the routes of the midnight riders and the marching armies, calculating distances on his bicycle speedometer, calibrated in eighty-eighths of a statute mile. The result was an interpretation that mediated not only between Britain and the United States, but also between Lexington and Concord, and even between the partisans of Paul Revere and William Dawes. Coburn summarized his theme in a sentence: “I am glad to add,” he wrote, “that the bitterness and hatred, so much in evidence on that long ago battle day, no longer exist between children of the great British nation.” 30

Anglophile interpretations acquired a new urgency during the First World War. In 1917, an American film about Paul Revere’s ride was ordered to be seized under the Espionage Act, on the ground that it promoted discord between the United States and Britain. The case was heard in the Federal District Court of Southern California, and called United States v. The Spirit of Seventy Six. 31

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