Modern history

artCrusade for Democracy: The Myth of the Common Man

The age of the debunker ended abruptly with the outbreak of World War II. As fascist and communist dictatorships gained strength throughout the world, and free institutions were increasingly under violent attack, Americans began to think again about their national heritage of liberal values and democratic purposes.

Once again the reputation of Paul Revere was a sensitive indicator of cultural change. The reputation of the midnight rider began to be refurbished to meet the changing needs of a new generation. In 1940, the city of Boston finally got around to erecting Cyrus Dallin’s equestrian statue of Paul Revere as a symbol of resistance to tyranny and aggression.

One might have expected that the militant Paul Revere of Dallin’s monument would have returned to fashion in a world at war. But something else happened. Paul Revere was suddenly given a new image, different from all that came before, and yet perfectly matched to the needs of a democratic crusade against fascism and militarism.

The architect of this new interpretation was Esther Forbes, a New England novelist who turned her hand to the writing of history with high success. It was one of the more improbable pairings of subject and author—a masculine figure whose life had been absorbed in the hurly-burly of politics, war and business; and a New England spinster who worked beside her aged mother in a quiet alcove of the American Antiquarian Society.

In that setting, Esther Forbes wrote a book called Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. It was published in 1942, the year of Corregidor and Midway, and gave the midnight rider a new identity suitable to the nation’s great crusade for freedom and democra:y. Esther Forbes interpreted her hero as an ordinary American, a peace-loving common man who rose to the challenge of great events. In a letter to her editor, she summarized her idea of Paul Revere in two sentences. “He represents a typical and important type of man about which very little is written,” she wrote; “I mean the simple artizan [sic].” 41

To make her case for Paul Revere as a “simple artizan,” Forbes gave much attention to his commmunity, and especially to his domestic life. She had little interest in the details of politics, or military career, or business affairs, beyond an evocation of Revere’s colonial silver shop and intimate vignettes of his bell foundry. Her idea of the American Revolution was a hierarchical movement in which Sam Adams appeared as the “mastermind” and Paul Revere as a “lone horseman” who acted as “courier” for his social superiors. The midnight ride was given merely twelve pages out of five hundred in the book, and interpreted as an event of minor consequence, except for its status as a myth and symbol. Most of the book was about the social world of a “simple artizan” in colonial Boston.

Esther Forbes celebrated the everyday life of an ordinary man with grace, verve, deep feeling for her democratic theme, and high good humor. She was less enthusiastic about Paul Revere himself, whose personality tended to disappear into the social background. The organizing idea of Paul Revere as a “simple artizan” was very far off the mark—as romantic and inaccurate in its own way as Longfellow’s solitary rider. 42

Academic historians have also tended to criticize the scholarship of the work in another way, complaining that it “lacks citations” and “uses significant literary license.” 43 This criticism is unfair. It is true that the book is not well documented, and it has been corrected in detail by subsequent research. But Forbes made excellent use of the materials assembled by Goss and also of the Revere Family Papers. The book is beautifully crafted as a work of popular biography and still very fresh and lively. Its sustained interest in social history was far in advance of academic scholarship. For its timely expression of the new national mood, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. 44

Esther Forbes’s interpretation of Paul Revere as a “simple artizan” was taken up by many other American writers in the mid-20th century. It lent itself perfectly to a new generation of children’s books by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Jean Fritz, and especially Robert Lawson’s Mr. Revere and I (Boston, 1953), a charming fable told by Paul Revere’s horse, whom the author renamed Scheherazade. Lawson’s witty drawings showed Paul Revere as an ordinary American who reluctantly left his domestic hearth and rose heroically to keep his rendezvous with destiny—an interpretation very close to that of Esther Forbes. 45

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