Modern history

artAcademic History, Political Correctness, and Paul Revere

Parallel trends also appeared in changing patterns of professional scholarship. In the early 20th century, Paul Revere’s place in college textbooks had seemed secure. The academic historiography of that era centered on narrative sequences of political events. Paul Revere’s ride was given an important role as a device that connected one event to another. A case in point was Morison and Commager’s Growth of the American Republic, which represented, Paul Revere’s ride as a major event that linked the coming of American revolution to the War of Independence. In an interpretation carefully balanced between Paul Revere and William Dawes, both figures appeared as heroic men on horseback who “aroused the whole countryside.” For any slow-witted sophomore who may have missed the point, both rides were dramatically plotted on a full-page map, with romantic silhouettes of galloping horses racing across the countryside. 54

After the generation of Morison and Commager, the dominant school of American historiography turned its attention from narratives of public events to analyses of intellectual systems and material structures—a change that reduced happenings such as Paul Revere’s ride to trivial incidents of no significance. Two of the leading college textbooks in this era, The National Experience (1962) and The Great Republic (1977), made no mention of Paul Revere’s ride whatever. The only published essay on the midnight ride in an historical journal during this period pronounced it to be a happening of “minor importance.” 55 A popular historian, Virginius Dabney, published a biographical history of the Revolution in which Paul Revere was deliberately omitted, and the midnight ride was dismissed as an event “of little or no importance.” 56

With the rise of the new social history, Paul Revere returned to the textbooks, but as a different character. The midnight rider was dismounted, and converted into a more pedestrian figure of one sort or another. Social historians variously represented him according, to their politics, as a Boston artisan, a bourgeois businessman, a leader of Boston’s “mechanic interest,” an active joiner of voluntary associations, or a producer of revolutionary propaganda. He became a figure of more complexity but less autonomy—not really an actor, but an exemplar of class movements and the organization of the means of production. There was no sense of contingency in these interpretations, and little recognition of individual agency. They rested on assumptions that individual actors in history are significant mainly as instruments of large processes over which they have little control. For the generation of Vietnam and Watergate, those organizing ideas became very strong in American universities. 57

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