Modern history

artCrosscurrents

Today attitudes are changing yet again, and interpretations of Paul Revere reflect the new mood. Levels of interest in various aspects of his career are stronger than ever before, and more diverse than in any earlier period. Many schools of interpretation compete with one another. Filiopietists are still out in force; celebrations of Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts are larger and more enthusiastic than ever before. More than a million tourists a year visit the North Bridge at Concord, and flock in growing numbers to Boston’s Freedom Trail. British travel writer Jack Crossley wrote after a visit to Boston, “You can also take a delightful hop-on-off trolley ride round the major attractions. The guide’s patter on these trips is a hoot. ‘You’ll hear a lot about Paul Revere on this ride. In fact you’ll get sick to death of his name, believe me.’ History is around every corner, and indeed Paul Revere is on most of them.” 58

At the same time, iconoclasts also continue to be very active, seeking to expose the underside of the American past. Many seem to be guides on Boston’s Freedom Trail, where they titillate the tourists by inventing new scandals about the midnight rider. The highly professional staff of the Paul Revere House was recently asked by a group of visitors if it was true, as their guide had told them, that Paul Revere had an affair with Mother Goose!

Many scholars are now busily at work, pursuing different lines of research on various aspects of Paul Revere’s life. A major study of Boston artisans is under way by Professor Alfred Young. A dissertation by Jayne Triber of Brown University is examining Revere’s republican principles. Specialists in material culture at the Winterthur Program and elsewhere have done much research on Revere’s silver, and on his business career. A catalogue by Morrison Heckscher and Leslie Bowman for an important exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art studies him as a highly inventive artist within the design tradition that they call American Rococo. Patrick Leehey, head of research at the Paul Revere House, is looking carefully into the Penobscot Expedition, the darkest episode in Revere’s life. Edith Steblecki has published an enlightening monograph on Revere and Freemasonry, a subject of growing interest to cultural historians. At the center of this activity is the Paul Revere Memorial Association, a flourishing organization that runs educational programs, awards fellowships to students, sponsors exhibitions, conducts an active publication program, serves as a clearing house for ongoing research, and welcomes more than 200,000 visitors each year to the Revere House in downtown Boston. 59

New interpretations of Paul Revere are as diverse as the topics and problems that are being studied. In general, Paul Revere is approached today as a figure of high complexity who is interesting both for what he was and what he did. One new theme is beginning to emerge. In new work on the design of his silver, on his business career, on his civic activities, and in this monograph on his midnight ride, Paul Revere is increasingly interpreted as a man who made a difference in the world. At a time when we are witnessing the rebirth of free institutions in many nations, it is interesting to observe that this ever-changing historical figure is perceived in terms of choice, contingency, and agency.

For our subject, the new trends inevitably mean another turn of the interpretative wheel. Through two centuries, the myth of the midnight ride has been continuously reinvented by Americans in response to changing circumstances. In every generation we have been given a new Paul Revere—the injured innocent of Whig propaganda, the ardent patriot of the new republic, the historic loner of Longfellow’s romantic poem, the man on horseback of the late 19th century, the “man of solid substance” of the American Anglophiles; the colonial clown of the debunkers; the “simple artizan” of Esther Forbes, the capitalist-democrat of the Cold Warriors, the patriot-villain of the post-Vietnam iconoclasts, and in a new age of global democracy a leader of collective effort in the cause of freedom.

To the passing generations, Paul Revere has been all of these things and more—a man and a myth that has grown with the nation that he helped to found. Like the reflective surfaces of Copley’s portrait, each of the many reconstructions of his life reflects the circumstances of their creators. But nearly all of them have added to our understanding of a complex figure. Every generation does not merely rewrite the history books. It also revises them, and refines our knowledge of the past. Through that long process, Paul Revere is not only a creature of changing fashion. He is also an enduring symbol of an historical truth that by changing grows deeper and yet more true. That may be his most important message for our time.

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