Sarah Palin's Paul Revere Gaffe Should All Give Us Pause
Mark R. Malebranche II is a graduate student at California State University, Fullerton. His essay "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere: A Historical Controversy" was published in the award-winning, student-run Welebaethan Journal of History at Cal State Fullerton.
Sarah Palin has drawn a lot of attention recently for her retelling of Paul Revere’s midnight ride. Many Americans were surprised to hear how Revere, according to Palin, “warned the British that they weren't gonna be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells and making sure, as he's riding his horse through town to send those warning shots that we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free." This isn’t the version of the story most of us are familiar with, and Palin has drawn a certain amount of heat from the press for her mis-history. Revere did not ring a warning bell, nor did he fire warning shots that night. To add fuel to the fire, Palin has defended her mistake by claiming that she did not get the story wrong and in all actuality, “here’s what Paul Revere did. He warned the Americans that the British were coming, the British were coming and they’re gonna try to take our arms…” and that, “part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there that, hey, you’re not gonna take American arms…”
If anyone reads any story about Paul Revere, they will see that Palin is very much mistaken about him. However, as much joy as the masses and the media have received in making fun of her over the past couple of weeks, just how much more does the average American know about Revere’s ride? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem can be credited with launching Revere into American stardom. Simply titled “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow wrote in the shadow of the Civil War in an attempt to stir feelings of patriotism for the Union. His poem, however, presents an inaccurate version of Revere’s actions, and is unfortunately the one source most of us have received our information on the subject from.
For example, how many people are aware that Revere did not ride completely alone, but was assisted the night of April 18, 1775 by William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott once he had reached Lexington? How many of us are aware that Revere did not complete his ride, but that it was Prescott alone who made it to Concord? These details drastically change the image most of us grew up with of a lone rider calling out to his fellow Americans that “the British are coming.” In fact, at the time Revere would have considered himself British and would have referred to the army as “the Regulars.” Even The History Channel (a name which implies accuracy) misrepresented Revere in their miniseries, America: The Story of Us. If one were to base their knowledge of Revere’s journey off of the episode “Rebels” they would basically know the details of the first portion of his midnight ride up until he reached Lexington, but nothing of its conclusion.
This is no excuse for Palin’s mistake, but perhaps herein lies an opportunity for all of us to brush up on what actually happened to Revere that night. Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means trying to diminish what Revere attempted. It was certainly a brave move. However, it was a brave move made by many men, including Revere. I believe there is something to be said about the developing American spirit in learning about the complex network of communication created by colonists in rebellion. Prescott and Dawes, as well as the other midnight riders, should be admired as Revere’s equals in American history rather then being relegated to obscure jokes on The Simpsons (in the episode “Lisa the Iconoclast,” character Hollis Hurlbut [voiced by Donald Sutherland] describes the towns namesake, Jebediah Springfield, as “easily the [historical] equal of William Dawes or even Samuel Otis” ). Of the Revere faux pas by the former Governor of Alaska, Stephen Colbert stated that “that doesn’t mean Palin wasn’t raising awareness of history. Without her no one would have checked into what actually happened.” As much as Colbert poked fun at the incident, perhaps he has a point. I would suggest that Americans go out and pick up a copy of Esther Forbes’s Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, or Joel J. Miller’s The Revolutionary Paul Revere, so we may all gain further insight into the events of April 18, 1775. In learning more about the facts surrounding Revere’s midnight ride, we can all come to appreciate the other men involved without diminishing the role Revere himself played.
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