Paul Revere's Ride

Listen my children and you shall hear how perceptions have changed about Paul Revere.

The 18th-century patriot was a local hero who was ignored after his death. He has also been a larger-than-life national legend. He's even been called a villain and a coward who never made the ride for which he's famous.

So who was he, really? And why has he been portrayed so differently?

Revere's changing image illustrates how history is shaped and reshaped over time.

Soon after his 1775 midnight ride, Revere became a regional folk hero. Every Bostonian knew the story of how he had alerted the countryside. They also knew him as a prominent and gifted silversmith.

But shortly after he died in 1818, "the name of Paul Revere lapsed into relative obscurity," says Patrick Leehey, historian for the Paul Revere House in Boston. "Virtually nothing was written about him. And beyond New England, no one knew anything about him."

In 1861, all that changed abruptly. The Civil War had begun. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called "Paul Revere's Ride." It captured the imagination of many. Revere became a national legend.

"Without Longfellow's poem, Revere would not be the celebrated historical figure he is today," Mr. Leehey says. "It made the midnight ride an important event in American history."

Although "Paul Revere's Ride" is riddled with inaccuracies, most Americans saw it as fact. Some still do. Because the poem is so popular, historians have had a hard time setting the record straight.

For one thing, Longfellow portrays Revere as the only rider. But William Dawes and Samuel Prescott rode with him. And many other horsemen were sent on their ways that night - probably more than 40 of them.

The poem says that the signal lanterns in the Old North Church alerted Revere. Wrong. Revere knew the British were preparing to row across Boston Harbor. He told friends to put the lanterns in the church to alert fellow patriots across the harbor in Charlestown.

And the poem says nothing of Revere's capture outside of Lexington. In Longfellow's version, Revere arrives successfully in Concord.

"The poem was written to create a particular atmosphere," Leehey says. "Longfellow wanted to inspire the Union to take up arms the way people did during the Revolution." He wanted to show how one heroic man had made a difference in another time of great peril.

Revere the local hero and Revere the national hero ran smack into historical debunkers at the turn of the century. Critics set out to expose the historical inaccuracies in Longfellow's poem. The critics weren't mean. They just wanted to set the record straight.

A popular subject among the debunkers was William Dawes, who they believed deserved equal credit. (At the time, Charles Dawes - a direct descendent of William - was vice president of the United States under Calvin Coolidge. Do you suppose that had anything to do with it?)

The debunking ended with World War II, when America was again threatened by war. That's when Revere got another new image. Esther Forbes's biography portrayed Revere as a "simple artisan" who rose to the challenge when his country needed him most. In 1940, Cyrus Dallin's heroic statue of Revere was erected in Boston.

WITH Vietnam and Watergate in the 1960s and '70s came a new generation of debunkers. In that turbulent climate, many figures in American history were attacked. Revere was no exception. One critic said Revere "sang like a canary" to his British captors. Another went so far as to claim that the midnight ride never happened!

How will this generation remember Revere?

"Paul Revere should be remembered as a man who wanted to change history," says Revere historian Jayne Triber. "He was ambitious and he was eager to distinguish himself. But most of all, he wanted to help create a world where people could make it regardless of their class."

"Revere was a leader," Revere House historian Leehey says, "but not in same capacity Samuel Adams and John Hancock were. He obviously was a trusted man among revolutionaries: He was a chosen messenger...." He was a man of action, an ordinary person who believed he could make a difference.

Ms. Triber agrees. "Paul Revere should be remembered as a folk hero," she says, "a successful businessman, a distinguished metallurgist, and a patriot. He was a man who believed in sacrificing himself for the good of his country."

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