At a time when the focus of American history teaching has moved away from individual heroics and few grade school students stand before their peers to recite poetry, the name of Paul Revere, whose famous ride from Boston to Concord was dramatized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1861 poem, may evoke only the vaguest stirrings of recognition. Although Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts and Maine may have fixed the date of April 19 in the minds of New Englanders and the phrase “One if by land, two if by sea” may have an occasional currency elsewhere, few Americans outside the rarefied circles of silver collecting have any sense of the historical figure of Revere or the nature and circumstances of his celebrated venture. Like the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the fall of the Alamo, the midnight ride of Paul Revere has faded into the blurred vagueness of American myth, where events lose their precision and heroes are interchangeable.
David Hackett Fischer, whose immediately previous book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989) provoked controversy by its imaginative analysis of the spread of British folkways throughout the American continent, has set out in Paul Revere’s Ride to rescue the historical Paul Revere. Discarding both the emphasis on individual action of those whom he calls “filiopietists” and the dismissive scorn on the more modern “debunkers,” he chooses to present Revere’s story in the broader context of regional and political history. The protagonist of this lively narrative is neither a larger-than-life folk hero who single-handedly turned the tide of history nor a helpless pawn of forces beyond his control. By presenting Revere as a very human figure making choices within a defined but complex environment, Fischer offers the reader a particular and seemingly new perspective on the complex ways in which specific circumstances and real characters may interact to create history.
The poetic mode chosen by Longfellow and inspired by the stirrings of patriotic fervor awoken by the outbreak of the Civil War was well suited to the glorification of the exploits of an individual hero. Fischer organizes his narrative with equal attention to the relationship between content and form.Paul Revere’s Ride is essentially a drama, a contest between two men, Revere and the commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America, Thomas Gage, whose distinctive characteristics are at once individual and representative. Fischer’s skill in rendering the conflict is such that the reader is left to wonder whether, had the chief actors been different, the course of history might have been deflected into regions unknown.
The Paul Revere described by Fischer is, in any case, a remarkable man by any standard. The son of a French immigrant who married the daughter of a solidly Yankee family of merchants, Revere was taught the trade of a goldsmith by his father. Throughout the course of a long life he turned his hand to many profitable activities, from engraving to the production of fine silverware for the tables of the Boston gentry to, eventually, the manufacture of copper and brass. He was unusual among the storied characters of the Revolutionary period in being, and maintaining his role as, an artisan, a maker of things, whose practical skill at getting things done most resembles perhaps that of Benjamin Franklin, the onetime printer. Fischer notes that John Singleton Copley’s 1770 portrait, reproduced as a frontispiece, catches the ambiguity of the man: He is in working clothes and holds a silver teapot, but his vest is velvet, and the table on which he rests as he gazes thoughtfully out of the frame is burnished mahogany. He was remembered by those who knew him, the historian says, as “a distinctive individual of strong character and vibrant personality.”
In direct contrast to Revere’s concrete solidity, which represented all that was best in the American character, was the haughty demeanor of his antagonist, the aristocratic Lieutenant-General Thomas Gage. Although viewing himself as a liberal and fair-minded man who had originally liked Americans and was indeed married to one, Gage had come to despise the Bostonians among whom he found himself in his role as military commander. Continually misjudging the degree of bitterness and the capacity for concerted action among these middle-class merchants and professional men, whom he saw as weak, argumentative, and divided, Gage was snobbish and misinformed, with both the virtues and the blindness of the Whiggish Briton of his day.
The action of the book is tightly controlled, presented in fifteen chapters (as well as an introduction, aftermath, and epilogue) with the famous alarm itself as midpoint. Sketching in the background with great economy, Fischer in the early pages depicts the mounting tensions between the colonists and the British in the months between the fall of 1774 and the battle at the Concord bridge in April, 1775, and the stratagems undertaken by each side to weaken and undermine the other. For the British in New England, the immediate goal was to maintain...
(The entire section is 2090 words.)