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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307

In Paul Revere's Ride, celebrated historian David Hackett Fischer undertakes to sweep away some of the mythology surrounding this Revolutionary War hero.

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While Revere's background as a highly-skilled silversmith is well-known, there has been less focus on the significance of his active involvement in a numerous private and public organizations, and especially Revolutionary groups, to his position in American history. As he became a respected figure in these circles, he would eventually be chosen for the role of intelligence courier, a sensitive and dangerous role in a country quartering British troops.

After a warning from a stable boy for the British that there would be "hell to pay tomorrow," on the night of April 18, 1775, Revolutionary leader Joseph Warren and Revere quickly concocted a plan to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of imminent danger, and to spread the news throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Revere and his friend William Dawes were to take separate routes to Lexington. Avoiding capture, Revere arrived at a private home where Hancock and Adams were meeting with local militia leaders and members of Committees of Safety. And his phrase of warning wasn't "the British are coming," but "the Regulars (British troops) are coming out."

Hancock and Adams soon fled to avoid capture, while Revere and Dawes headed for Concord, where they expected the British troops would be deployed to destroy colonial munitions. They also began to activate a network of sixty-odd riders who would continue to "spread the alarm" throughout the colony. Revere was captured by the British later that night, but was released the following day.

Although Hackett debunks the notion of Revere as the heroic, solitary rider of American legend, he provides an historically accurate account of the way in which this courageous and resourceful figure worked within the social networks of Revolutionary-era Boston to begin the struggle for independence.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2090

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 control of the colonies by eliminating their power to mount an effective rebellion. By 1774, this meant securing munitions, and in particular gunpowder. The Portsmouth Alarm of December, 1774, and the Salem Alarm of February, 1775—unsuccessful attempts by the British to seize local gunpowder stockpiles by force, conflicts in which Revere also played a significant role—were in a sense precursors of the Concord battle and should have given the British some sense of the forces of resistance that the New Englanders were capable of mustering against them. Instead, Gage was advised by his superiors in London to control the “rude Rabble” by moving quickly and decisively to detain and disarm their leaders.

What Gage failed to realize was the coherence of the Massachusetts leadership and the strength of the network that bound it together. The British had long been rightly distrustful of the town meeting government of New England, which they mocked as bickering and inefficient. It was precisely the strength of these local organizations, however, that led to the eventual victory of the colonists—at least in Massachusetts. Fischer sees the success of the rebellion as being directly dependent on the ways in which clubs, organizations, committees and other small political groups reached out to one another to build a prepared militia and a political consensus. Revere’s distinctive historical role was precisely the opposite of the one usually assigned. He was not a solitary hero, acting alone, but the quintessential organizer: Fischer’s original analysis of the voluntary associations in Boston in the 1770’s revealed that only Dr. Joseph Warren belonged to as many political groups as Revere, and it was the latter’s unique ability to move among these groups that enabled him to arouse with such success the defending troops on the day of the famous alarm.

The drama that would culminate with the British defeat on April 19 moves forward with Aristotelian clarity. Each side knows much about the action of the other; both groups, the British and the Bostonians, harbor high-placed moles, one perhaps the general’s wife. Despite the issues at stake, there is a punctilious regard for the letter of the law that seems almost amusing, as if each group were conscious of the watching eyes of history. The Americans gather their forces in villages and hamlets, careful always not to be the first to act, to be righteous reactors rather than provocateurs. Gage, equally scrupulous but under pressure from his superiors, sends out spies in the guise of countrymen to sniff out the enemy’s plans, but in one case they give themselves away when they seat their servant at a separate table. The plans of the British are kept secret. By mid-April, Revere and his friends sense the preparations in the Boston garrison for an imminent move on Concord, but are not sure of the direction of the attack.

The plan to hang lanterns in the Old North Church brings Fischer’s narrative to a climax—but it is really only the beginning of the drama of the alarm. The British soldiers leave in the dark for Cambridge, on the way to Concord, but because of the first in a series of mistakes and miscalculations, they end up in the Charleston swamps, losing valuable time. Revere, having successfully given the prearranged signal with lanterns, sets off on his horse, Brown Bess, toward Lexington with his friend William Dawes, breathlessly ahead of the troops but stopping to warn many people along the way.

Far from being the solitary ride of legend, the ride of Paul Revere is remarkable, as Fischer presents it, as the heart of an intricate social collaboration. A system of alarm is activated; expresses, posts, and couriers spread out along the roads throughout the county and the state, carrying the news. More than sixty riders are involved. Weston, Sudbury, Andover—the time of each alert is carefully documented. Local militiamen roll out of bed and gather on the fields where they have spent months drilling, then set off on the Concord road. Revere and Dawes meet a young doctor, on his way home from courting his future wife. The three are captured, but Dr. Prescott breaks free and gallops off through a hedge to warn others. Revere is released and hastens off, warning John Hancock and Samuel Adams, notorious patriots, who have just seated themselves in front of a boiled salmon dinner. They barely escape before the British forces march into Lexington and confront American minutemen on the common.

It is not clear to this day who shot first, but with the skirmish at Lexington the pageant becomes tragic: Seven Lexington men are killed, nine others wounded. The badly commanded, resentful British regulars—trained soldiers, angry and tired— resolutely do their duty in suppressing an intolerable rebellion. When they become angered at a reported atrocity, however, they also become vicious. News of the battle spreads fast. The Americans, grim now, continue to march from south, north, east, and west, over the roads to Concord. The battle there, the rout of the British and their retreat, is bloody and prolonged. By the end of the day, as the Regulars reenter Boston and the rain begins to fall, the countryside is in arms. Estimated casualties reach 94 among the Americans, 271 killed and wounded among the British. The Revolution has begun.

Gage, shocked and shaken, was to revise his opinion of the New Englanders’ capacity to fight, but he insisted that the Americans had been the aggressors. He was recalled to London in embarrassment in the autumn of 1775. Revere, who fell into a less visible role in the months succeeding the battle, joined the Continental Army and was given the task of fortifying Boston. His military career was not marked by the kind of success he had had in business, but after the settlement, he returned to his craft, studying the science of metallurgy and eventually inventing important new processes for the manufacture of boilerplate and cannonry.

Fischer’s story ends with the return of Gage’s troops to Boston, but in a real sense the story continues for nearly fifty pages more in the many appendices added to substantiate the claims made in the earlier pages and in the chapters labeled “Historiography” which attempt to explore the legend of Paul Revere in the context of the late twentieth century. As Fischer points out, few other historical events are so well documented as the outbreak of hostilities on April 19, 1775, and the many tables he includes, along with the useful maps and illustration, show how effectively well-known and much-cited evidence can be used to tell a new kind of story. The historiography is equally illuminating, as the author, who eventually makes his own biases and local interests very clear, takes on both the antiheroic convictions of the Vietnam era and the more recent theories of social history. “Paul Revere is increasingly interpreted,” he writes at the end of book, “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.”

Sources for Further Study

American Heritage. XLV, July, 1994, p. 104.

Boston Globe. April 17, 1994, p. 14.

Choice. XXXII, September, 1994, p. 192.

The Christian Science Monitor. May 27, 1994, p. 14.

Los Angeles Times. May 5, 1994, p. E5.

The New York Review of Books. XLI, June 23, 1994, p. 36.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, April 17, 1994, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, February 28, 1994, p. 66.

The Wall Street Journal. June 22, 1994, p. A18.

Yankee. LVIII, August, 1994, p. 47.

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