Paul Revere's Ride
Suck on "The Lemon Tree" King George III... I mean, suck on the Liberty Tree!
Without Paul Revere, the U.S. Constitution as we know it might not exist – or so David Hackett Fischer, author of Paul Revere’s Ride, would have the reader believe. Fischer uses Revere as a springboard for reviewing in depth the events that led up to the American Revolution, greatly magnifying Revere’s role in the events in the process. The book covers in extreme depth the years leading up to the war, up until the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the subsequent aftermath. In doing so, Fischer provides a colorful account of the Revolutionary era, with anecdotes galore and plentiful usage of period terminology, with colonists wearing “homespun” stockings (p. 266) and British officials sneering at the mention of Paul Revere’s (or, as he was sometimes referred to, "P:- R:-") name in their correspondences. All in all, the book does an excellent job describing the times, bringing the tumultuous world to life in the reader’s imagination, even if some of the accounts are marred slightly by a few of Fischer's biases.
(For non-Americans and other ignorant folks who are scratching their heads right now wondering who Paul Revere was, I'll give you this brief description from Wikipedia: "Paul Revere was an American silversmith and a patriot in the American Revolution. He was glorified after his death for his role as a messenger in the battles of Lexington and Concord, and Revere's name and his "midnight ride" are well-known in the United States as a patriotic symbol. In his lifetime, Revere was a prosperous and prominent Boston craftsman, who helped organize an intelligence and alarm system to keep watch on the British military." (Wikipedia) If that doesn't suffice, you can read the equally swell E2 writeup on the topic.
So, how does Paul Revere’s Ride handle the topic of Mr. Revere himself? Well, it is safe to say that Fischer is slightly pro-Revere. Revere is, after all, the star of the book, with Fischer's aim being to glorify Revere's role in the Revolutionary era. Fischer does well to thoroughly debunk the myth of Paul Revere as the legendary “solitary midnight rider” of lore. With a painstaking attention to detail, Fischer reveals how Revere was in fact just one rider in a large network of couriers that crisscrossed the countryside with astonishing quickness the night the British marched on Lexington and Concord. Still, Fischer gamely tries to establish Revere as the center, or focal point, of this loose coalition of messengers, but why this should be true is left unclear. Revere certainly did not create the system single-handedly. It is true that Revere organized the famous light signal in the Old North Church steeple that served as a warning mechanism (“one if by land, two if by sea”) for Patriots that the British military was advancing upon the colonists, and that he personally took a hand in making sure the lanterns were in place on that fateful night. Revere deserves a small space in American history for his role. Beyond that, however, Revere’s importance remains questionable despite Fischer’s best arguments.
Why, for example, was it necessary that Revere himself inform Samuel Adams and John Hancock, (two of the most significant leaders of the American Revolutionary movement) of the advancement of the Regulars, except to confirm for Revere his own assumed importance? Undoubtedly, another courier, of which there were many , could have handled that task just as well as Revere. If Revere was so important to the Patriot cause, why risk having him captured by British sentries, who were patrolling the roads in large numbers that night? Also, curiously, Adams and Hancock only had a few words with Revere before sending him off as they deliberated on more important matters, a strange way to treat as important of a mover in the Revolutionary movement, as Fischer claims Revere is. It makes Revere seem like he was just an ordinary messenger. Perhaps, as retribution, Fischer later claims that Hancock died in 1793 “never having realized the promise of his early career,” a rather judgmental accusation to offhandedly make.
Later, after the Revolutionary War was well underway, Revere would complain that his allies had betrayed him by not giving him a more prestigious military post. Perhaps, perchance, it could be that his intellect was not as appreciated as much in Revere's time as both Revere and Fischer would have liked. For example, at the Committee of Safety at Hastings House, set up by the Patriots after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Revere was recommended for “outdoor work,” which Fischer tries to explain away by claiming without evidence that it had something to do with Revere’s poor hygiene at the time, a consequence of his constant traveling. The end result would appear to be that, again, Revere was not viewed as important in the decision making process.
Ultimately, what Revere seems to have been most appreciated for was his zeal. It was a trait that seemed to oftentimes put him at the epicenter of major events, such as when he helped hide a trunk of very important Patriot documents just as the Regulars were marching on Lexington, or when he helped dump tea into the harbor at the Boston Tea Party. He was undoubtedly valued for his ability to motivate the “rabble” and was so well-liked by everyone that it made him a logical choice for organizing Patriot groups for rebellious activities. However, he was not really an intellectual and was not a part of the Patriot think-tank, which made him easily replaceable. To compensate for this, Fischer tries too hard to establish the importance of Revere in the overall arc of events, subsequently overstating his importance. While Revere was a valued contributor to the Patriot movement, he was not one of the people who shaped its course.
Fischer more successfully and accurately debunks other myths in the book, however. One example has Fischer firmly making it known that the British soldiers were not referred to as “the British” by the colonists (as most colonists still called themselves British or Englishmen at the time), but as Regulars, meaning that Revere's famous cry of "the British are coming" never really happened, at least in those words. Another example has Fischer reveal that contrary to popular belief, British officials were not as merciless and disrespectful of human rights as the myths would have people believe. Thomas Gage, the crown-appointed governor of Massachusetts, through both his actions and his own words and the words of his subordinates, is painted as respectful of commonly perceived laws and human rights almost to a fault, "the common rights of mankind" as he called it, to the point where it actually hurt the British cause against the insubordinate Patriots. Gage allowed the colonists to ridicule British imperial authority in the press and for colonists to assemble in town meetings to discuss and plan acts of sedition. That is far from the more repressive image modern Americans have. In fact, Gage liked America and its citizens well enough, initially, that he married an American and appeared ready to spend the rest of his days in North America before war broke out.
Truly, though, if there is one thing Fischer can not be faulted for, it is his extreme reliance on facts and for the plethora of insightful anecdotes he shares throughout the book. The anecdotes Fischer uses are the crown jewels of the book, allowing him, for example, to describe in vivid detail what happened during the Battles of Lexington and Concord almost shot for shot at certain points, even down to what individual soldiers were thinking. An almost unintentionally humorous example, in the manner of gallows humor, would be when Fischer shares a story about a Minuteman and a Regular both going to drink from a well at the exact same moment in time during the middle of a battle. Upon each realizing who the other was, they both declared the other person a “dead man” and shot and killed each other almost simultaneously. One can almost smell the gunpowder and see the blood streaming from the unfortunate soldiers, a credit to Fischer’s riveting writing style. The colorful language of the book, at times mimicking and taking humor in the differences between Bostonian and British accents (Revere pronouncing the word charter as "chaa-taa", and Gage as "chawh-tawh"), for instance, keeps what could otherwise have become a dry text consistently engaging. His notes, list of sources, and appendices at the end of the book is so long it could practically be considered an individual book in and of itself. What can only be argued, at times, is Fischer’s interpretation of the facts. Regardless, Paul Revere’s Ride, notwithstanding the author’s own slant on the events, is a scholarly and insightful work that will serve as an invaluable aid to researchers and enthusiasts for decades (or, maybe, even centuries) to come.
So, while it is questionable whether Revere’s influence amongst mechanics truly played a pivotal role in getting the U.S. Constitution accepted, as Fischer asserts at one point, or whether if Revere had not existed another equally zealous courier and ringleader (of which there were many) would have taken his place, the book’s importance is not. Fischer's work provides both valuable insight into the life of Paul Revere and the whole Revolutionary era and makes for titillating reading. In the words of a Los Angeles Times reviewer found on the back of the book, Paul Revere’s Ride is “a tale of adventure and intrigue so vivid and so colorful that it sometimes read like a thriller rather than a historical monograph.”