Guns and Paul Revere's Midnight Ride

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Good morning, it’s April 18. Today’s date reminds us that guns have long been at the core of this nation’s identity – and that many Americans always equated arms with democracy. That fact of life was brought home on April 18, 1775. That night, British Gen. Thomas Gage ordered two companies of redcoats to seize the cache of rifles, artillery, and ammunition stored by the Massachusetts militia in Concord.

This decision prompted the “midnight ride of Paul Revere,” who warned his compatriots that the British were on the march. Roused, the patriots chased the British back to Boston, surrounding them at Bunker Hill. The Revolutionary War had begun, and it can be argued that the proximate cause of the shooting was gun control efforts.

In January of 1861, as a divided nation girded for war, The Atlantic Monthly published a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that reminded Americans of their common heritage, while also serving notice on the South that there had always been men in the North willing to take up arms for the cause of freedom.

The memorable poem, taught for a century afterward to schoolchildren across this country, begins with a rousing opening stanza:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:

Hardly a man is now alive 

Who remembers that famous day and year.

In a single poem, Longfellow elevated a man of limited regional fame into a Founding Father on a par with the great Massachusetts patriots of the day. But was it deserved? Did the bit with the lanterns – “one if by land and two if by sea” – really happen? Weren’t there other riders? Didn’t Paul Revere get arrested by the British, and miss the fighting the following day? Wasn’t he just an obscure Boston artisan?

Well, the answer to those questions is yes, yes, yes, yes – and no.

Let’s start with this: On the night of April 18, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren, a Boston patriotic organizer, dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that Gage’s men were on the march – and would certainly arrest them both if they were found.

Revere was rowed across the Charles River and was met in Charlestown by fellow members of the “Sons of Liberty” committee who’d been signaled by two lanterns placed in the bell-tower of Boston’s Christ Church. From there, Revere borrowed a horse and began his ride, knocking on doors of fellow patriots he knew – dozens of whom took to horseback themselves.

Taking a slightly longer overland route, Dawes arrived half an hour later at the house where Adams and Hancock were hiding. A sentry there tried to shush them, telling them to quit making so much noise.

“Noise!” responded Revere. “You'll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out!”

With that, Revere, Dawes, and a third rider, Dr. Samuel Prescott, lit out on their horses for Concord. They were captured by the British, briefly detained, then bluffed their way out. Meanwhile, the entire countryside was being roused.

And since so many men sounded the warning, not just one, why do we only know Paul Revere?

The short answer is that mesmerizing Longfellow poem. William Dawes also had his loyalists, however, and in 1896 a woman named Helen Moore published a poetic rebuttal to Longfellow, a shorter and humorous ditty, “The Midnight Ride of William Dawes,” which included this verse:

'Tis all very well for the children to hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;

But why should my name be quite forgot,

Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?

Why should I ask? The reason is clear --

My name was Dawes and his Revere.

There was more to it than that, of course.

Far from being the innocent artisan of the history books, Paul Revere was at the center of the American Revolution in a way that few other men could boast. In his wonderful book recounting these events, historian David Hackett Fischer documents the deeds of the many other riders, but he also reveals that Paul Revere was a charter member of five of the seven major underground patriotic organizations operating in Boston at the time.

Not even Sam Adams or John Hancock – or John Adams – could say the same.

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