The poem Paul Revere’s Ride took an obscure patriot of the American Revolution and elevated him to American myth.
In 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow first asked his children to listen so they shall hear the midnight ride of Paul Revere. He meant it as legend but people took it as historical fact.
The poem created legions of Paul Revere fans who solidified his fame after the Civil War. They installed an equestrian statue in Boston’s North End, where he had lived for 30 years. His great grandson then bought his house to save it from demolition. The Paul Revere Memorial Association raised the money to buy and restore it. Paul Revere’s house is now an important stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail.
But the backlash had already started in 1896, when a poet named Helen F. Moore wrote a parody of Paul Revere’s Ride called The Midnight Ride of William Dawes. It read, in part,
‘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.
1. Paul Revere’s Ride
Paul Revere’s Ride was really about fighting slavery, which Longfellow hated. He gave money to fugitive slaves, bought slaves their freedom and supported African-American churches, schools and newspapers. His close friend, U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner, was such an outspoken abolitionist that a southern colleague, Preston Brooks, beat him within an inch of his life on the Senate floor.
Longfellow published Paul Revere’s Ride in The Atlantic Monthly magazine, which appeared on newsstands the day South Carolina seceded. At the time, people viewed it as a call to arms for the North. More recently, historian Jill Lepore has argued the poem is an allegory about slavery itself. Paul Revere’s Ride is “a poem about waking the dead,” wrote Lepore in The American Scholar. “The dead are Northerners, roused to war. But the dead are also the enslaved, entombed in slavery…”
2. Paul Revere Made Lots of Rides
Paul Revere had made the same ride a week and a half earlier. He made lots of rides, in fact. On Dec. 13, 1774, Revere rode all the way to Portsmouth, N.H., to warn the patriots that the King’s troops were on their way to seize gunpowder from Fort William and Mary in New Castle. The redcoats arrived three days late, and they didn’t intend to take the powder in the first place. But a skirmish did result — between 400 New Hampshire volunteers and six British soldiers defending the fort. The redcoats surrendered. Then, 11 days before his midnight ride, Revere rode to Concord to warn that the redcoats would probably come to seize the large cache of military supplies stored there. The patriots moved the supplies.
3. Longfellow and Revere
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had a family connection to Paul Revere dating to the American Revolution. His grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, commanded Revere, then a colonel, during the disastrous Penobscot Expedition. Recrimination followed the worst U.S. naval disaster until Pearl Harbor. And investigation revealed Revere had made enemies because of his arrogance. He demanded a court martial, which exonerated him.
4. Some Birthday Present
Rose Kennedy made all of her children memorize the poem. John F. Kennedy campaigned for U.S. Congress in 1946 at the base of Paul Revere’s statue in the North End. His brother Edward recited the entire poem during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. When in 1975 Rose Kennedy turned 85, she asked each of her 28 grandchildren to memorize a stanza of the poem as a birthday present.
5. Mistakes Were Made
The poem got a lot of facts wrong about Paul Revere’s ride. For example, Revere – not a friend – ordered the lanterns hung in the belfry of Old North Church. He also had help, which Longfellow omits. The aforementioned William Dawes took a parallel route to the south and met in Lexington. There they encountered a third rider, Dr. Samuel Prescott, while”‘returning from a lady friend’s house at the awkward hour of 1 a.m. (Revere’s words).”
6. Obituary Omission
No one outside of the Boston area knew who Paul Revere was until Longfellow wrote Paul Revere’s Ride. Even during his lifetime, Bostonians knew Revere as a successful businessman who had lots of friends. That’s how his obituary read after he died on May 10, 1818. It didn’t even mention the ride.
This story was updated in 2023.