Monday, June 6, 2011

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

So, it turns out that Sarah Palin wasn't entirely wrong when she -- allegedly -- butchered her history regarding the "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."

Pity. You don't know how much I wish she was. I'd consider her one of the lighter lightweights on today's American political scene, except that she continues to be much too divisive not to take seriously at some level.

But just as nobody's right all the time, nobody's wrong all the time either. Not even Sarah Palin, as it turns out.

In 25 (or so) words or less, Palin turned Paul Revere's ride from a warning to colonists that the British Army was on the move to something in the order of an anti-gun control mission.

Palin may have the facts somewhat correct, but she's got the context horribly wrong. It was much different time -- obviously. If you're trying to launch an insurrection against the established authority, it's realistic to expect that you need weapons at some point. You need to defend yourself against reprisal.

That makes sense. It also makes sense that these weapons are not going to be in plain view, where they can be seized in a matter of minutes. It also makes sense that the established authority -- threatened as it obviously is -- is going to do whatever it can to seize those arms to rid itself of the problem.

Today, we ARE the established authority. And we'd better hope that another insurrection doesn't come up and bite us someday, because I suspect the results won't be very pretty. And I can almost guarantee that the people who cry the loudest against some form of reasonable gun control will not garner much sympathy from whatever forces may ultimately bring the government down. And to me, that's the absolute irony of the whole issue.

But back to Sarah. I think half the problem here is that she stumbled along, sounding as if she was making the thing up as she went along. That's not uncommon in politics, where candidates (or would-be candidates in her case) often have to think on their feet and sound intelligent when hit between the eyes with questions they don't expect. Slip up, just once, and you own it for life.

During the campaign, Barack Obama said he'd visited all "58 states." Now, everyone (and even, I'm sure, Obama) knows there are only 50. But there are territories where citizens vote. And if you've been asked a question at the end of a day in which you might have jetted into four or five states, I can see where you might, just out of sheer fatigue, say the wrong thing. It was harmless. And our president does, I'm afraid, have a tendency to give out flip answers sometimes ... oblivious to how they might sound to (and how they might be construed by) his opponents.

Palin's rambling version of Paul Revere's ride does, however, contain quite a few elements of truth. The first is the obvious one. The Redcoats were going to Lexington and Concord to seize weapons. They weren't interested in having a fight on their hands. Who really is? I mean, other than the U.S., which has -- in its recent history -- gone out of its way to initiate military action.

It's been said that the British also wanted to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, but that one's still in play. It's also been said that arresting Hancock and Adams was the last thing Gen. Gage wanted to do, lest the move inflame already-intense feelings by the colonists (who were, after all, still British subjects) toward the authorities.

But it is absolutely correct that the Redcoats were massing, and were about to cross the Charles, and ride into Concord and Lexington to seize weapons. Paul Revere and William Dawes got ahead of them. In fact, the colonists had set up an intricate warning system a few years earlier for this very purpose: to make sure the militants were caught by surprise by the British regulars.

Paul Revere was also confronted by the British at a checkpoint, and he did tell them that he and his fellow couriers had warned the countryside that they were on march ... and there would be a healthy contingent of Minuteman soldiers to greet them when they got to their destinations. But like everything else in life, context is key. He certainly didn't set out to do that. That would have almost made him a traitor.

By the time the "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" was over, there were many, many colonists "sounding the alarm to every Middlesex Village and Farm," which -- basically -- consisted of what is now Cambridge, Somerville, Medford and Arlington. And we all know what happened after that.

I guess what I object to is Palin's hints that Paul Revere's ride was some sort of lesson about the sanctity of weapons. In the context of the times, maybe it was. But that was a much different era, and the purpose for having weapons was much different too.

If anyone's ever seen "Assume the Position" with Robert Wohl, he said one thing about the American Revolution that -- sarcastic or not -- kind of rings true. He said the movement was led by "rich, white men who didn't want to pay taxes." There are still plenty of them around.

One of the frustrating things about U.S. history is that what we learn in grammar school (and even high school) is a purified version of what really happened. And it does make you wonder how our times are going to be portrayed 300 years down the road.

The reality is that revolutions don't just happened. They evolve over a period of years ... sometimes decades. It took an incredibly long time for the seeds for the American Revolution to sprout. The issues that exploded in 1775 were born 12 years earlier, at the conclusion of the French-Indian war, when the British upped the tax ante (as well pass enacting other measures), citing the high costs of keeping the American colonies in the empire.

There were several boiling points ... the two most notable being the Boston Massacre (1770) and the Boston Tea Part (1773). There were many other smaller fires that erupted before shots were fired in Lexington and Concord (and that's Concord Massachusetts, lest any congresswomen from Minnesota gets confused).

As a footnote to all of this, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, just as South Carolina was about to secede. Longfellow was an avowed abolitionist, and the poem was undertaken as a means to rally Northerners to the cause of saving the union. He cited Paul Revere (some historians note, cynically, that it's easier to rhyme words with "Revere" than it is some of the others who also participated in the ride) as a courageous man ... and said that history favored such action.

It is not entirely accurate, both in small details in in the bigger picture. For example, Revere did not receive the lantern signals from the Old North Church. It was he who devised them.

He did not row himself across the Charles ... he was rowed.

It wasn't just Paul Revere who rode through the countryside. It was a series of men, some of whom have not survived history, and it was part of an elaborate warning system devised to alert colonists in a hurry that the British regulars were on the march.

No matter. As Wohl said in "Assume the Position," "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

That in itself is a line from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." And it means if a legend has taken hold, it's useless to fight it with facts. The legend is what endures.

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