It is in some ways unfortunate that it took Sarah Palin to end my month-long campaign of laziness, but I am glad something did, and glad that Palin’s defenders have provided such a useful example of my earlier discussion of how (not) to use and interpret history.
By now, the facts of this latest gaffe should be pretty well known. Sarah Palin, visiting Boston as part of her nationwide tour, gave an interesting account of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere:
He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells and by making sure that as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells, that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.
It’s a baffling description. Most educated Americans have a very basic understanding of this event which is not, itself, grounded in rigorous scholarship: “The British are coming!” is a line lifted from a poem, but wasn’t something Revere said. Still, the basic outline is clear that Revere’s ride was intended to warn Americans (i.e., British colonists in America) about the actions of the British (i.e., the regular British military). Palin’s narrative seems to take a radical departure. According to her, the point was to warn the British that the Americans intended to revolt, with special emphasis on keeping their guns, and that his means of communicating this were bells and warning shots.
I didn’t have an in-depth understanding of this historical event, but I was pretty confident that this was a very confused account. Certainly not something worth rewriting history for. But imagine my surprise to learn that Palin was right, and historians agree! What are we to make of this development? Has a media “gotcha” backfired? Should we wipe the egg off our faces? I don’t think so.
To quote the article:
In fact, Revere’s own account of the ride in a 1798 letter seems to back up Palin’s claim. Revere describes how after his capture by British officers, he warned them “there would be five hundred Americans there in a short time for I had alarmed the Country all the way up.”
Boston University history professor Brendan McConville said, “Basically when Paul Revere was stopped by the British, he did say to them, ‘Look, there is a mobilization going on that you’ll be confronting,’ and the British are aware as they’re marching down the countryside, they hear church bells ringing — she was right about that — and warning shots being fired. That’s accurate.”
Patrick Leehey of the Paul Revere House said Revere was probably bluffing his British captors, but reluctantly conceded that it could be construed as Revere warning the British.
“I suppose you could say that,” Leehey said. “But I don’t know if that’s really what Mrs. Palin was referring to.”
This article is a great example of how to spin a few facts and selective quotes into an agenda-driven interpretation. Let’s assess them in light of Palin’s narrative.
The implication of Palin’s statement is that Revere used bells and warning shots to deliver a message, in support of the right to bear arms and generic freedoms and security, to the British as an integral part of his mission on the Midnight Ride. However, the Revere letter which “seems to back up [her] claim” describes a verbal warning delivered only due to the accident of being captured. It had nothing to do with disarmament, he only delivered it to one group of British soldiers (hardly “the British”), and its credibility was predicated on his having “alarmed the Country all the way up,” i.e., on a prior warning to Americans throughout the area. What about “those bells” and “warning shots”? One of the quoted experts describes ringing church bells and warning shots that marching British soldiers would have heard. According to historian David Fischer in Paul Revere’s Ride, bells and shots, among other methods, were used in a long-standing colonial communication system which would have carried Revere’s warning from the towns he visited into the countryside. Some of Palin’s critics doubted the use of bells and shots (I’m willing to admit it was a strange and novel detail to me) and Palin should be credited here with knowing something they did not about communication in colonial America. However, she gets no credit for knowing who used it, why, and for what audience. Revere did not personally fire shots or ring bells, and in any case they were not for the benefit of the British, much less to deliver the British a stern rebuke about taking Americans’ guns and liberties.
One Palin supporter, in a comment to the Boston Herald article, posted a link to this Internet source which supposedly backs up her claims. While I didn’t learn anything about Revere’s “Associations with Freemasonry,” I did come across a reference to a history of the event by Charles Gettemy, The True Story of Paul Revere. (The book’s title is a reference to its running theme of contextualizing and correcting Longfellow’s famous poem.) Palin’s narrative is absurd given the understanding of Revere and his mission which this book provides. To put his ride in context, Revere had been active in the colonial resistance and served as a messenger on many occasions. He was a member of an intelligence cell formed early in 1775 to monitor British military and loyalist activity, and to notify Patriot leaders of their observations. So, already Palin’s account is on thin ice, since it’s not really in line with the mission of a spy and courier for the American Patriot cause to send principled warnings to the British.
The proximate cause of his ride was an increase in British military activity, likely with the intent of capturing John Hancock and Samuel Adams and seizing military supplies. Bearing arms in resistance was thus an issue at the time, but Revere was a courier, not some kind of psychological warfare agent; his job was to deliver messages about these developments, not to try and intimidate the British into standing down. Further, his primary mission on April 18th, 1775 was to warn Adams and Hancock of this threat, rather than to warn the British of anything. Along the way, he also warned other Americans in the towns he passed. The effectiveness of the communications and intelligence network in which Revere operated is apparent in that British warships and troops were positioned specifically so as to interfere with it. Revere was aware of British patrols tasked with interdicting Patriot communications, and sought to avoid contact with them. Giving any sort of warning to “the British” under these circumstances would have been completely counterproductive. Certainly, it was not his intention to be captured, much less to deliver a warning in captivity.
In the end, then, far from being some grand vindication in the face of an overenthusiastic “gotcha” media, the absolute best one can now say about Palin’s account is that Revere (accidentally) delivered some kind of warning to some British troops, and shots were fired and bells rung (even if not at Revere’s direction as part of this warning), and that these elements came together in an interesting historical anecdote of a brief chance encounter. This is cold comfort, given the question Palin was responding to: “What have you seen so far today, and what are you going to take away from your visit?” She initially answered the question with a mundane comment about how it was interesting to be at a place where Revere once socialized. Then, of her own accord, she launched into her lecture on his significant activities. Not exactly a cunning trap by the liberal media slander machine. So Palin’s take-away impression of a tour of places significant to Paul Revere, and what she wants you to know about his Midnight Ride, is a confused interpretation of a minor episode, only tangentially related to the actual historic import of Revere’s actions, melded with her own political agenda, into a tale of a man warning the British with shots and bells not to take our guns.
Palin’s claims about Paul Revere are not really interesting in and of themselves; just another politician making another embarrassing gaffe. It’s possible that Palin just wanted to talk about Revere’s capture, which may have been something she learned about on the tour, but was momentarily flustered and fumbled her explanation. Or, it’s possible that she had two points, a mistaken one about warning the British against seizing American arms, and one about defending American freedoms by initiating the warning system, but clumsily combined the two in the heat of the moment. What’s more interesting to me is the valiant defense by Palin supporters, who put much more thought into explaining away these problems than Palin could have put into her off-the-cuff commentary. One would have to squint really hard to connect a bluff Revere made to a British patrol after his primary mission was complete, an oncoming British military action to seize rebel guns and canons, and the sounding of gunshots and bells for a purpose unrelated to his statements in captivity, together into a narrative resembling Palin’s account.
Some don’t even bother squinting: this blog post takes an atomic look at her claims about the ride (the emphasis on the right to bear arms, the sounding of bells and shots, the target audience of the warning) and makes individual connections to unrelated facts (that the British wanted to seize military supplies, that there were ringing bells and warning shots, that Revere did at one point warn at least some of “the British”). In the end, the author triumphantly summarizes:
She was right about warning the British. She was right about shots and bells. She was right about the British wanting to take away the colonists’ guns.
One marvels at the flexibility of the human intellect when sufficiently motivated. She was right about warning the British if you ignore the circumstances of the “warning,” what a small slice of “the British” he warned, and the actual nature and importance of his mission as a Patriot. She was right about the shots and bells, if you ignore to whose agency she ascribed their sounding and for what purpose. She was right about British plans for Patriot military supplies, if we ignore that the real controversy here is her claim about how a particular American responded to these plans. So, if we extract claims and facts from the bothersome husks of narrative and context, then some things she said do look a little like some things that happened. But if we try to reconcile her entire statement, how it connects the facts and the account of events it forms and the important meaning it implies, with the facts as they appear in the record, as thematically unrelated elements of an irrelevant episode, then it all crumbles away. In other words, the second we treat her statement as an actual account of history rather than a grab bag of factoids, it resolves to the confused nonsense that it is.
Contrary to their claims, far from upholding real history to refute a biased media machine and ignorant liberal partisans with this “vindication,” Palin supporters completely distort and degrade history in service to the less-than-noble cause of defending Sarah Palin as a political celebrity. A real understanding of history means more than knowing factoids and figures and a few interesting anecdotes, as this case demonstrates. Understanding history means understanding why these facts are important: why they happened, what they mean, and what their results were. Palin, on the spot and grasping for something relevant and on-message to say, wasn’t able to do that, but that’s not surprising. Her defenders, having ample time to look over the situation, and think about it, and do research at their leisure, should have known better, and have done better, than to cherry-pick factoids that awkwardly appear to support her. One silver lining may be that we will all take a closer look at our colonial history, and be better informed in spite of their partisan apologia.