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Lone Riders Don’t Start Revolutions

April 16, 2012

It’s Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts (and Maine, formerly a district of the Commonwealth until Mainers, dissatisfied with the weak response to British occupation during the War of 1812, started agitating for statehood…but I digress).  The rest of the country doesn’t pay much attention to Patriots’ Day.  That’s understandable.  It was a local event.  The Declaration of Independence didn’t occur for another 15 months.  Heck, even George Washington didn’t know it was happening (though he heard about it by the end of the month).

On the other hand, maybe folks should pay attention.  It does mark the first time that Bostonians in particular, and Massachusetts as a soon-to-be-state in general, decided it was time for a change—and that everyone else in the country should therefore follow their lead.  It’s become something of a (highly contentious) tradition in American history and politics (e.g., abolition in the 19th century, prohibition in the 20th, gay rights in the 21st).  Without getting into the merits and/or demerits of any individual cause (or in how New Englanders agitate for it), maybe there’s something in the political culture of those old Yankees that. still has relevance today.

Now, unless your high school history teacher’s lesson plans were based on David Hackett Fischer’s definitive Paul Revere’s Ride (first published in 1994), everything you learned about Paul Revere’s ride and thus, how the American Revolution got started, is wrong.  Let us count the ways (well, three of them anyway), and in so doing, rethink how revolutions are made.

Rides, Not Ride:  April 18, 1775 was not Paul Revere’s only ride on behalf of the nascent revolutionary movement in Boston.  In fact, it was his 3rd trip to Lexington and Concord that month.  Just 4 months earlier, Revere had ridden from Boston to Portsmouth, NH to warn of British plans to reinforce the small fort holding the Army’s gunpowder stores.  Alerted by Revere, local Whigs called out the militia, marched on the fort, quickly won a brief battle (the Regulars were outnumbered 400 to 6), seized the gunpowder supplies and dispersed it to safe houses before reinforcements arrived.  In all, Revere undertook at least 18 rides in the two years between Dec. 1773 and Nov. 1775—traveling regularly to New York and Philadelphia, as well as to cities and towns around New England.  Revere met with local and continental leaders, delivered formal and informal messages, and carried warnings of British troop movements and plans. Revolution requires practice.

Riders, Not Rider:  Revere and William Dawes, the two initial riders from Boston, didn’t ride alone that night.  Dozens of riders, perhaps as many as 50, were on the move “to every Middlesex (and Essex and Suffolk) village and farm” spreading the news of Regular troop movements and summoning militias to defend the rebel gunpowder stores at Concord.  One unknown rider went from Charlestown north to Tewksbury where he awakened Captain John Trull who mustered the local militia.  It was just after 2:00 am.  The Regulars had just reached East Cambridge and word of their march had already traveled 30 miles ahead of them.

Revere alerted friends in Medford who sent Dr. Martin Herrick to rouse Stoneham and Reading.  From those towns riders went to east to Danvers and Lynn, and north to Andover.  By 3:30 am, when the Regulars marched through the village of Menotomy (modern-day Arlington), insurgent riders had carried the alarm as far west as Stow and as far south as Natick.  When the supposedly secret march arrived in Concord at 9 am, militias had been called to muster as far west as Ashby.

Many other riders helped Paul Revere to carry the alarm.  Their participation did not in any way diminish his role, but actually enlarged it.  The more we learn about these messengers, the more interesting Paul Revere’s part becomes—not merely as a solitary courier, but as an organizer and promoter of a common effort in the cause of freedom.

Community, Not Isolation:  Fischer studied multiple surviving lists of revolutionary leaders in Boston.  Paul Revere and his friend, Joseph Warren, show up on almost all of them—more often than Samuel and John Adams, more often than John Hancock, Josiah Quincy and James Otis.  From the St. Andrew’s Masonic Lodge, to the Loyal Nine (steering committee of the Sons of Liberty), to the North Caucus, to the Boston Tea Party to an “Enemies List” compiled by London Tories, Revere’s name (along with Warren’s) keeps showing up.  Fischer argues that “this gave them their special roles as the linchpins of the revolutionary movement—its communicators, coordinators, and organizers of collective effort in the cause of freedom”.

Revere was similarly connected with leaders of the revolutionary movement throughout eastern Massachusetts.  When riding that night, he didn’t just gallop by shouting “The Regulars are coming!”.  He knew whose doors to knock on and to whom messengers should be sent.  The result:  When American casualties were tallied at the end of April 19, 1775—after a long and successful fight to defend their gunpowder stores and to harass the Regulars all the way back to Boston—those killed or wounded in action came not just from Lexington and Concord, but from 23 different town militias.  (And remember, this was long before Facebook and Twitter.)  Revolution requires the trust borne of long cultivation of public relationships*.

*Meetings don’t have to be held in taverns, but on the evidence of Revere and his contemporaries…it doesn’t hurt.  Happy Patriots’ Day.

From → Books, History, Politics

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