The American Revolution is not what it used to be. In the 19th century, it was a revered and present memory. Until the Second World War, it was still a proud and familiar subject, taught piously in every American school. Gradually, the distance in time and the change of population have eroded it in the national ethos. The Civil War has captured the country’s main historical attention, possibly because it evokes one of the most anguished social problems in the United States today. The Revolution does not have the same link with the present; the British, after all, are now America’s friends and allies, not its hated oppressors.
The Revolution has thus become the property of historians rather than of the population at large. One of these academic devotees is David Hackett Fischer, the author of Albion’s Seed, a major and much-admired work dealing with the different British cultural streams that went into early American development. A professor at Brandeis University near Boston, he lives in the town of Wayland, which used to be called Sudbury, a few miles from Boston. How it has changed tells much about the declining fortunes of the American Revolution. Few of its inhabitants, he tells us, come from Yankee stock. Most of its church-going population are Roman Catholics, as is true of New England as a whole. There is still an old highway between Wayland and Boston, but it now has a synagogue on one side and a mosque on the other.
Nevertheless, Professor Fischer loyally insists that Wayland, né Sudbury, has not changed all that much. As proof, he cites its adherence to an old tradition. On every 19th of April, the date of Paul Revere’s ride, the town’s great bell rings out and ‘the people of the town awaken suddenly in their beds, and listen, and remember.’ The bell was made by Paul Revere, and what they allegedly remember is the horseman who came riding into town that day in 1775 to spread the alarm of the British military action which resulted in the first battles of the American Revolution. Whatever the Catholics, Jews and Muslims may remember of a time when there were no Catholics, Jews and Muslims in Wayland, they have no excuse now – thanks to Professor Fischer – for not being able to find out all about Paul Revere and how the Revolution began.
Some books promise more than they deliver: Paul Revere’s Ride promises less. The famous ride is only a minor part of the book, which is a basic work about the outbreak of the Revolution at Lexington and Concord. The British commander-in chief, General Thomas Gage, gets as much attention as Paul Revere. There have been many versions of the battles at Lexington and Concord, but all of them have been superseded by Fischer, who has made it unnecessary to produce another one.
Among other things, he has cleansed the story of its myths, legends and old wives’ – and, even more, husbands’ – tales that proliferated in the 19th century. One myth is that Revere was the only one to spread the word that the British Regulars were coming out of Boston to attack innocent colonists. A main purpose of the book is to show that Paul Revere’s ride was part of a much larger movement against the British. Another myth is that the militiamen fought spontaneously as isolated individuals. In fact, they gathered in previously arranged military units and, as long as they were able to, followed the orders of their elected commanders. The colonists had prepared actively for months past for an armed struggle and were fired up for action.
Revere and William Dawes, a Boston tanner, were originally sent to warn two of the Revolutionary leaders, John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were staying at a parsonage in Lexington, that a British force was on its way to arrest them. Both Revere and Dawes successfully completed this part of their mission, which was based on misinformation: the British had been sent to confiscate the military stores at Concord. At about one o’clock in the morning, the two of them set forth again, this time to spread the alarm all the way to Concord, about ten miles away. Revere was caught by some British officers but managed to frighten them with talk of hundreds of approaching militiamen. The British officers decided to turn back to warn their superiors. In order to travel faster, they released some prisoners, including Revere, who promptly started out again to arouse town leaders and militia commanders throughout the region.
What the colonists had, according to Fischer, was an ‘alarm system’. It embraced many riders and couriers, besides Revere, and helps to explain how thousands could be rallied in a short time. Fischer says that arrangements had been made to send out couriers with news of the British march even before Revere started out for Lexington. Another, still unidentified, courier went northwards, spreading the alarm in another part of the colony. One gets the impression that the colonists rose simply in order to oppose the British forces, without necessarily having any intention of safeguarding the Concord military stores. That it was a mass rising shows how irrepressible the conflict had become.
Lurking behind the first battles is a much larger question: why would thousands of colonists be ready and willing to kill or be killed at the first sign of a limited British operation? General Gage admittedly did not intend to start a war. Counting on speed and surprise, he sent out an ill-provided force to confiscate colonial arms at Concord in such a way that his men could get back to Boston the same day without stirring up the colonists. Fischer tells how British sluggishness upset Gage’s plan and led to the very war that he hoped to avoid. In effect, Gage thought he was taking preventive action, mainly to please his superiors in London, without precipitating a full-scale rebellion.
We do not know just how many colonists decided in the dead of night to jump on their horses and ride into battle or to march on foot, but they seem to have numbered in the thousands. Nearly all of them were small landowners, neither rich nor poor. The rest were mechanics or artisans. Paul Revere, primarily a silversmith, was just such a mechanic, though Fischer also wishes him to be considered as a businessman and a gentleman.
Why did so many colonists spring into action in April 1775? Clearly they were already imbued with an intense anti-British bias. The clues to this must be found mainly in the events of the previous year. The Boston Tea Party had dumped 342 chests of British tea into Boston harbour in December 1773. The Boston Port Bill, closing the port of Boston, followed in March 1774. This act more than any other changed the political climate in the colonies. From then on, the colonists began to prepare for war by storing weapons and by reactivating their militia, which had long existed but had deteriorated from disuse. George III had not been wrong when he said in September 1774 that ‘the dye is now cast.’
The prime strategic mistake of the British in London and in Boston was to underestimate the colonial militia and to assume that they would never attack British troops. The British forces sent out to destroy the colonial arms at Concord were caught by surprise and found themselves hopelessly outnumbered. The original British detachment would have been annihilated had a larger and better armed force not come to its rescue. British losses at Lexington and Concord considerably exceeded the militia’s. The odds did not change until 1776, by which time it was too late.
Fischer’s story is, therefore, much larger than Paul Revere’s ride. As he himself makes clear, it is about the thousands who took part in these engagements. The Revolutionary movement in Boston, as Fischer says, was ‘more open and pluralist than scholars have believed’, ‘a loose alliance of many overlapping groups’. This is one of the main themes in the book and makes it a genuine contribution to our understanding of the outbreak of the Revolution.
In an appendix, Fischer gives a numerical sketch of the militia in Lexington. Of the total population of 755 (in 1770), 141 belonged to the militia. Their ages ranged from 16 to 66. The secret of the Revolution was how this large segment of the population was motivated to oppose British rule to the bitter end.
Lord North took his time mobilising British forces and wasted the summer of 1775, when the colonists were still riding high from their victories at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. Fischer calls Gage ‘the most powerful man in North America’ in the summer of 1774, but his view of Gage may be a minor flaw in his meticulous reconstruction of the story. Gage himself felt that he was almost powerless because of his inadequate forces. In September 1774, he wrote to Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, that the entire system of colonial government had broken down. He meant ‘to avoid any bloody crisis as long as possible unless forced into it by [the Americans], which may happen’, but he had no faith that it could be avoided. From this time on, he pleaded with the North Government to send him more troops to enable him to take the initiative. In October 1774, Gage told Dartmouth that he had three thousand men and needed 20,000, a figure soon increased to 32,000.
By 1774, Fischer says, Gage ‘wanted very much to keep the peace’. In fact, he wanted to teach the Americans a bloody lesson. He repeatedly begged the British Government to act quickly and with superior force. In October 1774, he advised Dartmouth: ‘If Force is to be used at length, it must be a considerable one, and Foreign Troops must be hired, and to begin with Small Numbers will encourage Resistance and not terrify; and will in the End cost more Blood and Treasure.’ By early November 1774, he was almost frantic with anxiety that the British Government’s response would be too little and too late. ‘This province [Massachusetts] and the neighbouring ones, particularly Connecticut,’ he wrote to Lord Barrington, the Secretary at War, ‘are preparing for War; if you will resist and not yield, that Resistance should be effectual at the Beginning. If you think ten Thousand Men sufficient, send Twenty, if one Million [pounds] is thought enough, give two; you will save both Blood and Treasure in the end.’
Professor Fischer seems to think that Gage held back because he was ‘an English gentleman who believed in decency, moderation, liberty and the rule of law’, but what really held him back was his military weakness, not his gentlemanly character. He was made the scapegoat of the early British humiliation, which was brought on by illusions and miscalculations in London.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Professor Fischer’s book is a lengthy appendix entitled ‘Historiography’. It shows how the myths about Paul Revere’s ride have changed over the centuries. The earliest colonial historians stressed the theme of ‘injured innocence’ on the part of colonists attacked without cause by British forces. The next stage of myth-making made Revere and his compatriots more active and aggressive. In 1861, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet laureate of New England, wrote the famous poem, which generations of American schoolchildren were required to learn by heart, and which depicted Revere as a ‘Lone Rider’ who singlehandedly awoke the good people of Lexington and Concord to their peril. In the late 19th century, Revere became ‘a militant symbol of American strength, power and martial courage’. As relations between the United States and Great Britain warmed, Anglophile versions appeared. After the First World War, Revere was debunked, along with much earlier American history. With the Second World War, he was made into a symbol of ‘the nation’s great crusade for freedom and democracy’. During the Cold War, he ‘began to appear as a personification of the linkage between capitalism and democracy’. In the age of Vietnam and Watergate, a writer portrayed Revere as ‘a coward and traitor who sang like a canary to his British captors, and betrayed his friends to save his own skin’. The latest incarnation, according to Professor Fischer, approaches Revere ‘as a figure of high complexity who is interesting both for what he was and what he did’.
But Fischer has some trouble making good on his own view of Revere. He attributes to him ‘a remarkable complexity of character and culture’, for which he cannot provide any substantial evidence. Revere was not an ideologue and left little or nothing to justify such a characterisation. His education was limited, and there was nothing remarkable about his culture. He worked with his hands, mainly as a silversmith. The little that Fischer tells us about his ideas shows that, as late as 1774, he wanted to return to the status quo ante of British rule before the introduction of ‘newfangled’ innovations, such as the Stamp Act. This was the common currency of even advanced colonial political thought until the leaders eventually woke up to the fact that they were actually seeking to break away from the British Empire. Americans made the Revolution by telling themselves that they were aiming at something else – not an unusual occurrence in great historical events.
Whatever Revere’s revolutionary virtues were, he does not lend himself to being the leading character of an entire book. After the first chapter, he appears in the story only sporadically, and the book goes on without him for many pages. Sometimes, Fischer inflates his importance on the basis of the mere mention of his name. For example, he writes: ‘In the Fall of 1772, John Adams happened by Edes’s office. Inside he found James Otis, “his eyes, fishy and fiery and acting wildly as ever he did”. Standing beside him was Paul Revere.’ Edes was the co-publisher of the Boston Gazette, the organ of the most militant Bostonians. John Adams was one of the Founding Fathers, and James Otis the first and strangest of the great colonial pamphleteers. At that time, Otis was losing his mind from a blow on the head in a coffee-house altercation with a British Commissioner of the Customs. Fischer has based this scene on Adams’s diary. In it, there is no mention of Revere standing next to Otis. Adams merely had Otis saying: ‘You Mr Edes, you John Gill, and you Paul Revere, can you stand there Three Minutes.’ Otis said this merely to get their attention. Adams then devoted a page and a half to Otis’s strange behaviour. A reader of Fischer’s book would get the impression that Revere had done something in Edes’s office to merit being mentioned with Adams and Otis, but all we know from Adams is that Revere was there. This is the only mention of Revere in the four volumes of his diary and autobiography.
Revere is mentioned nine times in the letters of Samuel Adams, who was the closest thing to a professional revolutionary in the American Revolution. In eight of these mentions, he appears as a messenger who merely delivered correspondence. In the last one, Adams explained why Revere’s artillery regiment could not be given a higher seniority. For Adams, Revere had clearly functioned as a messenger. Fischer struggles inconclusively to establish Revere’s role. Often, he writes, Revere ‘was called a “messenger”, “courier” or “express”, which understated his role. A Tory writer described him grandly as “Paul Revere, silversmith, ambassador from the Committee of Correspondence in Boston to the Congress in Philadelphia”, which exaggerated his function. He was less than an ambassador, but more than merely a messenger.’ Revere seems to fall somewhere between understatement and exaggeration, but just where he belongs remains extremely elusive.
Basically, Revere was a ‘mechanic’ and thought of himself as a ‘mechanic’. Fischer himself refers to ‘Paul Revere and his mechanics’ and says that ‘all his life Paul Revere associated actively with other artisans and mechanics.’ Revere later recalled that he was ‘one of upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics’ who formed themselves into a committee to watch the movements of British soldiers. He was not an ordinary mechanic, because his silverwork was superior to the common run of such colonial products and he often served as a messenger carrying news and letters. His importance as a mechanic derives from the nature of the Revolution. When the British forces set out from Boston to Lexington and Concord, they were apparently met by thousands of armed colonists, mostly farmers and mechanics. They had been imbued with anti-British sentiments by a process which is hard to recover. At the height of the Revolutionary ferment in 1774-5, the anti-British Boston Gazette claimed that it sold two thousand copies weekly; few of them could have reached the outlying farmers and mechanics. Yet they turned out in the dead of night to fight the British without quite knowing what the British were trying to do.
This mass phenomenon made the American Revolution possible. Revere knew how to rally these artisans and mechanics, because he was one of them. Had he been equally a businessman and a gentleman, both of which categories Fischer tries unconvincingly to pin on him, it would not have helped to explain the Revolution.