Historians agree: Palin was right about Revere

One if by land, and two if by sea … and then what?  According to historians interviewed by the Boston Herald, Paul Revere then warned the British not to challenge a roused and armed populace.  That came as news to many observers who had rushed to criticize Sarah Palin for her response to a gotcha question at the Old North Church:

Sarah Palin yesterday insisted her claim at the Old North Church last week that Paul Revere “warned the British” during his famed 1775 ride — remarks that Democrats and the media roundly ridiculed — is actually historically accurate. And local historians are backing her up.

Palin prompted howls of partisan derision when she said on Boston’s Freedom Trail that Revere “warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure 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.”

The first to dispute Palin’s critics was … Paul Revere himself.  In his own account of the ride, written twenty-three years later, Revere recounts how the British captured him, and how he attempted to dissuade the British from advancing.  Revere warned that he had roused the local militias and that there would soon be 500 or more armed citizens coming together to repel the British.

A Boston University history professor told the Herald that Revere did indeed warn the British as well as the Americans earlier in his ride:

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.”

Of course, Revere wasn’t planning on getting captured.  He and others riding to the alarm (William Dawes and Samuel Prescott) wanted to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of British action first, and rouse the militia second.  Dawes and Prescott managed to elude the British and complete the mission, but Revere was captured.  Furthermore, his warnings sufficiently rattled the British that they let him go — but without his horse.  He returned on foot to Lexington, where he managed to hide a trunk with Hancock’s letters to keep it from being captured, but missed the battle.

Andrew Malcolm notes the “faux gaffe” and gives a history of such in the media:

This phenomenon is actually not a new one in American politics, although its immediate spread is obviously hastened by the Internet. Speaking of which, Al Gore did not invent it. Nor did he claim to, as often as you’ve heard otherwise.

In 1999, the hapless former journalist, who should have known to make a better word choice, told CNN that in Congress he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.”

Democrat Gore never used the word “invented.” That was part of another willful misinterpretation that fit expectations of Gore’s boasts and was gleefully spread by opponents as further proof of his unseemly hubris. It lives on to this day.

Perhaps you remember how one day during a photo op President George H.W. Bush was overheard asking a store checkout clerk how this price scanner thing worked?

That quote was immediately transmitted as proof of how disconnected that Republican chief executive was, that he had no knowledge of something as ordinary as a checkout scanner.

The fact is, asking such inane and often obvious questions as “what are you doing here?” is a bipartisan ploy used by politicians to fill the awkward time void they are hanging around someone working while photographers snap their photos several hundred times.

Frankly, I had forgotten much of the history of Revere’s ride until this incident, and I had to look it up for myself to recall what Palin meant by her response.  Tom Burnam covered it succinctly and accurately in his indispensable Dictionary of Misinformation, a book I have had on my shelf for more than 30 years.  If all people know of Revere is Longfellow’s poem, which is what the reaction to Palin’s remarks seem to show, then they know far less than they think.