Ignorant and Proud

We often see polling show­ing that Amer­i­cans are remark­ably igno­rant of our his­tory. They can’t name the dates of the Civil War, they don’t know what hap­pened at the Alamo or why: they don’t know the Soviet Union was on our side in WWII. Does that really mat­ter? You could argue there’s really no rea­son why most peo­ple should know those things. They have min­i­mal bear­ing on most people’s daily life. In gen­eral, I think every­body should know everything–more knowl­edge is good. But as a prac­ti­cal fact, we all have glar­ing gaps in our knowl­edge. I don’t know how to change a clutch in my car, for exam­ple. I think every­body ought to know how to change a clutch, and every­body ought to know about the Alamo, or the Allies, or Paul Revere’s ride. But not every­body does.

Igno­rance is excus­able, but being igno­rant and proud of it is not. I can’t imag­ine going to, say, my local garage and proudly assert­ing some­thing about installing clutches that I made up on the spot.

Sarah Palin recently vis­ited the Old North Church in Boston, where she was asked about Paul Revere, and she responded:

He who warned, uh, the British that they weren’t going to be tak­ing away our arms uh 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 and we were going to be armed

Most Amer­i­cans will rec­og­nize this as grossly wrong at sev­eral lev­els. Revere was try­ing to warn the Amer­i­cans, not the British. It was a stealth mis­sion: he didn’t carry a gun, much less fire one, and he didn’t ring bells. And she also seems to be recast­ing the entire episode to be about the right to bear arms. Most his­to­ri­ans see Revere’s ride as pri­mar­ily about the move­ment towards inde­pen­dence, and sec­on­dar­ily about arms.

But is she wrong? Palin’s defend­ers have pointed out that Revere did warn the British: a British patrol caught him, and he warned them that the colo­nial mili­tia would be wait­ing for them at Con­cord. And in some towns, bells prob­a­bly rang after Revere passed though. There were weapons stored at Con­cord that the British sought to con­fis­cate. Palin her­self con­tin­ues to insist that she was right. Is she?

In his­tory, con­text is cru­cial. It’s April of 1775. The British occupy Boston. They have patrols all over the sur­round­ing coun­try­side. Revere and his co-conspirators hear rumors that The British are plan­ning to march on Con­cord, MA, to arrest rebel lead­ers. They also sus­pect, when they see the size of the British force gath­er­ing, that the want to sieze weapons stored there. Even­tu­ally they march about 700 sol­diers out of Boston, at night, under cover of darkness.

Revere and sev­eral other men headed out in advance of this force, to warn the colonists. That’s indis­putable: the imme­di­ate pur­pose of the ride was to warn sym­pa­thetic colonists that the British were head­ing to Con­cord. Revere was cap­tured by a British patrol, and marched with them as pris­oner to near Lex­ing­ton. There the British heard gun­fire, and rode off to inves­ti­gate, leav­ing Revere on foot. Revere made it to a farm­house where Sam Adams and John Han­cock were stay­ing. The British reg­u­lars arrived in Lex­ing­ton and opened fire on the dis­or­ga­nized colo­nial mili­tia, which quickly fled. The Brits then marched on to Con­cord, where they met stiff resis­tance and had to turn back under heavy fire.

Sev­eral things are unmis­take­able in the his­tor­i­cal record. The British needed no warn­ing. They had patrols all over the areas: they knew there were rebels con­spir­ing in Boston and in the coun­try­side. They knew the weapons stored at Con­cord would be use­ful to the rebels, and that the rebels would want to pro­tect them. That’s why they left Boston under­cover of dark. The British needed no warning.

And Revere was absolutely not fir­ing shots or ring­ing bells as he rode. It was a “stealth” mis­sion. He might have been shout­ing “the reg­u­lars are com­ing,” but I doubt it—more likely he was knock­ing on the doors of peo­ple he knew were friendly to his cause, and then rid­ing on. We don’t really know, because Revere doesn’t say.

He left sev­eral accounts of his ride, and they dif­fer in some respects. But both men­tion how he was cap­tured by a British patrol near Lex­ing­ton. Nei­ther account men­tions shout­ing or bell ring­ing. Both men­tion guns fir­ing, but it’s late, after he has already arrived as a pris­oner in Lex­ing­ton, and he says it’s the sound of the mili­tia drilling.

Revere tells the British sol­dier who cap­tures him “that I had alarmed the coun­try all the way up, that their boats were caught aground, and I should have 500 men there soon.” This could be inter­preted as warn­ing the British, or it could be inter­preted as mis­in­for­ma­tion. But the British, again, did not need a warning–they had patrols out, which is how they caught Revere, and Revere’s goal was not to warn the British.

In that sense, Palin is right–he did “warn the british,” but only after his real mis­sion to warn the colonists, the mis­sion he had set out on, was ended. If Revere had set out out warn the British he would have been guilty of some­thing like treason.

There were no doubt bells ring­ing all over the coun­try­side that night, as there were more rid­ers than Revere and bells were com­monly used as sig­nals and alarms. But Revere was not ring­ing them. And shots were fired, but Revere didn’t fire them.

Palin sup­port­ers have been busily try­ing to revise the Wikipedia entry for Paul Revere, so that it men­tions him warn­ing the British. And Palin her­self con­tin­ues to insist that she was not wrong. She told MSNBC:

Part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there. That, hey, you’re not going to suc­ceed. You’re not going to take Amer­i­can arms. You are not going to beat our own well-armed per­sons, indi­vid­ual, pri­vate mili­tia that we have,” she added. “He did warn the British.

This is sim­ply wrong–no part of his ride was aimed at warn­ing the British, and if it had been, it would have con­sti­tuted treason.

It’s unrea­son­able to expect every­one to be an expert. But it’s entirely rea­son­able to expect polit­i­cal lead­ers, or peo­ple who hold them­selves up as mod­els of patri­o­tism, to have a basic grasp of the facts of Amer­i­can history.







  • Matthew Henry wrote:

    Did you really just try to go point for point with this mess?

    Why not just have a new Aporetic post called “Bwa­ha­ha­ha­ha­ha­ha­ha­hahha!!!” and the body can be a YouTube link?

    This is why you should have a phone and a Twit­ter account: so you can rip some things in 140 char­ac­ters while you’re on the toi­let and keep a sense of pro­por­tion more befit­ting an his­to­rian. =P

  • The title of this post and the bit at the end about Wikipedia sug­gest the real prob­lem: one person’s delu­sional rav­ings are incon­se­quen­tial and really, to be expected; what’s really trou­bling is that any­one would attempt to defend such unal­loyed non­sense. You’re deep into Susan Jacoby ter­ri­tory here, of course, and I expect you to shout me off your lawn anon.

    P.S. You might as well shut this blog down today, because you’ll cer­tainly never top the com­ment, “This is why you should have a phone and a Twit­ter account: so you can rip some things in 140 char­ac­ters while you’re on the toi­let and keep a sense of pro­por­tion more befit­ting an historian.”

  • I usu­ally ignore this kind of crap but this one was just too much. Also the TAH grant involves pri­mary sources and I got me started on evidence.

    The defenses of this bit are jaw-dropping. I just snapped. From here on in it’s aaaaalll good

  • Do you think you will ever get a chance to replace Andy Rooney

  • You know the blog post has gone south when your mother scolds you

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