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.