07 June 2011

Paul Revere's Bells

…he who warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells and, um, makin’ sure as he’s ridin’ his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we’re gonna be secure and we were gonna be free. And we we’re gonna be armed.
Sarah Palin
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's comment about Paul Revere warning the British and ringing bells went viral over the past weekend. Many heap scorn upon her for ignorance, but others have sought to spin her remarks in a way that presents them as free of essential error. Most Americans in 1775 considered themselves British, or at least British subjects (Paul Revere was the son of a French Huguenot father and an English mother).

Palin's defiance when her history was challenged by FOX's Chris Wallace, feeble though his challenge was, has been reposted as often as her original remarks. Typical of the scorn for Palin's version and the subsequent efforts of her fans to alter Wikipedia is Business Insider:
Paul Revere was "warning the British" that night, Palin says, refusing to admit that she just worded her riff badly. ... [Palin's fans] tried to add citations to support the idea that Revere "rang bells" on his ride. (He didn't).
"Sarah Palin Fans Trying To Rewrite Wikipedia History Of Paul Revere's Ride To Match Her Crazy Version,"
On the other hand, National Public Radio, served up a story that supports her views. Melissa Block interviewed historian Robert Allison, chair of history at Suffolk University in Boston.
Prof. ALLISON: Well, he's not firing warning shots. He is telling people so that they can ring bells to alert others. What he's doing is going from house to house, knocking on doors of members of the Committees of Safety saying the regulars are out. That is, he knew that General Gage was sending troops out to Lexington and Concord, really Concord, to seize the weapons being stockpiled there, but also perhaps to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, leaders of the Continental Congress, who were staying in the town of Lexington.
BLOCK: So you think basically, on the whole, Sarah Palin got her history right.
Prof. ALLISON: Well, yeah, she did. And remember, she is a politician. She's not an historian. And God help us when historians start acting like politicians, and I suppose when politicians start writing history.
How Accurate Were Palin's Paul Revere Comments?
For the most part, Allison's comments are consistent with David Hackett Fischer's account in Paul Revere's Ride (1994), probably the best single reference for events in the life of Paul Revere.
[O]nce in the town of Medford, [Revere] went quickly about the task of awakening that community with remarkable economy of effort. He rode directly to the house of Captain Isaac Hall, commander of Medford's minutemen, who instantly triggered the town's alarm system. A townsman remembered that "repeated gunshots, the beating of drums and the ringing of bells filled the air."
Paul Revere's Ride, 140.
There were bells ringing alongside Revere's route, as well as the routes of the other riders. These bells were set off as a consequence of the actions of the riders. Even so, although Revere himself had been a church-bell ringer in his youth and a maker of bells in his profession, he was not ringing the bells himself. He proceeded by stealth. Fischer's narrative offers many a dramatic moment, such as when Revere quietly moved across the mouth of the Charles River and directly under the guns of the warship HMS Somerset (116).

Palin is not crazy to remember bells, but Allison's, "on the whole, Sarah Palin got her history right" seems rather too generous. She botched the story, even though she got some things half-right. If nothing else, the alarm system, the stockpile of cannon and gunpowder, and the ringing of bells all serve to refute Palin's notion that some sort of individual right to bear firearms (as distinct from a "well-regulated militia") was at issue in Paul Revere's midnight ride. The best that can be stated in Palin's defense might be to rate her comments as "barely true," as did PolitiFact. Of the fifty rulings on Palin's statements by this fact-checking resource, twenty-three have scored better than "barely true".

[Addendum 15 August 2011: PolitiFact has changed "barely true" to "mostly false," a better description of what is has meant for a long time. They state at the bottom of the linked page: "Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False."]

Palin's misunderstanding of the minutemen correlates well with her distorted views of eighteenth century New England notions of liberty. Early in Fischer's text, he offers a provocative chiasmus that emphasizes a massive difference in the notions of liberty propagated by today's Tea Partiers and those responsible for the original Boston Tea Party, among whom Revere was one of the leaders.
[Paul Revere] believed deeply in New England's inherited tradition of ordered freedom, which gave heavy weight to collective rights and individual responsibilities--more so than is given by our modern calculus of individual rights and collective responsibilities.
Paul Revere's Ride, 16
The eighteenth century is foreign to modern Americans. Only a deep study of history mired in primary sources will develop the sort of sensibility and understanding needed to translate eighteenth century ideologies into twenty-first century folksy soundbites. There is little in Sarah Palin's background to suggest that she has done this sort of extensive reading, nor that she has any inclination to do so.

Palin quote from Elaine Magliaro, "The Bells are Ringing: Sarah Palin and the Revised Story of Paul Revere's Ride," Jonathan Turley blog (4 June 2011)'s-ride/. Other transcripts of her spoken comments differ slightly. I posted the video of Palin's remarks in yesterday's "Paul Revere's Ride".

No comments:

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP