06 June 2011

Paul Revere's Ride

Paul Revere's letter to Jeremy Belknap (1798) offers his own account of an event that has been much memorialized, mythologized, and misunderstood in the centuries since. The complete letter is available from the Massachusetts Historical Society.
In Medford, I awaked the Captain of the Minute men; & after that, I alarmed almost every House, till I got to Lexington. I found Mrs. Messrs. Hancock & Adams at the Rev. Mr. Clark's; I told them my errand, and inquired for Mr. Daws; they said he had not been there; I related the story of the two officers, & supposed that He must have been stopped, as he ought to have been there before me. After I had been there about half an Hour, Mr. Daws came; after we refreshid our selves, we and set off for Concord, to secure the Stores, &c. there.
Paul Revere to Jeremy Belknap

Sarah Palin's account differs from Revere's, from accounts by leading historians (David Hackett Fischer's account is cited most often), from Wikipedia before her followers attempted to rectify the omission, and even differs substantially from the account in the not always reliable right-wing history in A Patriot's History of the United States (2004) by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. Although a few details that she places near the center of her narrative can be found at the edges of the narrative in A Patriot's History.
[General Thomas Gage] issued orders to arrest the political firebrands and rhetoricians Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were reported in the Lexington area, and to secure the cannons from the colonists. Gage therefore sought to kill two birds with one stone when, on the night of April 18, 1775, he sent 1,000 soldiers from Boston to march up the road via Lexington to Concord. If he could surprise the colonials and could capture Adams, Hancock, and the supplies quietly, the situation might be defused. But the patriots learned of British intentions and signaled the British route with lanterns from the Old North Church, whereupon two riders, Paul Revere and William Dawes left Boston by different routes to rouse the minutemen. Calling, "To Arms! To Arms!" Revere and Dawes's daring mission successfully alerted the patriots at Lexington, at no small cost to Revere, who fell from his horse after warning Hancock and Adams and was captured at one point, but then escaped.
A Patriot's History, 72-73.
Palin's account garbles these events with half-truths and egregious error, much as Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's placement of Lexington and Concord in New Hampshire brought scorn upon her and raised doubts whether any of the Tea Party leaders know enough American history to pass a high school exam.

Needless to say, my blog feed this morning has listed quite a few references to historians and journalists skewering Palin's account. Ed Brayton asserts, "she babbles like an unprepared freshman in history class." Larry Cebula develops this theme with a clip from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and also draws attention to revisions of Wikipedia by Palin apologists. He notes, "she tries to fake her way through with the unprepared student's classic recipe of one-half facts that are wrong and one-half trumpeting what the student believes are the key themes of the course." John Fea repeats Andrew Sullivan's harsh psychoanalysis of Palin, "[o]ne of the most pernicious and dangerous features of Palin is her clinical refusal to understand reality, to accept error, to acknowledge when the facts she has cited are not actually facts, but delusions." Sullivan also comments upon Wikipedia vandalism. The Washington Post employs the Wikipedia entry war as its lead to observe the differences between Michelle Bachmann admitting her error and turning into a joke about liberal Massachusetts and Sarah Palin's claim, "I didn't mess up." Kurt Weldon's brief entry offers a memorable line: "Ignorance is not merely bliss--it's mandatory."

Paul Revere and the Second Amendment

Palin's effort to connect Revere to what would become an issue of gun control and interpretations of the Second Amendment does adhere to a theme in some histories.
He who warned, uh, the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms.
Sarah Palin
Schweikart and Allen note:
[T]he people of Massachusetts established a revolutionary government and raised an army of soldiers known as minutemen (able to fight on a minutes notice).
A Patriot's History, 72
Revere stated clearly that warning the minutemen of British troop movements was his first task.

Schweikart and Allen also position themselves in a debate regarding the extent of firearm and large weapon possession in revolutionary Massachusetts.
[G]uns were so prevalent that citizens did not need to list them specifically. On the eve of the Revolution, Massachusetts citizens were well armed, and not only with small weapons but, collectively, with artillery.
A Patriot's History, 72.
It is clear, even from this pro-gun account from a pair of far-right historians, that Massachusetts established a "well-regulated militia" to serve at the behest of the revolutionary colonial government. Moreover, I rarely hear conservative advocates of the Second Amendment pushing for my right to have an M1A1 Abrams tank in the driveway and surely that is much closer in spirit to the possession of cannon in 1775. Palin seems to want to push this issue a bit farther than Schweikart and Allen, although theirs may be the text that she is misremembering.

Palin's Apologetics

Former Governor Sarah Palin did get something right in a strange twist of fate. In an interview with Chris Wallace on FOX, Palin said:
Reporters don't seem to be understanding it. Even your own Shep Smith there on FOX News, he announced the other day that I was on some publicity tour. I wanted to say, Shep, take it one step futher, what am I publicizing on this tour? I'm publicizing Americana, and our foundation, and how important it is that we learn about our past and our challenges, and victories throughout American history, so that we can successfully proceed forward. Very heady days, rough waters ahead of us, Chris. We need to make sure that we have a strong grasp of our foundational victories so that we can move forward.
Palin to Chris Wallace, FOX News Sunday, at 14:13
She certainly publicizes the need to learn history every time she speaks about the past, for inevitably she makes the news by getting facts mixed up. She then stays in the headlines by insisting that she did not get things wrong. The more she offers her distorted understanding, the more clearly she publicizes the need to learn history. In the long-run that strategy will backfire, but the short-run is her forte.

Palin's English

Finally, we should not overlook this comic piece by Craig Medred in the Alaska Dispatch: "Sarah Palin's Problem is Her English, Not Her History." Palin speaks the rare dialect Northeast Wasillian.
National Rifle Association member that she is, Palin certainly knew Revere wasn't firing off "warning shots.” There were no warning shots in the days of the single-shot, hard-to-reload musket. Nobody wasted shots, let alone ammunition, on warnings. They shot to try to hit something. Palin just slipped up there with her messaging, which is easy to understand because her problem has never been her history so much as her grammar and vocabulary.
This is nothing new. Palin has always spoken some form of Wasillian, or even maybe Northeast Wasillian, an extremely rare dialect.
On a blog that picked up this piece, a commentator noted that Northeast Wasillian is Palin's third language, after "Ida-the-ho-ian and Wasillian."

Editing note: In the original post I incorrectly attributed to John Fea words of Andrew Sullivan that he quoted on his fine history blog. I have corrected the error. Andrew Sullivan is not in my blog feed, while The Way of Improvement Leads Home is one that I read regularly.


John Fea said...

Thanks for the mention, but those are Andrew Sullivan's words, not mine.

James Stripes said...

Thanks for the correction, John. I've repaired the error.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP