BOOK REVIEW / HISTORY : The Life and Times of the Midnight Rider : PAUL REVERE’S RIDE <i> by David Hackett Fischer</i> ; Oxford University Press, $25, 430 pages
Among the many surprises in “Paul Revere’s Ride” by David Hackett Fischer is the revelation that Revere--the so-called “Mercury of the American Revolution"--did not shout: “To arms! To arms! The British are coming!”
“In 1775, the people of Massachusetts still thought that they were British,” Fischer explains. “One of them, when asked why he was preparing to defend his house, explained, ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle.’ ”
“Paul Revere’s Ride,” as the title suggests, is a detailed account of the legendary “midnight ride” as narrated by a professional historian with a scholar’s command of the facts and a gift for storytelling.
Indeed, the book turns out to be a tale of adventure and intrigue so vivid and so colorful that it sometimes reads like a thriller rather than a historical monograph.
Fischer complains, incidentally but intriguingly, of certain prejudices that have discouraged earlier historians from focusing on Paul Revere--"a broad prejudice in American universities against patriotic events of every kind,” as Fischer puts it, and “an abiding hostility” to the history that focuses on great men or great events rather than social, economic or political factors.
To his credit, Fischer manages to evoke Paul Revere as a striking heroic figure while, at the same time, giving us the particulars of the world in which he lived and the cause he served. And so “Paul Revere’s Ride” turns out to be both a well-executed biography of Revere and a refresher course on the American Revolution.
So thorough is Fischer’s research that he describes not only how Revere looked but even how he spoke: “His spelling tells us that Paul Revere talked with a harsh, nasal New England twang.” And he reveals that Revere’s much-cherished handiwork as a silversmith tended toward inferior soldering and off-center engraving!
Revere was “a gregarious man, a great joiner,” an active Freemason, a veteran of the French and Indian War. Long before his famous ride, Revere was already ranging far and wide through the colonies as a mounted courier in service of the American Revolution. And he was celebrated in both drinking songs and British intelligence reports at the very moment that he carried out his secret missions under the eyes and guns of the “lobster coats.”
As a counterpoint to Revere, Fischer gives us a parallel account of Thomas Gage, the last royal governor of Massachusetts and the British commander-in-chief whose military operations in America sent Revere on his midnight ride to Lexington and Concord. An aristocrat with an American-born wife--Fischer speculates that she may have passed along military secrets to her countrymen--Gage wavered between civility and coercion in dealing with the unruly colonials.
“Gage,” insists Fischer, “was truly a tragic figure, a good and decent man who was undone by his virtues.”
As Fischer shows us, Revere and his brothers-in-arms proved to be too resourceful, too intrepid and too zealous to be put down by Gage and his army of occupation. As we watch the increasingly desperate measures that Gage adopted in a futile effort to suppress the Revolution, the whole British enterprise in North America begins to resemble other imperial adventures of more recent memory.
“If you think ten thousand men sufficient, send twenty,” Gage told his superiors in London. “If one million is thought enough, give two; you save both blood and treasure in the end.”
Fischer gives us a richly elaborated account of Revere’s daring ride and the fighting that followed along “Battle Road” at Lexington and Concord. For example, the author tells us that Revere was actually scolded by one constable along the way for making too much noise while the townsfolk were trying to sleep. And, once his mission was discharged, Revere undertook a new struggle against bureaucratic indifference when he tried to collect on the expense account that he submitted for “for self and horse.”
“A tight-fisted Yankee committee,” Fischer discloses, “insisted on reducing his daily allowance from five shillings to four.”
A subtext of “Paul Revere’s Ride” is Fischer’s reminder that Revere and his comrades were revolutionaries with a strikingly conservative agenda. They sought to preserve the age-old traditions of self-government in New England against the “new-fangled” exertions of British imperialism--and, Fischer argues, they valued “the integrity of the group” at least as highly as the rights of the individual.
“Town born! Turn out!” was the traditional call of the town crier in Colonial Boston at times of peril.
“We misunderstand Paul Revere’s revolutionary thinking if we identify it with our modern ideas of individual freedom and tolerance,” writes Fischer. “We remember individual rights and forget the collective responsibilities.”
That’s the message that Fischer intends to understand in taking a fresh look at the legend of Paul Revere: “When Paul Revere alarmed the Massachusetts countryside,” Fischer concludes, “he was carrying a message for us.”