Listen my children and you shall hear
What my grandfather thought of Paul Revere
I read somewhere long ago that the problem with a liar is not that he can’t be believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else. It’s a wonderful insight, and I suspect something similar can be said of historians, who make a profession out of being lied to. Everyone who writes for posterity has an axe to grind, and the historian ends up having to look for common truths in all the dusty dissembling. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem whose opening lines I have mangled above, at the dawn of the Civil War, he was honing a patriotic blade and who can blame him? The country was going to pieces. He needed a name that fit the rhyme in his mind’s ear: Listen my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of… William Dawes? It would never do.
But still, Longfellow was in fact the grandchild of former General Peleg Wadsworth, who had served with Paul Revere during the revolution, and Wadsworth lived until the poet was twenty-two years of age. One wonders if they ever spoke of that time? Perhaps they did but the Boston silversmith’s name simply didn’t come up. Had General Wadsworth known that his daughter’s son would go on to make Revere a national hero and symbol of American Liberty, I suspect it would have. And in that case Longfellow might have written an entirely different poem. It would have taken particular hubris to write the exact same poem, knowing that Revere never even finished the ride that famous night, and that he was forced out of his command in the Massachusetts Militia and court-martialed for cowardice after his shameful role in the Penobscot Expedition.
As one of those children of the 1960′s who was raised to believe in the utter infallibility of our national myths, the real story of Paul Revere comes as a delicious surprise. It’s one of those nuggets of truth that occasionally pop out of reading history and make it so completely fascinating. For a good introduction to the real Revere I recommend “The Fort” by Bernard Cornwell. While not his best work (I found it rushed in places, and the ending was less than satisfying) it nevertheless confirms his amazing natural gifts in the art of smelling out a good story and conveying it to the reader. The tale of the Penobscot Expedition is certainly not as well known as it should be, but it is likely that the very popular Cornwell’s work will help to correct that situation.