“Listen my children and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. . .” The opening lines to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride" resonate in the minds of schoolchildren and their parents alike. Revere supposedly galloped through the Massachusetts countryside, shouting "The British are coming! The British are coming!" to rouse the Minutemen during the Revolutionary War. Teachers told us that "one if by land, two if by sea" referred to a signal in Boston's Old North Church of the approaching enemy.
The facts about Paul Revere's mission are somewhat different and even more interesting than the myth surrounding him, some would say. Born in Boston, Revere trained as a goldsmith like his French father, Apollos Rivoire. Paul Revere's elegant work in silver is regarded as some of the period's finest. Revere was known among his fellow artisans for being well-spoken and personable; his business and Masonic ties made him well-known in the burgeoning American independence movement.
By the early 1770s, Revere was regularly acting as a courier for the Sons of Liberty, carrying messages and news to far-flung comrades. He was a witness to the Stamp Act riots and the Boston Massacre, which he memorialized somewhat inaccurately in a famous engraving. His natural ease of manner (he considered himself a gentleman, despite his occupation) contributed much to the atmosphere of the Sons of Liberty's frequent meetings at the Green Dragon Tavern.
At one such meeting when Revere was absent, Dr. Joseph Warren, the group's chief spokesman, learned that British troops were marching to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock in Lexington. He sent for Revere and William Dawes and charged them to go and warn Adams and Hancock. They each took different routes, Dawes by way of Boston Neck and Revere by way of Charlestown. Contrary to popular belief, Revere did not ride a horse on this trip, save for a short leg of the journey when he borrowed a mare from a colleague named John Larkin. He did "alarm" the countryside by stopping at each house, arriving in Lexington at about midnight to warn the two movement leaders. Revere arrived about half an hour before Dawes, and did tell the sentries "The regulars are coming out!"
Revere's attention was rightly focused on the men he traveled to warn rather than on rousing the countryside. Still, as historian David Hackett Fischer concludes, the myth of Paul Revere that has grown around this historical event helps us remember how important the American Revolution is to our national memory. Towards the end of the poem, Longfellow writes "You know the rest ..." That has become true.