Paul Revere and American independence

Paul Revere was much more than the man who rode to warn the troops at Lexington and Concord that the British were on their way.

He was a true revolutionary whose methods in some ways resemble revolutionaries and insurgents of todays.  He was one of the most important leaders in a network of revolutionary organizations that engaged in propaganda, espionage and preparation for armed revolt.

He helped bring Britain’s Massachusetts colony to the tipping point of armed revolt, the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, and make that revolt successful.

PAUL REVERE’S RIDE by David Hackett Fischer (1994) tells the true story of Paul Revere as part of a detailed account of the events leading up to Lexington and Concord and an hour-by-hour account of what happened on that fateful day.

In giving a granular factual account of what happened on a particular day, Fischer threw light on many things—including manners, morals and day-to-day life in 1775 Massachusetts, how American and British political and social values differed, and how this was reflected in their respective military tactics.

In 1774-1775 Britain, you could be an artisan or mechanic who worked with his hands, a merchant who handled money or a gentleman who owned land and had a title of nobility, but you couldn’t combine these roles.

Paul Revere was all three.  He was a silversmith who worked with his hands, and whose work is still prized today.  He was a respected merchant.  And he claimed and was given the status of gentleman.

Revere’s opposite number was General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in North American and royal governor of Massachusetts.  Gage believed his power derived from the King who ruled by divine right, but subject to British laws.  The British believed they were a free people because of the principle of the rule of law.

A contrary principle had grown in up colonial New England.  The Puritan churches, both in England and New England, were governed by their congregations.  The New England townships were governed by town meetings.  The principle was that authority in government came from the bottom up, not the top down.

General Gage’s mission was to make the people of New England submit to the authority of the British crown in some way, however minor or symbolic.  At least seven organizations sprung up to resist this.  There was no overall leader and nobody who belonged to all seven.  Paul Revere and another leader, Dr. Joseph Warren, belonged to five.

Out in the countryside, each town had is own well-ordered militia, based on the right and duty of the citizen to keep and bear arms.  Some towns provided weapons for the indigent.

There was no overall organization, only a communication network.  Paul Revere organized teams of riders who kept the nearby towns informed of British plans.  He made many rides himself.

Gage never ordered the arrests of Paul Revere, Dr. Joseph Warren, Sam Adams, John Hancock or any of the other revolutionary organizers, because they had not broken any specific law.  He was later criticized for this.

Because of the broad-based nature of the organizations, any leaders would have been quickly replaced.  Would new leaders have been as effective as the old?  Would this have mattered?  There is no way to know.

The town militias of New England stockpiled gunpowder and ammunition.  Gage send out several expeditions to seize the gunpowder—some successful, others not.  The American rebels had good intelligence on the British plans and sometimes were able to hide the powder before the British arrived.

Gage planned to send soldiers to seize gunpowder stored in the towns of Lexington and Concord starting shortly before midnight on April 18, 1776.   He sent out a force of only 841 men which was, however, a majority of the forces he had on hand.  The British theory was that a small force of highly-disciplined troops would be a match for a rabble of individual fighters, however many,

For security reasons, he did not reveal his plan to his staff, but only sent sealed orders to key officers to key officers at the last minute.  Not all his officers received their orders, and some were slow getting starteThe rebels learned of his plan anyhow  There is strong circumstantial evidence that the information came from Gage’s beautiful American wife, Margaret, who soon after was sent to England.

Paul Revere was one of more than 60 men and women who gave the alarm.  Like a number of others, he was captured by a British patrol.  He frankly told them who he was, and, with pistols pointed at his head, warned them they had better turn back from Lexington, because he knew that was where Sam Adams and John Hancock were.  The British officers were astonished to learn that Revere knew more about their mission than they did.  Eventually they let him go, but took his good horse.

The assumption of the British officers was that the superior discipline of their troops made them a match for untrained farmers and mechanics, however many there were.   They marched through Lexington with only a minor exchange of fire, but encountered a well-organized militia in Concord.  Tje rebel troops did not hide behind stone walls, but marched forward in good order and defeated the British troops head-on.

The British suffered their worst casualties in the retreat.   Mounted American troops encircled the British, dismounted, fired and rode away again.   British flankers were not able to hold them off.  The British officers were astonished at the military capability of colonial “country people”.

I have to respect the valor and self-restraint of the British troops.  Although retreating through a hostile countryside, they didn’t kill civilians and they didn’t loot.   Not all troops in such a situation would have done the same.

The revolutionary leaders had sympathizers in Britain, so they made sure to write up their version of events and get them to Britain, as well as the other colonies, because General Gage’s report arrived.

Many Americans, including George Washington, John Adams and even the immigrant Thomas Paine, had hoped for reconciliation with the King.  The Battles of Lexington and Concord convinced them that they had no choice but war.  Who knows what course history would have taken if these battles had not taken place when they did?

Paul Revere served in the Continental Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, but did not take part in any major battles.  He continued active in politics, supported ratification of the Constitution and supported the conservative Federalist party.  He said he was as opposed to democracy as he was to aristocracy.

He expanded his business after the war.  He studied metallurgy, invented new alloys and amalgams and was the first to manufacture copper sheets on a large scale.  He also made cannons, church bells and boilerplate.  He died in 1818, at the age of 83.   He left at least 50 grandchildren and thousands of descendants.

Fischer noted that almost all the literary lights of the early United States—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Theodore Parker, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville—were grandsons of some of the handful of men who fought at Lexington and Concord.


David Hackett Fischer said Paul Revere and his fellow New Englanders had a different idea of freedom than we do today.  He said they believed in “collective freedom and individual responsibility” while we today believe in “individual freedom and collective responsibility.”

They believed that freedom consisted of the right of a people to self-government, not the right of individuals to live as they pleased.  Individuals had a responsibility to carry out their duties as citizens.

Paul Revere’s generation were more strongly aware of past and future than people today, Fischer wrote.  They wanted to be worthy of their forebears, and they tried to live in such a way that their descendants would be proud of them.

What would our ancestors of 100 or 200 years ago think of us today?  What will people 100 or 200 years in the future think of us?

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