Jill Lepore: Paul Revere’s Ride Against Slavery

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard and the author, most recently, of “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History.”]

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW published his best-known poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” 150 years ago tomorrow — the same day that South Carolina seceded from the United States.

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Before Longfellow published those lines, Revere was never known for his ride, and Longfellow got almost every detail of what happened in 1775 wrong. But Longfellow didn’t care: he was writing as much about the coming war as about the one that had come before. “Paul Revere’s Ride” is less a poem about the Revolutionary War than about the impending Civil War — and about the conflict over slavery that caused it. That meaning, though, has been almost entirely forgotten.

Longfellow, a passionately private man, was, just as passionately and privately, an abolitionist. His best friend was Charles Sumner, for whom he wrote, in 1842, a slim volume called “Poems on Slavery.” Sumner, a brash and aggressive politician, delivered stirring speeches attacking slave owners; Longfellow, a gentler soul, wrote verses mourning the plight of slaves, poems “so mild,” he wrote, “that even a slaveholder might read them without losing his appetite for breakfast.”

Still, publishing those poems cost Longfellow something: a piece of his privacy, with pressure from fellow abolitionists to enter politics. “I should be found but a weak and unworthy champion in public debate,” he demurred. Asked to write once more about slavery, he refused: “I think no one who cares about the matter will be at any loss to discover my opinion on that subject.”...

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