John M. Shaw: Sarah Palin and Paul Revere

Roundup: Historians' Take

John M. Shaw teaches history at Portland Community College in Portland, OR.

What David Hackett Fischer (Paul Revere’s Ride) and Jayne Triber (A True Republican) emphasize in their historical assessments of Paul Revere is not his many noteworthy individual accomplishments like the often misunderstood and over-mythologized “midnight ride.”  The teachable moment brought about by Sara Palin’s willful ignorance about Paul Revere is that he was “a true republican” combining civic virtue (i.e., someone who sacrifices some – not all – of their self-interest to further the public or common good) with an entrepreneurial spirit in a variety of trades and businesses (silversmith, tinsmith, made false teeth, engraved pictures, made gunpowder, cast bronze bells and cannon, made jewelry, carved picture frames, shod horses).

Revere engaged actively in a matrix of voluntary civic, fraternal and political organizations that comprised the vibrant public sphere of 1770s Boston.  They often met publicly (Boston Committee of Correspondence; Boston town meeting) or secretly (St. Andrew’s Masonic lodge) or discreetly (North End caucus i.e., Samuel Adams’ political “machine” in North Boston) in taverns (e.g., Green Dragon, Cromwell’s Head, Bunch of Grapes), the British Coffee-House (which served more liquor than coffee) or print shops (Long Room Club, secret group of Boston Whigs). 

As a member of the Sons of Liberty, first created in 1765 to oppose the Stamp Act, in December 1773 Revere played a role in what would become known as the “Boston tea party.”  To protect themselves from the British, the actual participants shrouded themselves in vows of secrecy and disguises.  But two things about Revere’s role are known for sure.  He served on the first civic “watch” committee over the tea-laden ship in Boston harbor.  After the tea was destroyed, Revere (an excellent horseman) became the messenger who first carried the first news of the “Boston tea party” to the Sons of Liberty in New York City.  Then in April 1775 Revere took on the task of warning John Hancock and Sam Adams (who were staying in Lexington) and the militias between Boston and Concord (where they hid their military stores) that “the [British] regulars are coming out” to capture their leaders and artillery (which was moved).

The lesson Palin and the rest of us should learn is that while it is worthwhile to acknowledge Paul Revere’s individual resourcefulness, courage, activism and heroism, Fischer and Triber remind us that his greatness was rooted in a vibrant public sphere predicated upon active civic engagement and predisposed to be eternally vigilant for any threats to their liberties.  We need to recapture the small “r” republicanism that thrived in the milieu of late colonial America, produced a Paul Revere and gave that generation the impetus to, in the words of Thomas Paine, “begin the world anew.”  That is a legacy of change all Americans could believe in, but which the current crop of Democratic and Republican politicians cannot seem to comprehend.

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