Paul Revere's Ride
"Paul Revere's Ride" is a poem by an American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet and educator whose works include "Paul Revere's Ride", The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline...
that commemorates the actions of American patriot Paul Revere
Paul Revere was an American silversmith and a patriot in the American Revolution. He is most famous for alerting Colonial militia of approaching British forces before the battles of Lexington and Concord, as dramatized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, Paul Revere's Ride...
on April 18, 1775.
OverviewThe poem is spoken by the landlord of the Wayside Inn
The Wayside Inn is an historic landmark inn located in Sudbury, Massachusetts, in the USA. The inn is still in operation, offering a restaurant, historically accurate guest rooms, and hosting for small receptions. It is reputedly the oldest operating inn in the country, opening as Howe's Tavern in...
and tells a partly fictionalized story of Paul Revere. In the poem, Revere tells a friend to prepare signal lanterns in the Old North Church
Old North Church
Old North Church , at 193 Salem Street, in the North End of Boston, is the location from which the famous "One if by land, and two if by sea" signal is said to have been sent...
to inform him if the British will attack by land or sea. He would await the signal across the river in Charlestown and be ready to spread the alarm throughout Middlesex County, Massachusetts
Middlesex County, Massachusetts
-National protected areas:* Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge* Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge* Longfellow National Historic Site* Lowell National Historical Park* Minute Man National Historical Park* Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge...
. The unnamed friend climbs up the steeple and soon sets up two signal lanterns, informing Revere that the British are coming by sea. Revere rides his horse through Medford
Medford is a city in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, in the United States, on the Mystic River, five miles northwest of downtown Boston. In the 2010 U.S. Census, Medford's population was 56,173...
Lexington is a town in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States. The population was 31,399 at the 2010 census. This town is famous for being the site of the first shot of the American Revolution, in the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775.- History :...
, and Concord
Concord is a town in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, in the United States. As of the 2010 census, the town population was 17,668. Although a small town, Concord is noted for its leading roles in American history and literature.-History:...
to warn the patriots.
Composition and publication historyLongfellow was inspired to write the poem after visiting the Old North Church and climbing its tower on April 5, 1860. He began writing the poem the next day. It was first published in the January 1861 issue of The Atlantic Monthly
The Atlantic Monthly
The Atlantic is an American magazine founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1857. It was created as a literary and cultural commentary magazine. It quickly achieved a national reputation, which it held for more than a century. It was important for recognizing and publishing new writers and poets,...
. It was later published in Longfellow's Tales of a Wayside Inn
Tales of a Wayside Inn
Tales of a Wayside Inn is a collection of poems by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.-Overview:The poems in the collection are told by a group of adults in the tavern of the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, 20 miles from Cambridge, and a favorite resort for parties from Harvard College...
as "The Landlord's Tale" in 1863. The poem served as the first in a series of 22 narratives bundled as a collection, similar to Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer , known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to have been buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey...
's The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at...
, and was published in three installments over 10 years.
Longfellow's family had a connection to the historical Paul Revere. His maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth
Peleg Wadsworth was an American officer during the American Revolutionary War and a Congressman from Massachusetts representing the District of Maine. He was also grandfather of noted American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.Wadsworth was born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, to Peleg and Susanna ...
, was Revere's commander on the Penobscot Expedition
The Penobscot Expedition was the largest American naval expedition of the American Revolutionary War and the United States' worst naval defeat until Pearl Harbor...
AnalysisWhen written in 1860, America was on the verge of Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...
. Longfellow first came forward publicly as an abolitionist
Abolitionism is a movement to end slavery.In western Europe and the Americas abolitionism was a movement to end the slave trade and set slaves free. At the behest of Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas who was shocked at the treatment of natives in the New World, Spain enacted the first...
in 1842 with the publication of his Poems on Slavery. Though he admitted the book made little impact, it was written for his best friend, Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner was an American politician and senator from Massachusetts. An academic lawyer and a powerful orator, Sumner was the leader of the antislavery forces in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans in the United States Senate during the American Civil War and Reconstruction,...
, an activist abolitionist politician with whom he would continue to share common cause on the issues of slavery and the Union. The poem was published in the January, 1861, issue of the The Atlantic magazine on December 20, 1860, just as South Carolina became the first state to secede from the United States. "Paul Revere's Ride" was meant to appeal to Northerners' sense of urgency and, as a call for action, noted that history favors the courageous. Longfellow, who often used poetry to remind readers of cultural and moral values, warns at the end of the poem of a coming "hour of darkness and peril and need", implying the breakup of the Union, and suggests that the "people will waken and listen to hear" the midnight message again. By emphasizing common history, he was attempting to dissolve social tensions.
The phrase "Hardly a man is now alive" was true as one of the last men alive at the time had only recently died. Jonathan Harrington, the young fifer
A fifer is a non-combatant military occupation of a foot soldier who originally played the fife during combat. The practice was instituted during the period of Early Modern warfare to sound signals during changes in formation, such as the line, and were also members of the regiment's military band...
for Lexington's miltia during the battles of Lexington and Concord
Battles of Lexington and Concord
The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War. They were fought on April 19, 1775, in Middlesex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay, within the towns of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy , and Cambridge, near Boston...
, died at the age of 96 in 1854, a few years before the poem was written. The poem fluctuates between past and present tense, sometimes in the same sentence, symbolically pulling the actions of the Revolution into modern times and displaying an event with timeless sympathies.
Longfellow's poem is not historically accurate but his "mistakes" were deliberate. He had researched the historical event, using works like George Bancroft
George Bancroft was an American historian and statesman who was prominent in promoting secondary education both in his home state and at the national level. During his tenure as U.S. Secretary of the Navy, he established the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1845...
's History of the United States, but he manipulated the facts for poetic effect. He was purposely trying to create American legends, much as he did with works like The Song of Hiawatha
The Song of Hiawatha
The Song of Hiawatha is an 1855 epic poem, in trochaic tetrameter, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, featuring an Indian hero and loosely based on legends and ethnography of the Ojibwe and other Native American peoples contained in Algic Researches and additional writings of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft...
(1855) and The Courtship of Miles Standish
The Courtship of Miles Standish
The Courtship of Miles Standish is an 1858 narrative poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about the early days of Plymouth Colony, the colonial settlement established in America by the Mayflower Pilgrims.-Overview:...
Modern critics of the poem emphasize its many historical inaccuracies. For example, the poem depicts the lantern signal in the Old North Church as meant for Revere and not from him, as was actually the case. The historical Paul Revere did not receive the lantern signal, but actually was the one who ordered it to be set up. The poem also depicts Revere rowing himself across the Charles River when, in reality, he was rowed over by others. He also never reached Concord. Another inaccuracy is a general lengthening of the time frame of the night's events.
The majority of criticism, however, notes that Longfellow gave sole credit to Revere for the collective achievements of three riders (as well as the other riders whose names do not survive to history). In fact, Revere and William Dawes
William Dawes, Jr. was one of several men and a woman who alerted colonial minutemen of the approach of British army troops prior to the Battle of Lexington and Concord at the outset of the American Revolution....
rode from Boston
Boston is the capital of and largest city in Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. The largest city in New England, Boston is regarded as the unofficial "Capital of New England" for its economic and cultural impact on the entire New England region. The city proper had...
to Lexington to warn John Hancock
John Hancock was a merchant, statesman, and prominent Patriot of the American Revolution. He served as president of the Second Continental Congress and was the first and third Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts...
and Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams was an American statesman, political philosopher, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. As a politician in colonial Massachusetts, Adams was a leader of the movement that became the American Revolution, and was one of the architects of the principles of American...
that British soldiers were marching from Boston to Lexington to arrest Hancock and Adams and seize the weapons stores in Concord. Revere and Dawes then rode toward Concord, where the militia's arsenal was hidden. They were joined by Samuel Prescott
Samuel Prescott was a Massachusetts Patriot during the American Revolutionary War. He is best remembered for his role in the "midnight ride" to warn the townspeople of Concord of the impending British army move to capture military stores kept there at the beginning of the American Revolution...
, a doctor who happened to be in Lexington. Revere, Dawes, and Prescott were stopped by British troops in Lincoln
Lincoln is a town in the historic area of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States. The population was 6,362 at the 2010 census, including residents of Hanscom Air Force Base that live within town limits...
on the road to nearby Concord. Prescott and Dawes escaped, but Revere was detained and questioned and then escorted at gunpoint by three British officers back to Lexington. Of the three riders, only Prescott arrived at Concord in time to warn the militia there.
Historical impactLongfellow's poem is credited with creating the national legend of Paul Revere, a previously little-known Massachusetts
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...
A silversmith is a craftsperson who makes objects from silver or gold. The terms 'silversmith' and 'goldsmith' are not synonyms as the techniques, training, history, and guilds are or were largely the same but the end product varies greatly as does the scale of objects created.Silversmithing is the...
. Upon Revere's death in 1818, for example, his obituary did not mention his midnight ride but instead focused on his business sense and his many friends. The fame that Longfellow brought to Revere, however, did not materialize until after the Civil War amidst the Colonial Revival Movement
Colonial Revival Movement
The Colonial Revival movement was a national expression of early North American culture, primarily the built and artistic environments of the east coast colonies. The Colonial Revival is generally associated with the eighteenth-century provincial fashion for the Georgian and Neoclassical styles...
of the 1870s. In 1875, for example, the Old North Church mentioned in the poem began an annual custom called the "lantern ceremony" recreating the action of the poem. Three years later, the Church added a plaque noting it as the site of "the signal lanterns of Paul Revere". Revere's elevated historical importance also led to unsubstantiated rumors that he made a set of false teeth for George Washington
George Washington was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783, and presided over the writing of...
. Revere's legendary status continued for decades and, in part due to Longfellow's poem, authentic silverware made by Revere commanded high prices. Wall Street
Wall Street refers to the financial district of New York City, named after and centered on the eight-block-long street running from Broadway to South Street on the East River in Lower Manhattan. Over time, the term has become a metonym for the financial markets of the United States as a whole, or...
tycoon J. P. Morgan
J. P. Morgan
John Pierpont Morgan was an American financier, banker and art collector who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation during his time. In 1892 Morgan arranged the merger of Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric...
, for example, offered $100,000 for a punch bowl Revere made.
In 1896 Helen F. Moore, dismayed that William Dawes had been forgotten, penned a parody of Longfellow's poem:
- 'Tis all very well for the children to hear
- Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
- But why should my name be quite forgot,
- Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
- Why should I ask? The reason is clear—
- My name was Dawes and his Revere.
For a long time, historians of the American Revolution as well as textbook writers relied almost entirely on Longfellow's poem as historical evidence – creating substantial misconceptions in the minds of the American people. In re-examining the episode, some historians in the 20th century have attempted to demythologize Paul Revere almost to the point of marginalization. While it is true that Revere was not the only rider that night, that does not refute the fact that Revere successfully completed the first phase of his mission to warn Adams and Hancock. Other historians have since stressed Revere's importance, including David Hackett Fischer
David Hackett Fischer
David Hackett Fischer is University Professor and Earl Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University. Fischer's major works have tackled everything from large macroeconomic and cultural trends to narrative histories of significant events to explorations of...
in his book Paul Revere's Ride (1995), a scholarly study of Revere's role in the opening of the Revolution.
- Original text of "Paul Revere's Ride" by The Atlantic Online
- Discussion of "Paul Revere's Ride" by the Maine Historical Society
- "Paul Revere's Ride" lesson plan by the National Endowment for the Humanities
- The True Story of Paul Revere – The Midnight Ride
- Wall Street Journal on "Paul Revere's Ride"
- 150 Years of "Paul Revere's Ride": About the Poem