“Listen, my children, and you shall hear…”
The poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was published in an 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine and soon created the legend of a courageous lone rider. Before Longfellow wrote of the “midnight ride,” Revere was not a recognizable name outside his hometown of Boston. So, who was Paul Revere? And why did Longfellow pluck him from the history books for his poem? Here, we’ll dig into both the myth and the historical record. And you can learn and see more in our new exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere. You’ll also find labels written just for kids throughout the galleries.
In “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow tells the tale of Revere, a man who rides through the night at the start of the American Revolution, raising the alarm that British troops are on the move into the countryside surrounding Boston. (You can read the whole poem here.)
The poem starts with a planned church-tower signal to communicate which way the British will travel:
He said to his friend, — “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light, —
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm”
The poem describes the ride as a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the Revolution:
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.”
And “Paul Revere’s Ride” ends with a description of his midnight message as something greater than a mere alert:
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear—
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!”
If you only ever read Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” you might think the midnight ride was a key event in the Revolution, that Revere acted alone, and that the people he alerted were merely local farmers. However, while this poem was an exciting retelling of that night, it wasn’t entirely accurate!
Who was Paul Revere?
Paul Revere cared deeply about the American colonies gaining economic and political freedom from the British. He joined the secret organization the Sons of Liberty in Boston and became an intelligence agent. As an agent, Revere went about his normal life as a metalsmith, engraver, and tradesman, but he was always gathering information on the activities of the British and their supporters. He was one of many patriots who saw their efforts as part of a network. Individuals took on specific roles within the Sons of Liberty, but members relied on the organization for the planning and execution of actions.
How was Revere involved in the Midnight Ride?
In April 1775, the patriot spy network reported that large numbers of British soldiers were gathering in Boston. Patriot leaders worried the soldiers were poised to destroy weapons hidden in the Boston countryside and capture colonial leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock. The Sons of Liberty had to get the news out to their networks. On April 18, the order was given to Paul Revere: Raise the alarm!
Was Revere the only rider?
Revere and fellow patriot William Dawes mounted their horses in Boston. Their plan was to use an “alarm and muster” system organized for exactly this kind of emergency. As they rode through the countryside towards Lexington, every person they alerted joined in to spread the word. Soon over 40 riders were active!
Did Revere complete the ride?
Revere and Dawes were able to reach Adams and Hancock, and the two escaped to safety. Revere and Dawes then continued to ride and warn other patriots that the British were on the march until they were stopped at a checkpoint. The British questioned Revere at gunpoint and took his horse, but they eventually let him return on foot to Lexington. As the sun came up on April 19, 1775, the first shots of the American Revolution were being fired in the Battle of Lexington.
How does the historical record differ from Longfellow’s poem?
In Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere is one man acting alone, and his fellow patriots are “country-folk” and “farmers.” His companions and the network of patriots who helped him spread the alarm aren’t mentioned, and Revere’s experience as an intelligence agent isn’t highlighted.
Why did Longfellow choose Revere and describe him in this way?
When the poem was published, United States was less than 100 years old and on the verge of the Civil War. Longfellow, one of the most popular poets of his time and an abolitionist devoted to the anti-slavery cause, responded to the nations’ crisis and potential dissolution by writing stories to remind Americans of their shared past. “Paul Revere’s Ride” also provides an important reminder in tumultuous times: that one person can make a difference.
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beat of that steed,
And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.”
Written by Alice Stevenson, director of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum