Sarah Palin’s much-ridiculed story of Paul Revere isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s badly twisted. Revere didn’t ring bells or fire shots, and he was riding to warn two fellow rebels that the British were coming to arrest them — not to warn the British “that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms.”
That’s what the former Alaska governor said in an offhand remark caught by a TV camera at a June 2 stop in Boston:
“[Revere] warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells and making sure as he was riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.”
Palin’s mangled history was quickly dismissed by news reporters and comedians. But then Palin said on June 5 on “Fox News Sunday” that she “didn’t mess up” the Paul Revere story, and that “I know my American history.”
Here’s how that exchange went:
Fox’s Chris Wallace: You realized that you messed up about Paul Revere, don’t you?
Palin: You know what? I didn’t mess up about Paul Revere. Here is what Paul Revere did. He warned the Americans that the British were coming, the British were coming, and they were going to try take our arms and we got to make sure that we were protecting ourselves and shoring up all of ammunitions and our firearms so that they couldn’t take it. But remember that the British had already been there, many soldiers for seven years in that area. And part of Paul Revere’s ride — and it wasn’t just one ride — he was a courier, he was a messenger. Part of his ride was to warn the British that we’re already there. That, hey, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to take American arms. You are not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual, private militia that we have. He did warn the British. And in a shout-out, gotcha type of question that was asked of me, I answered candidly. And I know my American history.
So how does Palin’s version compare with, say, Paul Revere’s? Not very well.
Revere, in the most complete account he gave of his famous ride, a letter written about 1798, stated that he rode to warn fellow rebels Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the British were coming to arrest them. This transcription, Revere’s spelling mistakes and all, is posted on the website of the Massachusetts Historical Society:
On Tuesday evening, the 18th, it was observed, that a number of Soldiers were marching towards the bottom of the Common. About 10 o’Clock, Dr. Warren Sent in great haste for me, and beged that I would imediately Set off for Lexington, where Messrs. Hancock & Adams were, and acquaint them of the Movement, and that it was thought they were the objets.
Revere didn’t mention firing any shots or ringing any bells, and neither does the account given by the Paul Revere House in its brief history, “The Real Story of Paul Revere’s Ride.” “On the way to Lexington,” states the brief history, “Revere ‘alarmed’ the country-side, stopping at each house, and arrived in Lexington about midnight. As he approached the house where Adams and Hancock were staying, a sentry asked that he not make so much noise. ‘Noise!’ cried Revere, ‘You’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out!’
It’s true that shots were fired and bells were rung, but not by Revere.
According to David Hackett Fischer’s 1995 book “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Revere rode to the house of Captain Isaac Hall, commander of Medford’s minutemen, and it was Hall who triggered the town’s alarm system. Fischer added (on page 140): “A townsman remembered that ‘repeated gunshots, the beating of drums and the ringing of bells filled the air.’ “
In Palin’s defense: It’s true that American rebels had stored arms and gunpowder at Concord, and that British Gen. Thomas Gage not only had orders to arrest the leaders, but had decided to seize and destroy those arms. Alerted by Revere, American militia members confronted the British at the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first armed encounters of the Revolutionary War.
It’s also true that Revere spoke to British officers — though that was by no means his intent. He was seized by a British patrol before he got to Concord. Revere, under questioning, told British officers that 500 Americans were coming to confront them. As he recollected in 1798: “[An officer] asked me if I was an express? I answered in the afirmative. He demanded what time I left Boston? I told him; and aded, that their troops had catched aground in passing the River, and that There would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the Country all the way up.”
Another officer “[c]lapped his pistol to my head, called me by name, & told me he was going to ask me some questions, & if I did not give him true answers, he would blow my brains out,” Revere recalled.
He was still in British custody when the first shots were fired at Lexington, “which appeared to alarm them very much,” Revere said. The British later released Revere, after taking the horse he had been riding.
But Revere makes no mention of specifically “warning” the British against trying to seize arms. In fact, the Americans moved most of the arms before Gen. Gage’s troops could find them.