Thanks to guest blogger Ceci Flinn for busting this week’s myth. Ceci recently received her PhD in history and has been giving tours of Boston for twenty years, so if anyone knows the truth about Paul Revere, she will! And how appropriate–this week is the 237th anniversary of that famous ride.
Standing at a library counter at a university in Canada, I explained what I had been looking for when the e-catalog failed. I gave the person working the front desk increasingly specific information – U.S. History, Early American History, Revolutionary War/War of Independence – until I reached my final description: Paul Revere’s ride. “Oh!” he said, “The British are coming!” When I told the retired history professor I was visiting about this, she said: “That’s all we know about it.” (“We” referring to ordinary Canadians, of course, not herself.) Americans are often the same. It is an amazing example of the strength of historic myth, that this simple phrase could be so prevalent and so . . . wrong.
When Paul Revere, William Dawes, Dr. Samuel Prescott, and others, rode to warn rebel leaders in Lexington and Concord that soldiers were heading their way, looking mainly for the stores of ammunition that were being stockpiled by rebel colonists and an excuse to arrest the leaders, they would never have shouted “The British are coming!” because, simply put, they were all still British. Imagine someone running down a road in Concord, MA today shouting “The Americans are coming!” and you’ve got the idea.
In April of 1775, there was plenty of agitation, and many historians argue that the first shots of the revolution had already been fired in New Hampshire the previous December. But one thing had not yet changed: the colonies were still British. They were still overseen by a faraway king and his parliament, and the composition of the “Declaration of Independence” was over a year in the future. So, what did Revere and his compatriots actually say? In their depositions they stated that they had warned residents “the Regulars are out.” British soldiers, such as those stationed in Boston under General Gage, were referred to as “Regulars,” or colloquially as “Redcoats” or “the King’s men”, or even derogatorily as “Lobsterbacks.” But they were certainly not called “the British.” Nor were colonists yet referred to generally as “Americans,” more often terms like “Yankees” or “provincials” were used.
It is easy to see why the myth came about since in hindsight, we refer to the parties involved in the Revolution that created a new country as “British” and “American” to identify the two sides. The expression was apparently used as early as the 1820s. For example, a man called Elias Phinney published a book in 1825 about the events of April 1775, and in his descriptive text he used the term “British.” Yet looking further to his appendices, where he reprints the depositions of colonists, the text quite clearly says “Regulars.” These depositions are available today on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website. Still, the myth is persistent,and not even the respected historian David McCullough did enough to prevent further perpetuation: in the HBO mini-series dramatizing his book John Adams, a messenger rides up to Adams, working outdoors at his farm, and shouts “The British are marching on Lexington!” Another history “fail”, though admittedly, for clarification’s sake, perhaps an understandable failure.
David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, 1994 (p 56, 109)
Elias Phinney, History of the Battle of Lexington, 1825 (p 15, 33)
Massachusetts Historic Society: http://www.masshist.org/revolution/lexington.php