Myth # 86: Paul Revere rode through the countryside shouting, “The British Are Coming!”

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:
Revere’s deposition:


10 Responses to Myth # 86: Paul Revere rode through the countryside shouting, “The British Are Coming!”

  1. Daud says:

    one little quibble; lobsterbacks is not a contemporary term. lobsters- yes bloodybacks- yes but no lobsterbacks.

    fun fact- the term lobsters, is not as many suppose, a reference to their coats. it is actually an earlier term first used to describe roundhead corsairs who wore red sashes- and grew to mean any soldier.

    though a common Bostonian may have simply assumed it meant their coats…

  2. QNPoohBear says:

    A little Longfellow goes a long way. There are so many myths about Paul Revere thanks to that poem. I should hope that Bostonians know the truth anyway.

  3. Mr. Gadfly says:

    I do not know whether or not Paul revere shouted “The British are Coming!” I do know that many of the reasons for believing that he didn’t are unfounded. Two arguments are presented against Paul Revere having said this. The First is that the colonists considered themselves British, The second that It was supposed to be a secret affair.

    The First argument is deeply flawed because it assumes that just because people are legally defined as one thing means that they identify as that thing. Yes many Americans didn’t think of themselves as Americans, but they did not think of themselves as British. They thought of themselves as Englishmen. If you read the 1774 Declaration of Rights and Grievances. The continental congress never refers to the colonists as british, they refer to the colonists as colonists, englishmen, americans, but never british. The term british is only used by them for the british government and its empire for its ungainly and horrific overextension of its legitimate power. here is a transcript of the wording. See for yourself how the colonists refer to themselves.

    The second argument has more strength because it relies on our assumptions of the best possible way of warning our fellow countrymen. Though it does belie itself because it relies on a straw-man argument. The second argument requires us to believe that the claim presented states that Paul Revere rode through the town shouting “The British are coming!” and never stopped at single house. Such a claim is absurd because very few people would here him at all. Clearly such a presentation is an overdramatization. If We instead say that Paul Revere rode through the town and stopped at a number of houses to inform them that “The British are coming.” and said more than just that, then it seems plausible that it is possible and thus the second argument is rendered void. Revere need only stop at a number of houses (a heap if you will) to inform them that the British are coming, perhaps in this narrative he stops at only patriot houses where members of the patriot militia live. This would retain the secretive nature of the warning while still making the “myth” plausible.

    Both of these arguments suffer from the “Fallacy” fallacy because they use the vagueness of the “myth” to argue that it contradicts itself, when it need not assume the particular form the arguments presents. Also let me clarify I am not arguing that Paul revere rode through town telling people that “The British are coming.” I am merely showing the arguments against that claim are deeply flawed. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and defeating an argument which presents a claim does not mean that the counter-claim is true.

    • I feel that all the history I have learned and love to this day it is all one big lie how am I suppose to pass history down to my children if the history I know is all wrong… this is why I believe history will become almost fiction to younger children or even children a hundred years from now whose to say what myths will get made up then … the idea of being taught wrong about history or even just American history makes me want to and I will learn it all over again, the truth only though no more myths. Hollywood don’t help either with the truth on are history, that’s why they should emphasize the word BASED on true events which means it’s a fiction movie that has some truth relating to an event that happened in history… well here is one H.H. Holmes is jack the ripper fact or fiction hmmm from what I have learned I believe it’s a fact but what do I know.. hell I believed John Hanson was the first President and we all know I was wrong…

      • Mary Miley says:

        Not all the history we learned in school is a lie (you would probably enjoy the popular book, Lies My Teacher Told Me.) Much of it was romanticized for children, and there’s nothing wrong with that. History taught at the high school and college level is something else entirely–far more complex. But while math and science are pretty cut and dried, history is wide open to interpretations, which change with time and place. For example, high school history textbooks in the South in the 1960s talk about happy, well cared for slaves and Reconstruction-was-hell-until-the-white-people-took-back-power. Not quite our view of things today. What you learned at school depended on when and where you learned it. Fifty years ago, history texts, even for universities, had virtually no mention of women or minorities; now they are much more inclusive–and much more interesting, I believe. So the more recent things you read will be the more accurate, on the whole.
        As far as this Paul Revere story goes, it isn’t horribly inaccurate; Paul and others did ride around warning people. It’s only the words they used that have come down to us wrongly. Don’t despair!!!! 🙂

  4. Mary Miley says:

    The absence of evidence is not proof; it is, however, a form of evidence. And please see the historical evidence cited in the author’s third paragraph: “So, what did Revere and his compatriots actually say? In their depositions they stated that they had warned residents “the Regulars are out.”

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