J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

“I gave them our standard talk about Paul Revere…”

From Episcopal Café, the Rev. Stephen T. Ayres of Old North Church shares his side of the Sarah Palin/Paul Revere kerfuffle. After all, he showed the former governor and her family through the church shortly before she told television cameras what she’d take away from her visit to Boston.

I gave them our standard talk about Paul Revere and the two men who hung the lanterns in the steeple, Robert Newman and John Pulling. I added a bit about the debate between John Hancock and Sam Adams after they received the warning from Revere . . . I did mention that Revere was arrested by British troops and led back to Lexington, warning those British troops that the minutemen had been alerted.

After the introductory talk, we climbed up to the bell ringing chamber, where I talked about how Paul Revere how founded our bell ringing guild in 1750 as a teenager. Governor Palin was particularly interested to see a copy of the original bell ringing contract between Paul Revere and his friends and the rector of Old North, Dr. [Timothy] Cutler. The contract portrays a group of teenagers using democratic principles to organize their bell ringing guild.
Ha! I guessed that Revere’s adolescent bell-ringing had something to do with it.
I was surprised and bemused when the video of Governor Palin's impromptu history quiz went viral the next day. I knew where all the factoids she cited came from and take responsibility for putting them in her head. I will not take the blame for the odd order those factoids came out. Perhaps it was too much information in too short a period of time to digest properly. Maybe if we climbed to the top of the steeple and viewed the lanterns, the governor wouldn't have focused on the bells. Who knows? . . .

I am somewhat saddened by what passes for news and for fact these days. We can laugh at Governor Palin, who may not have gotten all her facts wrong, but certainly didn't get them all straight. But what does this story, with its incredible legs, say about the rest of us? Why was such a large media contingent following the governor in the first place, particularly when many of them were publicly complaining that the trip was not newsworthy?
Part of the answer is the power of celebrity, of course. The same social force that got Palin and her family a special tour of Old North by the minister himself after the National Park Service had brought over security dogs, as Ayres describes at the start of his essay. (Rep. Earl Blumenauer has queried that public expense.) The same force that gave rise to a Palin impersonator outside. It’s a weird phenomenon, but one that acts on nearly all of us.

Another part of the answer is the modern American right’s attempt to claim exclusive ownership of the country’s founding period and legacy. A lot of people get the details of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution mixed up. But when Herman Cain does so while standing for the Republican nomination for President, and while acting more-knowledgeable-and-patriotic-than-thou, that flub is bound to mean more to the public.


Charles Bahne said...

This is a question of interpretation, so I won't say that either side is "wrong" on this one:

Father Ayres says that after Revere was arrested, he "warn[ed] those British troops that the minutemen had been alerted."

I interpret Revere's comments to Major Mitchell not as a "warning", but as a sort of a bluff -- I have hundreds of friends who'll be gathering around here soon, it may not be a good idea for your small party of men to keep me prisoner. Your small group here will soon be outnumbered, and you'd better let me go, and find safety for yourself. In other words, Revere is trying to convince Mitchell to release Revere and the other men that he's stopped on the road that night.

Even if it is a warning, Revere is only warning Major Mitchell and his small group of men. He's not expecting that his message will necessarily be carried to the larger group of Regulars who are marching out from Boston that night.

J. L. Bell said...

As it turned out, Maj. Mitchell and his officers did ride back to the main column and told the officers at the front what they had heard—not just Revere’s words but also a volley of guns in Lexington. That helped to put the regulars on edge as they came into Lexington at dawn. So Revere’s warning or bluff or boast or simple statement of fact probably ended up making the conflict worse.

RFuller said...

Sarah Palin aside, I have as yet found no mention from the British officers about their encounter with Revere, and whatever information he might have given them. Any info on their take on this available? I haven't seen any.

J. L. Bell said...

Lt. William Sutherland wrote: “we were joined by Major [Edward] Mitchell, Capt. [Charles] Cochrane, Capt. [Charles] Lumm & several other Gentlemen who told us the whole Country was Alarm’d & had Gallopped for their lives, or words to that purpose, that they had taken Paul Revierre but was obliged to lett him go after having cutt his girths & Stirrups.” I don’t think we have direct statements from Mitchell or any of the officers with him.

Harold Titus said...

J. L. Bell about Major Mitchell speaking to advance scout Lt. Sutherland is correct.

Harold Titus, author, "Crossing the River"