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.

Follow by Email

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sarah Palin’s Last Word on Paul Revere

For several days last week, much of America seemed consumed by the vital issue of whether former half-term governor Sarah Palin misspoke about the history of Paul Revere, or whether her comments referred to one particular moment in the early hours of 19 April 1775.

As we recall, during her visit to Boston’s North End, Palin told television cameras that Revere was: “He who warned, uh, the…the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells…”

Law professor William A. Jacobson, who started a blog in large part because he dislikes criticism of Palin, then pointed out that when Maj. Edward Mitchell detained Revere at pistol point in Lincoln, the silversmith told him all about alarming the countryside. (Boston artist Dan Mazur has shared a comic-book version of this episode drawn by Alex Toth.)

That episode could be interpreted, historians conceded, as warning the British. It wasn’t the purpose or most important moment of Revere’s ride, however. And he certainly didn’t warn Mitchell “by ringin’ those bells.”

So did Palin share a correct and uncommonly knowledgeable interpretation of Revere’s ride? Or was she correct only in the way that a stopped clock is correct if you look at it in exactly the right way and ignore it a second later?

That argument might have raged forever, but then someone came along and made it impossible to maintain that Palin enjoys a detailed, accurate understanding of the start of the Revolutionary War. That person was Sarah Palin.

Within the friendly confines of her employer, Palin made a follow-up statement that—even with cramming and preparation—contained so many errors that it confirmed her historical ignorance. She said:

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 to take our arms and we got to make sure that we were protecting ourselves and shoring up all of our 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 were 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.
Let’s take those points one by one.

“He warned the Americans that the British were coming, the British were coming…”

Previously, we recall, Palin said the opposite: “He who warned, uh, the…the British…” But this elaboration started with acknowledging Americans’ basic shared understanding of what Revere did.

In doing so, Palin echoed the cliché phrase, “The British are coming!” Historians have pointed out for years that the American colonists of 1775 still thought of themselves as British subjects fighting for British rights. Therefore, Revere wouldn’t have used that language. In retrospect, however, it’s useful to write about “the British government” or “the British army” to distinguish those from the provincial or American equivalents. And perhaps that’s what Palin was doing here.

(Back here Boston 1775 discussed what might be the earliest appearance of the phrase “The British are coming” in stories of that event.)

“…and they were going to try to take our arms and we got to make sure that we were protecting ourselves and shoring up all of our ammunitions and our firearms so that they couldn’t take it.”

Palin probably meant “storing up” instead of “shoring up,” which is what one does with the levee. The plural of “ammunition” is usually just “ammunition.” The antecedent of “it” should be singular, not two plurals.

But the historical issue here is the word “firearms,” which refers especially to rifles, pistols, and other weapons people carry. Gen. Thomas Gage sent soldiers to Concord to look for cannon. The most advanced battlefield weapons of the day.

“But remember that the British had already been there, many soldiers for seven years in that area.”

What might Palin have meant by “that area”? There were never British soldiers stationed in Lincoln, where Revere was detained. British regiments did come to Boston in 1768, seven years before Revere’s ride. But then they pulled out of the town in 1770. One regiment remained in a fort on an island in the harbor. If we charitably concede that Palin’s “that area” could mean anywhere in eastern Massachusetts, then this would be technically correct. But historically Bostonians experienced a significant decrease in the military presence from 1770 to 1774.

“And part of Paul Revere’s ride — and it wasn’t just one ride — he was a courier, he was a messenger.”

It’s hard to see how Revere’s other rides support Palin’s point, or indeed are relevant. Is it possible that she just threw out that fact because it was something she remembered hearing about Paul Revere and thought might sound impressive?

“part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there. That, hey, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to take American arms.”

For most English speakers, the phrase “was to” indicates purpose—i.e., that Revere undertook his ride in order to warn the British. But Revere worked very hard at avoiding British military personnel on the night of 18-19 April.

If Revere had intended to pass a message to a British officer, he could have done so back in Boston. He could have caught the attention of sailors on the Somerset. He could have stopped to chat with the mounted officers who chased him toward Medford. But he didn’t, because the last thing he wanted to do was talk to the royal authorities.

Only after Revere had been captured—an event he didn’t want to happen—did he speak to a British officer. At that point, his ride was over. He wasn’t operating according to his original intent. Palin’s second statement about Revere’s warning to the British was thus more erroneous than her first.

“You are not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual, private militia that we have.”

Here Palin showed her true colors, badly misstating history as she blew a dog whistle to America’s far right. The colonial militia was not an “individual, private militia.” It was an arm of the government, and of society. Militia service was required and regulated by law, and militia units were organized on a provincial, county, and town basis.

Capt. John Parker was not in an “individual, private militia.” Timothy McVeigh was. It’s an important distinction.

“And in a shout-out, gotcha type of question that was asked of me, I answered candidly.”

The “gotcha type of question” was: “What have you seen so far today, and what are you going to take away from your visit?” Palin misstated the history of a few days before, let alone centuries back.

As for “candidly,” it would have been candid for Palin to say, “I misspoke. I should have said that ‘Paul Revere warned about the British,’ or that ‘Paul Revere’s ride is a warning to anyone who wants to take away Americans’ right to defend ourselves.’” But that would have required admitting a minor error.

“And I know my American history.”

No, she really doesn’t. And worse than that, she doesn’t know how to admit to being even a little wrong.

20 comments:

Turner said...

This isn't the first time a political figure's misappropriated New England history. Bachmann's claims that "the shot heard around the world" was in New Hampshire, for example ( http://www.boston.com/news/politics/politicalintelligence/2011/03/minnesota_rep_b.html ). I also think back to Todd Akin messing up Thanksgiving history ( http://www.americanindependent.com/158191/congressman-todd-akin-on-thanksgiving-pilgrims-fled-socialism ) and how pissed I was about that.

I love Boston and Massachusetts, and I've grown up learning about the history of the place. I really don't appreciate it when people get it wrong, but even less so when they tell me I've gotten it wrong.

Fibro Witch said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. Your knowledge of history and wonderful ability to write, well I don't even have enough skills to tell you how wonderful your blog is.

Charles Bahne said...

Personally, I was hoping that this story would fade away, as it deserves to, after its few minutes of fame. But on the same day that John posted this, the Boston Herald ran an article based on an interview with Father Stephen Ayres of the Old North Church, in which he takes credit (or blame, as the case may be), for planting the seeds of this story:

http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view/2011_0612old_north_church_vicar_defends_palin_on_revere/

When Ms. Palin had visited the Old North Church, a few minutes before her now-infamous on-camera quote, Fr. Ayres had told her about Revere's encounter with Major Mitchell.

John L. Smith said...

Mr. Bell - your point-by-point examination of Ms. Palin's first and second statements is SO GOOD! Clear, concise and accurate. Thank YOU!

Timoteo said...

"For several days last week, much of America seemed consumed by the vital issue of whether former..."

Shouldn't that have been written: "much of liberal America..."?

I think much of America seemed consumed last week (and this week and the week before last week) on a certain liberal Congressman who likes sending pictures of himself to strangers in various stages of undress.

Maybe you could go through 24,000 of Sarah Palin's emails and try to find some more historical material to write about...

J. L. Bell said...

Timoteo, if you want to convince folks that interest in Sarah Palin’s comments on Revere is confined to liberals, it helps if you hadn’t posted a comment on it yourself, pushing Jacobson’s argument.

It’s true that the political media moved on to Rep. Anthony Weiner’s twittiness after a few days. But people in and out of the media continued to talk and write about Palin—including yourself. It’s a measure of her celebrity that her comments, which were mistaken but harmless, prompted more discussion than serious issues. But the force of celebrity knows no political boundaries.

Robert S. Paul said...

As someone who is not considered a liberal in America (but would be just about anywhere else in the world), I can assure you it was not just liberals who were "consumed".

KDeRosa said...

This post is better than your first.

This post notes some legit, yet minor, historical gaffes by Palin (confiscation of firearms (not just the gunpowder and canons) the private militias), some that are more questionable (the "purposeful from the outset" aspect warning, in the area) and one that seems overblown (the multiple rides issue (the second part of the ride -- from Lexington to COncord seems to be what Palin is referring to)).

These are all details that only a historian would care about. No one has really criticised palin on them becasue the layman journalist and politico doesn't know them either.

To the layman this is a matter of interpretation over "warned the British" and whether "bells and gunfire occurred." On both counts layman Palin gets it more right that her layman critics who clearly didn't know that reasonable arguments could be made for each. Then the goalposts shifted slightly.

As you allude to, both sides could learn a little by this episode: The real hstory and some humility as to how well they think they undestand it.

"No, she really doesn’t. And worse than that, she doesn’t know how to admit to being even a little wrong."

Only partially right -- the second point. As to her knowledge of histroy, she seems to know it well enough for a layman, the standard we judge her by. You've gotten her on some nits and her extemporaneous speech could use some improvement, but saying she doesn't know her history is a stretch.

As I pointed out in the last post, even an expert can make some questionable interpretations/assertions about the import of historical events from the comfort of their armchairs and with all the time in the words to carefully write down and edit their thoughts.

Nonetheless, we need more blogs like yours: an expert historian explaining the historical events they are experts in for the benefit of the public. But, I also think it's best when these kind of blogs stay above the political fray. Reasonable minds can differ on matters of politics.

J. L. Bell said...

When historians write of Paul Revere’s multiple rides, they refer to his ride to Philadelphia with the Suffolk Resolves in September 1774, his ride to New Hampshire with news of an approaching Royal Navy ship in December 1774, and his warning to the Middlesex County militia in April 1775. They don’t break up the last ride into its Charlestown-to-Lexington and Lexington-to-Lincoln stretches as you’re doing, KDeRosa. Nor does popular culture; that’s why Longfellow’s poem and the history book you’ve quoted are called Paul Revere’s Ride, in the singular.

I doubt Sarah Palin was referring to those stretches as separate rides as you suggest. Nor do I think that she could state where Revere’s earlier rides took him. I think she was just throwing out a factoid she heard during her visit to Boston—Revere made more than one ride! But I acknowledge that without asking her what she meant we can’t be sure.

We can be sure that she had time to prepare for her FOX News interview, and that she continued to misstate history during it—the history of 1775, and the history of the week before.

I don’t think Palin’s comment about an “individual, private militia” was a minor gaffe, as you see it. I think that’s a serious misunderstanding of the colonial militia, with disturbing implications for today.

We shouldn’t expect, or probably don’t need, elected officials to know details of the Revolutionary War. We do need them to be able to take in a briefing, communicate information accurately and logically, and admit errors when they make them.

KDeRosa said...

I think she was just throwing out a factoid she heard during her visit to Boston—Revere made more than one ride! But I acknowledge that without asking her what she meant we can’t be sure.


That was the only point I was trying to make.

the history of 1775, and the history of the week before

Are these new errors or are you merely pointing to ones you've already reviewed? It's not clear which or which errors you are referring to.

I think that’s a serious misunderstanding of the colonial militia, with disturbing implications for today.


I think this opinion is based on a political orientation. You are entitled to that opinion. I will note that the "disturbing implication" does not seem to have materialized post Heller and McDonald.

J. L. Bell said...

It appears, KDeRosa, that you don’t want anyone to make educated guesses about what Sarah Palin was thinking based on her words, but you’re perfectly comfortable making false assumptions about what I meant by “disturbing implications.” Thanks for showing how well you stick to the standards you insist on for others.

KDeRosa said...

It appears, KDeRosa, that you don’t want anyone to make educated guesses about what Sarah Palin was thinking based on her words

I never claimed that you weren't entitled to make educated guesses. You are. But an educated guess is merely your opinion, not a fact. And, in parts of your argument based on your (mostly reasonable) educated guesses, you implied that Palin was wrong as matter of fact.

but you’re perfectly comfortable making false assumptions about what I meant by “disturbing implications.” Thanks for showing how well you stick to the standards you insist on for others.

So, when I make an educated guess regarding what you were thinking based on your word choices, it's a "false assumption." When you do the same to Palin, we're to always take it as a true assumption.

Whose standards are inconsistent?

J. L. Bell said...

When Sarah Palin said that Paul Revere “warned, uh, the…the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells…,” she was “wrong as a matter of fact.” When she talked about “private militias,” she was “wrong as a matter of fact.”

My educated guesses, KDeRosa, involved how she came to those misstatements. As it turned out, I was right in guessing that Palin had Revere’s adolescent bell-ringing in her mind.

Your statements were not equivalent. You leapt from my short, general phrase “disturbing implications” to allusions to specific recent Supreme Court cases I’ve never discussed on this blog, despite over fifty postings tags with the label “militia.”

That wasn’t an “educated guess”; you were just mounting one of your hobby horses. And in doing so, you revealed your double standards.

KDeRosa said...

When Sarah Palin said that Paul Revere “warned, uh, the…the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells…,” she was “wrong as a matter of fact.”

Only if we accept your interpretation of her words as being the only possible reasonable interpretation. Moreover, that interpretation is merely your layman opinion. So, at worst, she is wrong only as a matter of your layman's linguistic opinion. And, even then, as you concede she is only partially wrong.

When she talked about “private militias,” she was “wrong as a matter of fact.”

We agree. Though, we apparently disagree as to the degree to which this mistake is important since that opinion rests on political orientation.

My educated guesses, KDeRosa, involved how she came to those misstatements. As it turned out, I was right in guessing that Palin had Revere’s adolescent bell-ringing in her mind.

I disagree. Your educated guess was merely based on the vicar's educated guess. Those educated guesses, alone or in combination, do not rise to the level of fact.

Your statements were not equivalent. You leapt from my short, general phrase “disturbing implications” to allusions to specific recent Supreme Court cases I’ve never discussed on this blog, despite over fifty postings tags with the label “militia.”

Those Supreme court cases bear directly on the distinction between government sponsored militias and the private right to bear arms, whether individually or by freedom of association with private organizations, such as a private militia. That you failed to recognize this relevance to your vague "disturbing implications" opinion doesn't make my guess any less educated than yours.

J. L. Bell said...

A reasonable interpretation of Sarah Palin’s comments doesn’t rest on looking only at some of her words and not others, finding unprecedented meanings for her words, insisting that points she emphasized are unimportant, and other methods her defenders have tried.

A reasonable response to Palin’s comments would be the same if those words had come from a junior-high student just home from a field trip, or from President Obama. I doubt, KDeRosa, that you could convince a soul that you’d have spent so much energy fruitlessly trying to justify Palin’s comments if they’d come out of anyone else’s mouth.

My interpretation of Palin’s comments isn’t necessarily the only reasonable one. It is, however, the only reasonable one offered on this forum in the last week.

Like Palin, KDeRosa, you’re unable to admit your errors. You have certain Supreme Court decisions on your mind. Instead of acknowledging your mistake in suggesting that I do too, you claim that I “failed to recognize this relevance.” Your obsessions are not my responsibility.

KDeRosa said...

Since nothing in that last comment was supported by anything specific, I don't need to respond to anything in it and you can have the last word.

J. L. Bell said...

Nice try. But anyone reading the thread can see that my last comment quoted something “specific” from the one preceding. It alluded to specific claims and arguments advanced earlier here and below the earlier posting.

My last comment does ask a nagging question: Would people who spent so much mental energy trying to convince themselves and others that Sarah Palin was correct about Paul Revere have done the same if those comments had come out of anyone else’s mouth?

KDeRosa said...

Nice try. But anyone reading the thread can see that my last comment quoted something “specific” from the one preceding

But nothing new, so there is need to repeat my last response.

Would people who spent so much mental energy trying to convince themselves and others that Sarah Palin was correct about Paul Revere have done the same if those comments had come out of anyone else’s mouth?

Here's another nagging question.

Would people who spent so much mental energy trying to convince themselves and others that Sarah Palin was incorrect about Paul Revere have done the same if those comments had come out of anyone else’s mouth?

J. L. Bell said...

It takes very little mental effort to see that Sarah Palin was incorrect. Her original sentence hardly makes sense on its own, to start with, and her follow-up comment doesn’t even use words properly.

Americans with the common, simple picture of Paul Revere’s ride immediately recognized that saying he set out to warn the British was backwards, and that the verbal picture of Revere doing so “as he’s ridin’ his horse through town to send those warnin’ shots and bells” was incongruous with all the famous depictions.

Many of us who had read the original sources and histories and didn’t need a hurried download of Paul Revere’s Ride put in more mental effort because we know the complexity of original event, and looked for what Palin might conceivably have been thinking of. But in the end even charitable interpretations of her words don’t match the historical evidence for what happened.

The real mental gymnastics came from people who convinced themselves that Palin was using words in unprecedented ways, referring to the Americans as British even while speaking of “us” and “them,” or not actually emphasizing “our own well-armed persons, individual, private militia that we have.” I have yet to see anyone claim they’d have put the same effort into showing how an average junior-high student or President Obama was correct after making the same remarks.

It’s certainly true that people who don’t like Palin politically and/or personally jumped all over her error. About half of my first posting on the incident was about how some of those eager critics made errors themselves. The feedback on these postings has been far above the usual, and people have spontaneously asked me about the matter. So there’s definitely a lot more mental energy being expended on Palin than on other people who’ve governed a state for two years.

MsGenealogist said...

*falls in love with JL Bell*