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.