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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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

When Did We Start Saying, “The British Are Coming”?

With Patriots’ Day coming up, I figure it’s time to discuss a few more “Myths of Lexington and Concord.” As a reminder, back in 2006 I defined a myth as “Something which someone somewhere has written down, which I can treat as conventional wisdom to be debunked, thus making what I write seem more original and important.” This is called “marketing.”

Today’s myth-busting comes with the help of Gretchen Adams, director of education at the Paul Revere House in Boston. On Saturday I participated in a teachers’ workshop Gretchen had helped to organize at Gen. George Washington’s Cambridge headquarters. During his presentation, historian Charles Bahne reminded us that Paul Revere did not yell, “The British are coming!”

Most people who have read some Revolutionary history probably know that already. It’s a well-known myth, like young Washington chopping down the cherry tree or Abner Doubleday inventing baseball. Nevertheless, more people are probably familiar with the mythical phrase “The British are coming!” than with what Revere and witnesses recalled him actually saying.

In April 1775, when Revere rode, Britain’s American colonists still thought of themselves as British. Indeed, the message their political leaders had tried to project for ten years was that they were standing up for traditional British liberties, and were thus being more patriotically British than the corrupt officials in London. It wouldn’t make sense for one British man to tell another, “The British are coming!”

The question Gretchen posed was: When did that famous phrase first appear in accounts of the Concord alarm? It doesn’t pop up in my usual round-up of primary-source material that can be searched online (links to the left). It doesn’t appear in the America’s Historical Newspapers database until well into the 1800s, and not in connection to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War until many years after that.

Gretchen had found what, as far as I can tell, is indeed the earliest use of the phrase, and it came from someone who was definitely at Lexington when the alarm began. However, that person didn’t say she’d heard the words from Paul Revere.

On 21 Nov 1822, a Boston man named William H. Sumner dined with Dorothy Scott, the widow of John Hancock. (After the governor’s death, she had married a second time to one of his ships’ captains and moved to New Hampshire.) Sumner heard such interesting stories that he went home and wrote them down in a “Memorandum” that was published in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1854.

In April 1775, Dorothy Scott was still Dolly Quincy, Hancock’s young fiancée. She was staying with him and a large party (also including his aunt and Samuel Adams) in the parsonage at Lexington (shown above, courtesy of Battleroad.org). Revere and William Dawes arrived with a warning that troops were marching from Boston. (Those troops weren’t coming for Hancock and Adams, but that’s a separate myth.) After a great deal of trouble, the Hancock-Adams party finally left for Woburn.

According to Sumner, Scott recalled that on the afternoon of 19 April:

[They] were just sitting down to it [dinner], when in came a man from Lexington, whose house was upon the main road, and who cleared out, leaving his wife and family at home, as soon as he saw the British bayonets glistening as they descended the hills on their return from Concord. Half frightened to death, he exclaimed, “The British are coming! the British are coming! my wife’s in etarnity now.” Mr. H. and Mr. Adams supposing the British troops were at hand, went into the swamp and staid till the alarm was over.
No men in that anecdote come across as very courageous, do they?

I found another, independent use of the “British are coming” phrase in 1849, which was eventually published two years after Sumner’s memorandum. Extracts from the Diary and Correspondence of the Late Amos Lawrence (1856) quotes a letter from that merchant:
My father [Samuel Lawrence] belonged to a company of minute-men in Groton, at the commencement of the Revolution. On the morning of the 19th of April, 1775, when the news reached town that the British troops were on the road from Boston, General [Oliver] Prescott, who was a neighbor, came towards the house on horseback, at rapid speed, and cried out, “Samuel, notify your men: the British are coming.” My father mounted the general's horse, rode a distance of seven miles, notified the men of his circuit, and was back again at his father's house in forty minutes. In three hours the company was ready to march, and on the next day (the 20th) reached Cambridge.
Amos Lawrence was born in 1786, so he had no direct knowledge of the start of the Revolution, but his father lived until 1827 and could have told this story often.

Yet another family anecdote from the day of the Concord Alarm: Anna Eliot Ticknor’s Samuel Eliot (1869) states, in an anecdote about the family’s Atkins ancestors of Newbury, Massachusetts:
In April, 1775, came the rising of the people against the abuse of power, and one day a Mr. Tracy galloped through the streets of Newbury, crying “The British are coming, the British are coming!”
Ticknor wasn’t even born until the nineteenth century, so again the actual writer of this story was relying on tales from her older relatives. Interestingly, the Atkins family was among “the firmest adherents to the English Government.”

There are also incidents of the phrase being used later, such as when the Revolutionary War moved to New Jersey, and in the War of 1812 at Connecticut. It made sense for Americans to shout, “The British are coming!” after the population had broken with Britain and defined themselves as not-British. And since all our stories describing people saying, “The British are coming!” date from after the War of 1812, we have to consider whether people might have projected the language and outlook of that period back onto the start of the Revolution.

With some more online searching, it’s possible to trace the spread of “The British are coming!” from Dorothy Scott’s anecdote. Frederic Hudson’s “The Concord Fight,” published by Harper’s in May 1875, accurately picked up what William Sumner recalled hearing. That same article quotes riders from Boston warning, “The Regulars are coming!” before the first shots and the British retreat. That put both phrases into an authoritative, nationally distributed publication.

N. S. Dodge’s Stories of American History Teaching Lessons of Patriotism, published in Boston in 1879, has Paul Revere telling a sergeant guarding the parsonage at Lexington, “you will have noise enough before long; the British are coming.” Thus the phrase got into Revere’s own mouth, and into a schoolbook.

Even Louisa May Alcott played a role in cementing the phrase in the minds of the next generation of Americans. Her historical fiction “Tabby’s Table-Cloth”, which first appeared in St. Nicholas magazine in February 1884, offered this description of her home town of Concord on 19 Apr 1775:
the people leaped from their beds when young Dr. [Samuel] Prescott came, riding for his life, with the message Paul Revere brought from Boston in the night: — “Arm! arm! the British are coming!”
After that, we were stuck with the phrase.

TOMORROW: One witness’s statement of what Paul Revere actually said.

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