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Monday, June 6, 2011

What Exactly Did Paul Revere Do On That Ride?

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, holds a booklet depicting Paul Revere, while she speaks with the media as she tours Boston's North End neighborhood on June 2. (AP)

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, holds a booklet depicting Paul Revere, while she speaks with the media as she tours Boston's North End neighborhood on June 2. (AP)

Here & Now Guest:

Jill Lepore, professor of American history at Harvard and author of  “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History.”

Fox News’ Sarah Palin is defending her comments about Paul Revere’s ride, saying “she did not mess up” the history when she said he “warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms.”

But Harvard Professor of History Jill Lepore argues that we should have compassion for anyone struggling with the facts of the Paul Revere story, because even historians don’t know many details of it.

“There are few more canonical episodes in American history so poorly understood even by historians,” she said to Here & Now’s Robin Young, “so we ought to be a little bit forgiving for the mass of confusion out there in the Internet battle going right now.”

“For the left, the right, people running for office, people founding political movements, the Revere story as fictionalized by Longfellow is incredibly captivating.”
– Jill Lepore, Harvard professor of history

Lepore said that Sarah Palin conflated Paul Revere’s ride with his capture, but that Palin “covered herself as best she could.”

“She sort of bulloxed up her explanation of what is really a legend based on a fictional poem based on a memory based on a poorly recorded event. So we are really looking at many layers of confusion for anyone trying to understand what happened that night,” Lepore said.

Lepore goes on to make the point that Longfellow was not writing a history, he was creating a story that Americans could turn to in a moment of national crisis.

“Most of what people think they know about Revere’s ride comes from Longfellow’s poem. It’s a wonderful poem, but Longfellow was not trying to write history, he was writing a legend. He was trying to invent a legend about American history. But he was also trying to offer up a parable to the people of New England on the eve of the Civil War. The poem is an attempt to rouse New Englanders to action against the institution of slavery.”

Lepore said that Palin is also not the first to take up the story of Paul Revere’s ride to help a cause.

“Martin Luther King in 1967 said we still need some ‘Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is at hand,” Lepore said.  “So for the left, the right, people running for office, people founding political movements, the Revere story as fictionalized by Longfellow is incredibly captivating.”

Story compiled by Here & Now’s Hitesh Hathi.


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  • P English

    Very good and informative piece – I certainly learned something about the history of the poem we all memorized in grade school!  Which brings me to another point.  I think Robin was too generous in allowing that “many of us” are fuzzy on the details (fictional or otherwise) of that poem.  Ms. Palin fumbled in a way that would make her the giggles of any middle school classroom.

  • Anonymous

    The sad thing is she is holding a small book about Paul Revere, you think she would have READ some thing while she was visiting his house. But, personally I don’t think she went to his house. She said she went to the place where he use to hang out. So I’m thinking Durgan Park or the Sam Adams brewery.

    • Mary

      Sad? What is sad is people like you thinking this is sad.

  • Bryan

    Since Michele Bachman had just relocated the Lexington and Concord of revolutionary fame to the state of New Hampshire, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to express a questioning skepticism toward Professor Palin’s  “Real America” history lessons. 

  • Sandy

    What does any of that have to do with a former Vice-Presidential candidate knowing US history? You could have compassion with the checker at the Piggly Wiggly – not someone who sees themself competent to be the leader of the free world. This kind of “compassion” is killing this country.

  • chi

    I looked up the dictionary and could not find “bullox”.  Should it be either “bollix” or “ballocks”? Quite confusing.

    • Coffeeiron5

      bollocks!

  • Kim

    It wasn’t all that poorly documented.  Revere himself wrote a detailed explanation of the ride, and it’s been pretty well documented.  I’d highly recommend Patriots by A J Langguth for anyone wanting a good history of the American Revolution.  Actually, I’d recommend it specifically to Ms. Palin, but it’s kind of long and there are no cartoons.

  • Margie

    There is a diary that was left by Paul Revere.  Okay, memoirs are shaky in the 21st C, but I think I trust Paul Revere’s own account over Palin’s, and SHE (Palin) SHOULD,TOO!  I understood there are other first hand accounts as well.  Sorry, not buying this.

  • Porkov

    It is reasonable to assume that the booklet Palin is holding in the photo is the source of her information.  Where did it come from and what does it say?  Did she pick it up on a guided tour?  If so, what was the guide’s narrative?  And finally, who owns history – the people who use their revisions to mock each other, the people whose notion of history comes from the synthesis of fact, myth and legend they got in high school history class, or from pertinent archival documents generated by the participants?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephen-Morse/100002530652417 Stephen Morse
  • Cliesy

    I like the even handed integrity of this story!

  • Clarksetfree

    Why can’t any of you idiots admit that Sarah was write and all the media pundits were embarrassingly wrong.  They tried to ambush her and instead got ambushed themselves.  At every turn, Sarah proves she is much smarter than the liberal media who keep trying to bash her, it is like watching a Road Runner episode.

    • Brenda

      What exactly are you on?  I hope you aren’t driving while you are taking it.

    • Vicki

      They tried to ambush her by asking what she had picked up on her trip?  Yes, I heard her call it a “gotcha” question.  If that’s all it takes to gotcha her, I can’t understand how anyone can think she’s smarter than the interviewers.

  • Vicki

    What I’d like to know that no one is reporting on is, based on where she had just been, what information is on display that she might have been referring to?  I’ve been to Boston, but I don’t know exactly which sites Mrs. Palin had visited.  Is there something that might have suggested the conclusions she drew?

  • Brenda

    I am very tired of all of the soft-soaping and general excuse-making on behavior of Sarah Palin & any Republican but razor sarcasm on any Democrat.  Is this National Propaganda Republican or is this National Public Radio. 

    People thought Hitler was too stupid to be elected in Germany too and look where that head-in-the-sand approach got THEM. 

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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