Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made Paul Revere famous, but maybe not for the reason we might think.
When Longfellow put Revere down on paper, he made Revere seem like a super patriot. There’s the guy who single-handedly yelled out, “The British are coming!” to wake up the minutemen. This led to the Battle of Lexington and the rest is history.
But it’s a bit more complicated than that. As historians point out, Revere wasn’t the only guy who rode. Four others, including a sixteen-year-old girl who rode twice the length than Revere did, also altered every Middlesex, village, and farm. It would have made more sense that Revere wasn’t alone and that not everyone was quietly napping.
So the reason is why did Longfellow single out Revere? What was he trying to prove?
We might never know for sure, but we can tease out some deeper meaning in the poem itself.
Longfellow writes up front:
“On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year”
So, why didn’t anyone remember it? How long ago was this?
Well, Longfellow published the poem in January 1861. That means over 86 years passed since Revere rode. He wasn’t kidding. The only one who would know about it were people who were very young kids themselves, or historians.
Maybe that’s the point. He wanted people to know their history. Not because people should know their history, but because of what was going on right then and there.
The United States was falling apart in 1861. The year before, five days before Christmas, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Th e year opened with six other states leaving in the first month alone. The United States was no more.
Henry Wordsworth Longfellow knew that rational and logic would not end the new Civil War. Nor was he impartial. He wrote several poems about slavery, about how a slave dreams he is back in Africa and he gladly dies in his sleep while his master whips his body. He wrote about the Native Americans in his famous Song of Hiawatha, about their dignity and the unjustness they have experienced.
So, when he wrote The Paul Revere’s Ride, he knew what he was doing. He created a myth for everyone to rally around. Paul Revere became a super patriot at a time when the country faced uncertainty. He breathlessly gives Revere credit for everything, from seeing the lights in the Old North Church, to riding through Lexington and Concord.
And when writes:
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musketball.”
Except that the British wasn’t doing the firing this time. It was his own fellow Americans. But it was a sacrifice Longfellow knew was in service to his country. Longfellow, one British newspaper observed, predicted, “in the dark hours of Northern defeat, that the old flag should yet once more float ‘without a seam.’”
When Longfellow published his poem, he would not know how the war would turn out. He would not know that his son would run away to enlist in the Union Army (and be wounded), or that his wife would die from burns in a tragic fire that same year. But he did hope that the war would end with the Union intact. “You know the rest. In the books you have read,” he says, as if the kids of 1861 who never heard of Paul Revere in the first stanza were now experts, having done their homework in U.S. history. For Wordsworth, history would prevail; just as the British regulars fired and fled, he hoped the Confederates would not stand against the values that the Union stood for.
“And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For borne, on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.”
For the dark days of 1861—and for Henry Wordsworth Longfellow himself—that message was a welcome one.