Will-she or won’t-she presidential candidate Sarah Palin made headlines this weekend when she tried to relate what exactly it was that American Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere did on his legendary midnight ride.
According to Palin, who was approached by reporters during a stop at Old North Church in Boston on Friday, Revere “warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.”
This is not exactly what happened, according to the Paul Revere House: Rather than riding through town all guns ablazin’ and bell aringin’ on the night of April 18, 1775, Revere used stealth to reach Lexington, a town west of Boston, and warn revolutionaries Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the British were marching to arrest them. Palin wasn’t entirely wrong: He did warn the British – but only after he’d reached Lexington and was arrested on the way to Concord by British troops, who held him at gunpoint until he told them that he’d already warned the revolutionaries of their coming.
But neither is Palin entirely right. And when confronted about her gaffe on Fox News, a network on which she is a paid contributor, Palin was less than abashed – in fact, she denied that she’d said anything amiss. “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,” she explained. “He did warn the British.
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- So, what did Paul Revere really do? That’s actually a good question. WBUR’s Here and Now programme spoke with Harvard professor Jill Lepore, author of The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, who has a bit of sympathy for Palin. Lepore noted that little is actually known about what Revere actually did: What most people popularly know is largely based on a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published in The Atlantic Monthly some 85 years later, and based on a memory, written in a letter by a much older Revere years after the incident. But Lepore also observed that Palin’s characterization of Revere as an American patriot is a bit, well, off – back in 1775, the colonials were British and many were still loyal to the King. Lepore ended by noting that if Palin took the Revere story and perhaps twisted it a bit to fit her own ends – perhaps as a defense of gun ownership – she certainly wouldn’t be the first political figure, on the right or the left, to do so.
- The NRA would be so proud. So, is this just another incident of an American politician rewriting of American history to fit his or her own political ends? Probably. “Palin’s aim – insofar as she had one – was to blow a dog-whistle for her supporters, turning the Revolutionary war into a tale about gun ownership,” noted Richard Adams at his Guardian blog. “That’s not historically inaccurate – it’s the reason there is a second amendment defending the right to bear arms in the first place.” But Palin’s assessment does rather miss some of the nuances about the American Revolution. More than that, however, this little episode just shows how obsessed the American media is with Palin: “What this demonstrates – for the umpteenth time – is that Palin’s every remark gets parsed and counter-parsed.”
- History re-writes itself. Especially when Palin supporters have access to Wikipedia. According to Charles Johnson at political blog Little Green Footballs, Palin’s supporters took to the Paul Revere page to edit the contents to more closely conform to her version of events. Said Johnson, “Man, you’ve gotta almost admire the sheer blind dedication of Sarah Palin’s wingnut acolytes.” Here’s a bit of the back and forth between the WikiPedia monitors and the would-be editors and here’s a history of the revisions; but please, take all of this with a grain of a salt. A giant, horse-lick-sized grain of salt.
- Palin wins again. Palin’s supporters do believe her version of Revere’s historic ride – or that she’s at least right in a sense – and are claiming this as a victory for the former Alaska governor. “When will the lefties learn not to mess with Palin’s understanding of history? Half past never, I’d say,” scoffed The PJ Tatler at Pajamas Media blog. The Boston Herald, Boston’s right-leaning tabloid of record, also claimed that local historians are backing up Palin’s version of events – though at least one historian they spoke to thinks that Palin just got lucky that her version and what may have happened sort of match up.
And another, way more fun, version of Paul Revere’s ride:
Tired of Palin? Nah, us neither.