Monday, June 13, 2011

Revere, Revisited

Chris Beneke
Now that public interest has shifted to the contents of Sarah Palin's email account, it appears that the dust has settled on her imaginative reconstruction of Paul Revere’s Ride. It was fun while it lasted. The high point may have been Steven Colbert’s demonstration of how Revere could have rung a bell and fired multiple warning shots from a front-loading (single shot) musket, while riding on a rocking, coin-operated steed.
The editors of Revere’s once relatively sedate Wikipedia page were kept very busy with this extra attention. Palin supporters descended upon them with Palin-friendly edits. Then the gawkers, like me, stopped for a look. The page saw as many as 140,000 visitors on June 6.
At least we were all motivated to learn something about Paul Revere and the American Revolution (how many of those 140,000 were history professors and teachers making sure they had their stories straight?). The chief authority on this topic might be David Hackett Fischer, author of the magisterial book with the deceptively quaint title Paul Revere’s Ride. But Fischer appears to have (wisely) made himself scarce during this controversy.
Though the subject was one on which very few, outside of the Minute Man National History Park, are expert, Palin’s Revere comments gave some very respectable historians and pundits a chance to address the public on an early American history topic and to reflect more broadly on our commitment to education.
Here, forthwith, is a brief snapshot of the historically informed media attention:
In the New Yorker, Jill Lepore described Revere’s ride as a form of “hyperlore, which passes from one computer to the next, along a path best called hyperbolic.” Lepore provides a helpful link to Revere’s 1775 deposition for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which is held at the venerable Massachusetts Historical Society. It’s well worth the few minutes it takes to read Revere’s account, charmingly laden with contemporary expressions and the variety of spellings for which early Americans are justly known.
On, Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg were in grading mode, awarding Palin an "'F' on the Paul Revere quiz." They continue: "Okay, Sarah. Here's your guide to what you need to know about Paul Revere. He did not ring bells or fire warning shots. He did not warn the British. He did not defend ‘freedom.’ And he did not yell, ‘The British are coming!’ because he was a British subject in 1775. As Professor David Hackett Fischer explained in his book 'Paul Revere's Ride,' Revere would have shouted, ‘The regulars are coming!’ That is, the regular army. Americans in and around Boston were called ‘country people.’ Revere was not defending a nation, because the nation we became did not exist yet. Before the phrase ‘United States of America’ was born with the Declaration of Independence, those resisting British power, identifying with the Continental Congress, were collectively known as the ‘United Colonies.’"
Burstein and Isenberg’s larger point is that Palin, who lacks “a basic respect for knowledge” should be, but is decidedly not, “embarrassed by her ignorance.”
Robert Allison, was more sympathetic to Palin in his New York Daily News oped, finding several nuggets of truth in her understanding of Revere’s Ride: “[S]he was, in a sense [right]. Revere, in fact, was warning the British Empire—of which Massachusetts was part—that it could not invade the rights of Americans. Revere himself did not ring bells or fire shots, but the colonists he alerted did. The British troops beginning their march westward heard the bells, and knew the alarm was out. The rest of it—the warning about being secure and being free, was metaphorical . . .”
Allison’s larger point is that historians should take responsibility for failing to educate the public and be grateful for this opportunity to share what they know. "Sarah Palin is not a historian. . . . She is a politician, and quite emphatically a representative of ‘ordinary Americans.’ If her reading of Revere is too subtle for the professoriate, and if she comes across to many as woefully misinformed after visiting these sites, whose fault is it? Hers, or ours, as tour guides and historians?"
Acknowledging how much we all could do with more learning, Pulitzer-Prize winning commentator Leonard Pitts, Jr., observes that "while it is comforting to think Palin’s gaffe speaks only to her own considerable limitations, it is also short-sighted. The evidence suggests that she is less an exception to, than a reflection of, a nation that is in the process of forgetting itself."
Which, I now editorialize, makes Congress’ recent decision to gut the Teaching American History (TAH) program especially disappointing. I just assisted with a TAH proposal and was looking forward, as part of the proposed program, to take local elementary school teachers on a tour of the battle sites at Lexington and Concord, showing them where Paul Revere was likely to have been captured—and where he warned the Regulars that colonial militia were mustering—as well as discussing Paul Revere’s Ride with them.
The alarm has rung, but getting the actual message out will now be more challenging.


Randall said...

This whole dust up would make a fun topic of discussion for a history class or a course on American studies. Might get into the whole pop memory vs history thing. Reminds me of some of the issues brought up in Gordon Wood's review of Lepore's Tea Party book.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

My favorite part of my job is that I get to teach elementary education majors, who are heavily represented in at least two of my classes. I firmly believe they are our only real hope when it comes to undermining the popular myths ("just because lots of people say something, students, doesn't make it right"). My personal pet peeve is the old saw that everyone thought the earth was flat until Columbus.

But we do need to think, as you do here, Chris, about why these myths are damaging. There's no point in bashing our heads in trying to correct ideas about whether or not Washington chopped down a cherry tree unless it leads to a larger teaching moment.

Thanks for taking us through this latest version of myth busters, Chris.