Nary a man is now alive who remembers the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere.
But plenty of men – and women – are alive who can politicize it.
The 18th-century patriot became the unlikely subject of a partisan squabble after former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin toured some Boston attractions Thursday. Asked, “What have you seen so far today and what are you going to take away from your visit?” (which Palin later called a “gotcha-type of question”), she offered an unusual interpretation of Revere’s role in history:
“We saw where Paul Revere hung out as a teenager, which was something new to learn. You know, he who 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, and we were going to be armed.”
Within hours, Palin’s comments went viral on the Internet; video of her remarks attracted more than two million views on YouTube. And almost as quickly, supporters and detractors of the potential Republican presidential candidate began debating the accuracy of what she said. Some cited historians, others quoted 19th-century documents.
Predictably, liberal websites tended to ridicule Palin’s version of history – particularly her contention that Revere “warned the British.” (In fact, the main purpose of his midnight ride was to warn the colonists of a British plan to seize and destroy their weapons.) On the other hand, several conservative sources asserted that Palin was correct, and the former governor herself appeared on Fox News Sunday to insist, “I didn’t mess up on Paul Revere.”
Meanwhile, Wikipedia users have edited the entry on Revere’s ride more than a hundred times since Palin offered her interpretation. Many posters added details that reflect Palin’s account of the historic event. (One change read: “The generally accepted position is that the warnings were verbal in nature, although U.S. politician and former presidential candidate Sarah Palin in an interview suggested that the warnings were accomplished using bells.”) Other Wikipedia users repeatedly deleted the newly added information, calling it incorrect or unreliable.
“It’s certainly symptomatic of our political system now,” said University of Texas Journalism Professor Tom Johnson, who studies politics and the Internet. “I wish that at least things like basic historical facts wouldn’t become political issues, but this shows they can.”
Interpretation “barely true”
Of course, it’s not unusual for interpretations of historic events to be politicized. Partisans frequently engage in politically-tinged debates over such topics as the effects of the New Deal, the causes of the Civil War, and the legacies of various presidents.
Yet compared with those historical disagreements, the fallout from Palin’s remarks was both unusually reflexive and strikingly devoid of substance. Palin’s historical explanation had no political undertones, aside from what might be considered a subtle promotion of gun rights.
Revere’s motivations have never been especially controversial among historians, and the current debate concerns neither Revere’s legacy nor any important issues arising from the midnight ride itself. Rather, it seems mainly to be an effort to mold historical facts to either discredit or defend Palin.
“Oh Dear Lord, Palin mangles Paul Revere,” headlined the story on the Democratic blog Daily Kos. The liberal website Think Progress labeled Palin “the figurehead of flubs.” The progressive magazine Mother Jones called Palin’s account “actually the opposite of everything Paul Revere did.”
From the right, Townhall.com columnist John Ransom quoted the former governor’s remarks and concluded that “Palin’s version is a lot more correct than the journalists correcting her.” The right-leaning Boston Herald ran a story — picked up by several conservative websites — in which two historians gave confirmation to some aspects of Palin’s story. Accompanying the experts’ endorsement, the Herald’s headline exclaimed, “You betcha she was right!”
In fact, Palin’s interpretation of the 1775 midnight ride is at best incomplete. Historical accounts — and Revere’s own writings — make clear he rode his horse that night not to warn the British, but to warn revolutionary leaders and colonists that British soldiers were massing. And contrary to Palin’s suggestion that he rang bells and shot off guns (and contrary to the myth that he yelled, “The British are coming!”), Revere rode quietly through the darkness.
“It’s possible to have conflicting interpretations of a historical event, but Palin is simply flat-out wrong,” Cornell University history professor Michael Kammen said in a phone interview.
However, Palin’s defenders have called attention to a less well-known part of Revere’s ride. After he delivered his message to patriot leaders, Revere was confronted by a group of British soldiers, and by his own account, he informed them that “there would be 500 Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the Country all the way up.”
So in that respect, Palin was correct in saying Revere “warned the British,” although that was neither the main purpose of his ride nor the most important thing he did that night. A Politifact analysis labeled Palin’s interpretation “barely true.”
“I would call her lucky in her comments,” Boston University historian Brendan McConville said in the Boston Herald article, while ABC News quoted McConville and two other experts who said Palin’s interpretation was incorrect. Meanwhile, NPR interviewed a professor who corrected some of the former governor’s assertions, but agreed with the host’s conclusion that “basically, on the whole, Sarah Palin got her history right.”
Making history into “a game”
Palin’s historical interpretation dominated news and blogosphere coverage of her not-a-campaign tour through New England last week. Alongside the feverish reporting of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s indiscretions and John Edwards’ indictment, it provided cable news channels and late night comedians several days worth of unusually abundant fodder, overshadowing much of the week’s more important news.
But of greater concern to scholars is the eagerness of pundits and partisans to rewrite history to reflect a politician’s offhand misinterpretation — a practice that’s easier in this era when the public gets much of its information from Wikipedia and other websites.
“It kind of makes history into a game, and I’m afraid that Sarah Palin and her supporters are maybe playing this history game,” said sociologist James Loewen, who wrote about historical misinformation in the best-selling book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”
“If people say often enough that (Paul Revere) rode through the countryside to warn the British, then maybe 50 years from now it will be considered true,” Loewen told me in a phone interview.
Kammen, the Cornell historian, has noticed similar reactionary revisions after other politicians made surprising historical statements.
And some commentators endorsed Rep. Michele Bachmann’s misleading assertion this year that the Founding Fathers, “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” (In fact, while a handful of the Founding Fathers spoke against slavery, most owned slaves and fostered policies that allowed slavery to thrive.)
“It’s catastrophic because history gets warped,” Kammen said. “I’m appalled by the capacity of people like Palin and Bachmann misspeaking and creating a diversionary circus.”