I’ve been wanting to write for some time about the Sarah Palin-Paul Revere-Wikipedia controversy. You may remember the hoopla last June when former and potential presidential-candidate Palin, then on a historical America tour, was quoted in videos and newspapers for applauding “he who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells.”
Assuredly, Revere did not warn the British but warned the colonists. And we all know that he did it by riding through the streets, screaming “The British are coming!” Right?
For me, though that’s not the story. No sooner had she made the comments but Palin’s supporters went on Wikipedia to change the article to match Palin’s description, an obviously politically-biased act to lend support to Palin’s gaff.
At first, I thought that I would write about this idea, that somehow history is being reshaped by the conscious and slanderous manipulations of political lackeys, that the extremist rhetoric of our two political wings has gone so far as to alter the very identity of our country, of the truths of its history. That somehow Palin was only the most recent example of how we turned the famed silversmith into a hero for Second Amendment Rights: Americans will keep their guns!
But even this is not the story.
Consider what we know of Revere. We’ve been exposed to no end of elementary school stories, museum sidebars, and even comic book versions of one of our country’s founding heroes. If it weren’t for Revere riding and screaming through the streets of Lexington and Concord to warn the rebels, we may well have been caught by surprise at the invasion. Oh, and of course, the story is told best by Romantic poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who made clear his importance in a lengthy poem written nearly 100 years after the event:
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.
Is our own knowledge of history, so quick to scoff at Palin, formed from anything more superior than her own characterization? Longfellow’s work, while based in fact, is literally a Romanticization of history, a heroic spin of what likely occurred very differently. In fact, the Paul Revere Heritage Project was established in part to combat this very Romanticizing of his history. Sadly, though, few visit the site in contrast to the literally millions who went to Wikipedia after the Palin controversy. Longfellow is merely the 19thcentury popular knowledge equivalent of Wikipedia.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Too much of our “common knowledge,” our popular understanding of our culture is based not upon scholarship, but upon Disney, Oprah, cable news anchor spin, childhood stories, the simplification and mythologizing of our past. Yes, in part this is the old adage that the winners write history, but more than this, our attacks on Palin might come from an equally tenuous foundation, one which we uncritically accepted as true while we cast our own political stones at the right wing.
And wait. Setting aside the Second Amendment spin of Palin’s version, was she wrong? Scholarship around Revere’s ride suggests that bells and gunshots were probably more effective and certainly used in the warning to Patriots of the impending attacks. It’s also likely that Revere told the British (who briefly arrested him) that they would be resisted by armed forces. Say what we will of Palin’s Wiki-revisionists; but many thoroughly documented their evidence with genuine scholarship. The Paul Revere Wikipedia article now has more than 90 historical citations to support it, many more than the pre-Palin story.
But we’re too busy defending our own mythology to evaluate Palin’s inaccuracies fairly. One of the strongest attacks on Palin (and her subsequent lop-worded defense of her own version of Revere) comes from the Atlantic Wire, the online news version of theAtlantic Monthly.
And it was the Atlantic Monthly which first published Longfellow’s version, without apology, in 1860.