Sunday was Patriots Day, still marked in Massachusetts and its former "colony" of Maine to commemorate Paul Revere's arrival in Lexington in the early morning hours of April 19, 1775. We all have a sharp vision of the event in our mind's eye, of a rugged revolutionary risking all atop a frothing steed to warn the decent people of New England that the dastardly British were skulking about in a misbegotten attempt to crush the tender seeds of freedom.
Well, I have an exceptional degree of sentimentality about America and Revere's ride deserves to be celebrated, even though our ideas about it are distorted by brilliant poetical mythmaking and propaganda. The degree to which the honest and honorable truth is shrouded by manipulation is something we need to constantly bear in mind, even in these latter days of modern political tea parties.
Some of the factual discrepancies surrounding Revere's ride are of a "Washington didn't really chop down his dad's cherry tree" variety - they knock some of the high gloss off a good yarn but don't really impact the underlying story. For example, Revere didn't gallop through the villages shouting, "The British are coming," but rather was delivering a distinctly more prosaic warning. It was something on the order of "The Regulars are coming out against the Whigs!" He also never hung even a single lantern in any Concord church.
As described in David Hackett Fischer's insightful 1994 "Paul Revere's Ride," the truth is far more nuanced and worthy of honor. Not a solitary hero, he was a high-ranking leader of Revolutionary forces that engaged in a lengthy and elaborate strategic chess match against the indomitable British Empire.
Besides Revere, more than 60 men and women "were abroad that night on the same mission. The more we learn about them, the more interesting Paul Revere's role becomes. More than any other figure, he organized that activity and set it in motion. That night, Paul Revere had many other adventures. He was captured by a British patrol, and was freed in time to rescue [John] Hancock and [Sam] Adams (twice) and save the secret papers of the Revolution. At sunrise he was present on Lexington Green when the first shots were fired..."
By the same token, however, the fact that all this hurrying and scurrying was taking place demonstrates that Americans weren't agrarian innocents victimized by a sneak attack. Rather, this was the culmination of a protracted and deliberate drive toward war. In fact, American authorities suppressed Revere's own first-hand account of the Battles of Lexington and Concord because he steadfastly refused to testify that it was the British who fired the first shots.
Revere's testimony "did not support the American claim that the Regulars had started the fighting, and revealed more about the revolutionary movement than Whig leaders wished to be known," Fischer writes. In other words, our symbolic need to be the aggrieved party overwhelmed our moral obligation to be truthful.
Now is also a good time to recall Revere's starring role in the original 1773 Boston Tea Party, so well co-opted this week by those who wish to spin the government's emergency spending measures into some sort of unprovoked attack on the average citizen.
"Boston was not the first American town to refuse the tea, or the most violent, but it acted with its usual panache. Paul Revere and his mechanics staged a brilliant piece of political theater," writes Fischer, turning an insignificant tax into a key rallying point for unfocused anger at the high-handed British administration.
In what must have seemed like an amusing and ironic comeuppance for American tea-wasters, England's Public Advertiser newspaper of Jan. 27, 1774, reported this unintended consequence: "Letters from Boston complain much of the taste of their fish being altered: Four or five hundred chests of tea may have so contaminated the water in the harbour, that the fish may have contracted a disorder not unlike the nervous complaints of the human body."
It will be up to history to decide if last week's tea parties have similar staying power. Symbolic acts can yield results both sublime and foul. The patriots' ride of 1775 helped bring us real and lasting freedom. But in 1995, extreme right-wingers deliberately adopted Patriots Day to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City in retaliation for the assault on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas exactly two years earlier.
Be careful what you throw in the water lest it poison your own fish. Be mindful of the deepest truth. And visit Revere's house in Boston sometime if you have the chance. It is a remarkable artifact of colonial history.
Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.