The Sanity of George III
- Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer
Oxford, 445 pp, £17.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 19 508847 6
The American Revolution is not what it used to be. In the 19th century, it was a revered and present memory. Until the Second World War, it was still a proud and familiar subject, taught piously in every American school. Gradually, the distance in time and the change of population have eroded it in the national ethos. The Civil War has captured the country’s main historical attention, possibly because it evokes one of the most anguished social problems in the United States today. The Revolution does not have the same link with the present; the British, after all, are now America’s friends and allies, not its hated oppressors.
The Revolution has thus become the property of historians rather than of the population at large. One of these academic devotees is David Hackett Fischer, the author of Albion’s Seed, a major and much-admired work dealing with the different British cultural streams that went into early American development. A professor at Brandeis University near Boston, he lives in the town of Wayland, which used to be called Sudbury, a few miles from Boston. How it has changed tells much about the declining fortunes of the American Revolution. Few of its inhabitants, he tells us, come from Yankee stock. Most of its church-going population are Roman Catholics, as is true of New England as a whole. There is still an old highway between Wayland and Boston, but it now has a synagogue on one side and a mosque on the other.
Nevertheless, Professor Fischer loyally insists that Wayland, né Sudbury, has not changed all that much. As proof, he cites its adherence to an old tradition. On every 19th of April, the date of Paul Revere’s ride, the town’s great bell rings out and ‘the people of the town awaken suddenly in their beds, and listen, and remember.’ The bell was made by Paul Revere, and what they allegedly remember is the horseman who came riding into town that day in 1775 to spread the alarm of the British military action which resulted in the first battles of the American Revolution. Whatever the Catholics, Jews and Muslims may remember of a time when there were no Catholics, Jews and Muslims in Wayland, they have no excuse now – thanks to Professor Fischer – for not being able to find out all about Paul Revere and how the Revolution began.
Some books promise more than they deliver: Paul Revere’s Ride promises less. The famous ride is only a minor part of the book, which is a basic work about the outbreak of the Revolution at Lexington and Concord. The British commander-in chief, General Thomas Gage, gets as much attention as Paul Revere. There have been many versions of the battles at Lexington and Concord, but all of them have been superseded by Fischer, who has made it unnecessary to produce another one.
Among other things, he has cleansed the story of its myths, legends and old wives’ – and, even more, husbands’ – tales that proliferated in the 19th century. One myth is that Revere was the only one to spread the word that the British Regulars were coming out of Boston to attack innocent colonists. A main purpose of the book is to show that Paul Revere’s ride was part of a much larger movement against the British. Another myth is that the militiamen fought spontaneously as isolated individuals. In fact, they gathered in previously arranged military units and, as long as they were able to, followed the orders of their elected commanders. The colonists had prepared actively for months past for an armed struggle and were fired up for action.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.