The myths are coming! The myths are coming! Adam Ruins Everything gets it wrong about Revere

Posted on May 12, 2018. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Part 6 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode wraps up the close-read of one pretty miserable half-hour of fake history.

The show takes on the myth of Paul Revere… except there isn’t really much harmful myth here to be tackled. The two things most Americans remember learning about Revere’s ride are that two lanterns in the Old North Church signaled the British army setting out by sea (see our post “What did ‘one if by land, two if by sea’ mean?”); and that Revere cried out “The British are coming! The British are coming!” as he rode.

ARE tells us that Revere himself never saw the lanterns, which is true. He was alerted to British troop movements by the network of Patriot spies active that night of April 18, 1775. From where Revere waited in Charlestown—where the British would come ashore if they took the sea route (which they did)—he could not see the signals.

The show tells us Revere didn’t say “The British are coming!”  but “The Regulars are coming!”, but of course gets the reason why wrong. It incompletely cites “Jennie Cohen, History, 16 April 2013,” and once again we had to do our own research to find the article, “Eleven things you may not know about Paul Revere,” which says this:

Paul Revere never shouted the legendary phrase later attributed to him (“The British are coming!”) as he passed from town to town. The operation was meant to be conducted as discreetly as possible since scores of British troops were hiding out in the Massachusetts countryside. Furthermore, colonial Americans at that time still considered themselves British; if anything, Revere may have told other rebels that the “Regulars”—a term used to designate British soldiers—were on the move.

Unfortunately, all wrong. First, Revere didn’t use the term “Regulars” instead of “British” because most Americans still considered themselves to be British, he did so because British soldiers were called Regulars (because they were in the regular army). Revere most likely shouted “The Regulars are coming out” to let people on the road from Boston to Concord know that the army was “coming out” of Boston to attack the Massachusetts Provincial Congress meeting illegally in Concord.

As for the statement that Revere did not actually shout anything, renowned historian of the Revolution in Boston and eastern Massachusetts J. L. Bell references the thrilling story of Revere making so much noise, in fact, as he reached the house of the Rev. Jonas Clark in Lexington, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying, that William Munroe, who headed the guard of eight men watching over Hancock and Adams, felt obliged to rebuke Revere:

About midnight, Col. Paul Revere rode up and requested admittance. I told him the family had just retired, and had requested, that they might not be disturbed by any noise about the house. “Noise!” said he, “you’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.” We then permitted him to pass.

More importantly, Cohen is wrong about Revere keeping quiet because most Americans were Loyalists who would have turned him in. Earlier in the episode ARE (incorrectly) referenced an article in the online Journal of the American Revolution. If the show’s researchers had revisited this site, they would have found an article by J.L. Bell that would have done two things: told them that most Americans on that road from Boston to Concord were indeed Patriots, and that there is a bigger, actually important, myth to bust about Paul Revere’s ride than what he shouted.

In “Did Paul Revere’s Ride Really Matter?” Bell tells us this:

The biggest myth of Paul Revere’s ride may not be that Revere watched for the lantern signal from the North Church spire, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem described. Nor that he was a lone rider carrying Dr. Joseph Warren’s warning all the way from Boston to Concord. Nor even that Revere yelled, “The British are coming!”

Instead, the biggest myth might be that Paul Revere’s ride was crucial to how the Battle of Lexington and Concord of 19 April 1775 turned out. Rural Massachusetts Patriots were already on alert, especially after they spotted British officers riding west through their towns. Other riders were spreading the same news. Hours passed between the first alarms and when the opposing forces actually engaged, giving Patriots time—more than enough time in some cases—to assemble in militia companies. The broad militia mobilization did not actually stop the British from returning to Boston. Thus, Revere’s warning might not have been necessary to how things worked out at the end of the day.

…Indeed, some militiamen were already active. “Early in the evening” Sgt. William Munroe had mustered an eight-man guard at the parsonage where Hancock and Adams were staying, having heard from a young local named Solomon Brown that there were “nine British officers on the road,” carrying arms.

Furthermore, there were at least four hours between Dawes’s arrival and dawn. The Lexington militia and the people at the parsonage discussed the news from Boston at length. They sent messengers out to other communities. Brown and two other riders headed west to Concord (British officers stopped them). Other men rode east to confirm whether troops were coming along the road from Boston. Capt. John Parker had more than enough time to assemble his men. In fact, at some point between three and four o’clock he dismissed them to catch some sleep nearby.

Concord was already on alert. Revere had brought militia colonel James Barrett a general warning from Boston a couple of days before. The Barretts were already moving the cannon, gunpowder, and other military supplies from their farm to more remote hiding-places.

To be sure, the whole Concord militia didn’t assemble until Dr. Prescott rode into town around two o’clock in the morning. However, as at Lexington, there was a significant stretch of time between the first alert at Concord and when its militia company had to face the British troops. In fact, when those regulars arrived between eight and nine o’clock in the morning, the Concord militia companies pulled back to Punkatasset Hill, a mile north of the town center, before moving to a field above the North Bridge.

Paul Revere didn’t have to keep quiet to avoid being arrested by Loyalists. Bell’s point is that the countryside was already on the lookout for a British attack on Concord, making preparations for an armed confrontation with the Regulars, and in many cases well ahead of Revere.

This fact is so much more important than whether Revere said “the British are coming.” If ART wants to bust myths, why not bust the myth that most Americans did not support the Revolution? Why not use Bell’s article to teach Americans today that hundreds of families in eastern Massachusetts had already fully committed themselves to an armed defense of their traditional liberties by the time the first battle of the American Revolution took place?

The show can’t do that because it is at such pains to debunk the Revolution as a scam and a sham. “Every story we tell about the Revolution is useless,” mourns the fake narrator in  the episode. “Not useless,” says Adam; “just not history.” If ever the pot called the kettle black this has got to be it, coming from a show devoted to presenting myths as real history.

Let’s wrap up next time with what the Puritans would call the “application”—why does it matter if this show gets so much so wrong?

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Paul Revere’s time capsule opened to reveal… a pine tree

Posted on January 7, 2015. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Puritans, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

The Old State House in Boston has been undergoing renovations, and two time capsules have been found in it. The first, laid away in 1901, was found inside the head of the gold-plated lion atop the building and was opened in October 2014 to reveal letters and business cards from Massachusetts politicians, and multiple newspapers from that great age of newsprint. The contents of the second capsule, which was found under a foundation stone, were just revealed to the public.

This second capsule is by far the more exciting. It was placed under the State House on July 4, 1795 by Governor Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, among others, to commemorate the impressive 20th anniversary of American independence. A rundown of the capsule and all of its contents is here, but we want to focus on one particular item in it: a “1652” pine tree shilling.

1652-massachusetts-pine-tree-shilling-large-planchet

This humble coin was one of the first revolutionary acts to take place in English America, but merely one in a string of stands for independence made by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In colonial America—from its beginnings in 1607 right up to independence—actual money was scarce. There were no mints in North America to mint coins. (Paper money as we know it did not exist.) In most colonies, there was either no metal to coin, or, as in Virginia, metal was available but the colonists did not have the wherewithal to mine it. Colonists had to rely on coins coming from England, usually via the Caribbean, where trade was strongest. Items called “Spanish dollars” were used most often as currency. These were not real coins produced in a mint. They were round slugs of silver with no markings that were quickly cut in New Spain so they could be sent to Spain and melted down for different purposes, from silverware to coins. But since these “cobs”, as they were called, were made of silver, they were hijacked in the Americas to be used as currency. As with all coins through human history, they were clipped: someone would trim the edges of the coins to make them slightly smaller, save the trimmings, and melt them down to make more coins for themselves. This meant that the value of the Spanish dollar was unreliable—one might weigh 3 ounces while another weighed 5. On top of that, counterfeiters would reproduce Spanish dollars by mixing silver and alloy. No one could be sure if their Spanish dollars were really worth what they were supposed to be worth. In New England, it was far more reliable to use wampum, which American Indians manufactured to strict standards of quality. Wampum was the most valuable currency in colonial America for many decades in the 1600s.

But Europeans still valued silver, too, and all that suspect Spanish silver coming into North America was causing enormous economic problems, so the MBC came up with a solution. In 1652, the General Court (Massachusetts’ elected legislature) ordered that the colony would begin producing its own silver coins. Here is part of that order:

…all persons what
soever have liberty to bring in unto the mint house at Boston all 
bullion plate or Spanish Coin there to be melted & brought to the
 allay of sterling Silver by John Hull master of the said mint and his sworn officers, & by him to be Coined into 12d : 6d : & 3d pieces which 
shall be for form flat & square on the sides & stamped on the one
side with N E & on the other side wth the figure XIId VId & IIId—
according to the value of each piece, together with a privy mark—which shall be Appointed every three months by the Governor & known 
only to him & the sworn officers of the mint.

The denominations represented in Roman numerals in the order are threepeence, sixpence, and one shilling. The coins are known as “pine tree shillings”  because they had an image of a pine tree on one side. Trees were a major export from the MBC, as the huge trees of North America made perfect masts for ships. All coins read 1652, to mark the year of the mint’s founding, which is why they are referred to today as “1652” shillings even if they were minted in 1662, 1673, etc.

The people of Massachusetts were willing to bring in their shifty Spanish dollars and bullion that had no practical use value to be melted down into MBC coins at the new mint. Indeed, they brought in silver bars, candlesticks, jewelry, and other items that were of no use to them and had likely been brought over with the emigrants from England for fear they might be stolen or lost track of by their agents and/or relatives.

The Boston shilling, as the coins came to be known, was enormously and immediately popular, and began circulating throughout North America, much to the chagrin of the Massachusetts government. The whole point of minting its own coins had been to keep silver money in Massachusetts to steady the economy. But the coins were flowing out of the MBC to other colonies, which meant that Massachusetts wealth (its people’s silver) was accruing in and enriching Virginia, New Amsterdam, and New France.

Its mint caused political problems for the MBC as well. Minting coins was something only a royal government had the authority to do. Colonists in America had absolutely no authority to mint coins—only the king of England could grant that. In 1652, of course, England had no king: Charles I had been executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, and the country was being governed by Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Lord Protector. Remember how the pine tree shillings had an image of a pine tree on them? This was in place of an image of a king, which had always been on English coins. The establishment of a Puritan government in England led the Puritans in Massachusetts to believe that they had a good chance of getting away with establishing their own mint, and for eight years, they did. But when Charles II came to the throne in the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy (after Cromwell’s death and his son’s short stint in office) the renegade mint eventually came under attack from London. Charles II had no love for the Puritans who had executed his father, and he lent a friendly ear to those in his government who hated the Massachusetts Bay Colony in particular as a hotbed of treason and independence. These royal agents visited Boston in 1665 to “review” its laws and statutes, and demanded that the General Court of the colony change 26 of them to fall in line with British law. One of the demands was to immediately stop production at the mint.

The MBC resisted, sending two “very large masts” to the royal navy as a gift in 1666 and another shipload of masts two years later. (Charles II’s government was of course very wrapped up in government at home after 11 years of the Protectorate and the religious upheaval the Restoration caused, so the efforts to bring Massachusetts to heel took a back seat to more pressing matters during this time.) More masts were delivered over the years and this sufficed to keep the mint running while colonial agents tried to win permanent and official royal approval, pleading the colony’s loyalty to the king. They argued that the coins only grew the colonial economy, which could only mean more goods and profits flooding into England at a time when the country’s finances were precarious. But that argument was used by the crown against the colonists: to recover from its depression, the English economy needed to control its coinage, and issue and enforce the use of one English currency throughout its dominions.

Boston kept its mint open despite the mounting problems it was facing. In 1675-6, the devastating civil war known as King Phillip’s War weakened the economy and destroyed political unity in New England. Bickering between New England colonies after the war, which included appeals to London for mediation, contributed to the crown’s decision to revoke Massachusetts’ charter in 1684. The colony was no longer politically independent. It had to accept a governor appointed by the king rather than voted by representatives of the people. The mint was closed. Massachusetts would continue to struggle for independence, and one of the ways it did so was to begin printing paper money in 1690. It was the first government known to have established a paper currency in the history of western civilization.

But that’s another story. We keep our eyes on the pine tree shilling. It’s clear why one was saved, and placed with great pomp and ceremony into the time capsule in 1795. The pine tree shilling represented an early strike for American independence. It represented the Puritan commitment to independent government, and the role of Massachusetts in opposing royal political interference and control. Pine tree shillings were prized by Americans who knew them. With the pine tree shilling found in the time capsule now on temporary display, more Americans can learn about them.

The plan is to return the capsule to the State House foundation with its original contents, and items from 2015. The pine tree shilling that is now seeing the light of day for the first time in 220 years will return to the darkness of history. But one day it will be unearthed again, and it seems that nothing we could add to that time capsule today will outweigh the importance of that small coin, and when it is unearthed again it will steal the show once more.

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What did “one if by land, two if by sea” mean?

Posted on August 15, 2011. Filed under: American history, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , |

It’s one of those phrases, like “Damn the torpedoes!” or “Give me liberty or give me death!”, that all Americans know, but not everyone is sure they can explain. It’s a quick story but a good one.

In May 1774, the governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Gage, dissolved the General Court. This was Massachusetts’ popularly elected legislature, and had been since the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630. The General Court was to be replaced by a Council of men appointed by King George III, just as Governor Gage had been royally appointed. This move overturned the system established in 1691 when Massachusetts became a royal colony: a royally appointed governor, but a popularly elected legislature.

Gage dissolved the GC because it was filled with men agitating for revolution. It was an attempt to stop the GC from fomenting rebellion amongst the so-far non-committal people of the colony. But whether or not they supported revolution, Massachusetts citizens were not going to give up their right to elect their representatives. They voted for representatives in the fall of 1774 as usual, except now those men would constitute the Provincial Congress. This Congress was illegal, according to the British Massachusetts Government Act that had dissolved the GC. It was not allowed to meet in Boston, and so gathered in Concord, northwest of the city. (Learn more about this fascinating 1774 vote at Boston 1775.)

So the Provincial Congress was in Concord, led by John Hancock, and a network of secret spy posts quickly went up between Boston and Concord. These were organized and manned by the Sons of Liberty’s Committee of Safety, which had one very active member named Paul Revere. The northwest precinct of Cambridge, a village called Menotomy (today’s Arlington) was just about at the halfway mark, and the Committee of Safety established a post at the White Horse tavern there. The posts were meant to send news from Boston to Concord about British plans and troop movements.

When the patriots in Boston found out from their spies that the British were planning to go out to Concord to seize an arms and ammunition cache, then arrest the members of the PC, Paul Revere, William Dawes, Samuel Prescott, and a few men whose names are lost to history made ready to ride out to Concord along the spy road to warn the town and the Congress. Word came that the British would set out from Boston on the night of April 18th. Now all they needed to know was what route the soldiers would take out to Concord.

This image, from the Paul Revere house website, shows the two possible routes:

The “land” route is in green. The green line that begins in Boston actually covers up the thin, long neck of land that connected the city to the mainland, but there was a land line, and if the British went south, that would be going “by land”. This was a longer, more roundabout way to Concord, but it avoided the difficulties of the sea route.

The “sea” route is in blue. The little blue boat covers up the Charles River that lay between Boston and Charlestown. Taking this route, the British got to Concord a little sooner, but also got very wet embarking and disembarking and then marching through swamp land on the shore.

Dawes actually took off first, before Revere, going by way of the land route just before the British sealed off the city. Revere snuck across the Charles River to Charlestown, illegally crossing the river at night, to warn the citizens that the British might be coming through at any moment. Revere and the citizens of Charlestown whom he had alarmed then waited for a signal from Robert Newman, sexton of the Old North Church in Boston, about whether the British were indeed on their way, or taking the southern route.

One lantern for the southern route; two for the river crossing. Two lanterns appeared in the steeple for less than a minute, lest they be sighted. The men of Charlestown began their preparations, hiding horses that could be commandeered by the British and getting word to their militia men to start for Concord. Revere got on his horse and tore down the spy road through Menotomy and Medford, “alarming” the citizens that “the Regulars are out!” (This referred to the soldiers of the British Regular Army.) When he arrived in Lexington, and the house Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying at, a man in the house was waked up by Revere shouting. He asked Revere why he was making so much noise in the middle of the night. “Noise!” retorted Revere. “You’ll have more noise than this before long! The regulars are coming out!”

The rest is history. The British completed their sea route to Concord, and a famous standoff ensued—more on that another time. For now, “one if by land, two if by sea” is fully explained for all, and makes a satisfying addition to our store of knowledge on our country’s founding.

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