12/26/2010 12:54 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Truth Behind 'Paul Revere's Ride'

A patriot other than Tom Brady was making news last week. Dec. 18 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's great poem "Paul Revere's Ride," and both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times weighed in on Revere's place, and the poem's place, in history.

John J. Miller, in the Journal, relates how Longfellow's poem transformed Revere from a footnote in history to a hero of the American Revolution. You surely remember the poem's opening lines, its rhythms like a horse's hoof beats:

Listen, my, children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

And the line "One, if by land, and two, if by sea" is burned into the American consciousness.

Well, as is often the case with historical literature, it turns out that Longfellow sacrificed historical accuracy for effect. The Journal interviewed David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University, who lambasted Longfellow as "grossly, systematically, and deliberately inaccurate." And he's right. In reality, Revere didn't succeed in sounding much alarm. He was rowed across the Charles River by two other (apparently more hard-working) men, failed to see a signal lantern, and was promptly apprehended by a British patrol.

Revere went on to fight for American independence, but he was accused of cowardice by an American general named Peleg Wadsworth, the maternal grandfather, if you can believe it, of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. As the Journal points out, Peleg surely would not have been pleased with his grandson's rewriting of history.

Also on Dec. 18, Jill Lepore wrote a terrific op-ed piece on "Paul Revere's Ride" for The New York Times, shining light on some forgotten history behind the poem. Lepore notes that Longfellow was a passionate abolitionist. Longfellow went so far as to publish a book entitled "Poems on Slavery," and used proceeds from his poetry to buy freedom for slaves. Lepore argues that "Paul Revere's Ride," written on the brink of secession and civil war, is more a call to arms against contemporary injustices than an attempt to commemorate a historic moment. When it appeared in The Atlantic, it was read as a rallying cry for the Union. Note how the poem ends with a call to action.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm, --
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
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-beat of that steed,
And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.

The British weren't coming in 1861, but war certainly was. And Longfellow, it appears, was anxious to fight it.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.