David Hackett Fischer
David Hackett Fischer
Paul Revere's Ride
ISBN: 0195088476
Paul Revere's Ride
Professor Fischer talked about his recent book, Paul Revere's Ride, which tries to recreate the experience of the famous trip made over 200 years ago.
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TRANSCRIPT
Paul Revere's Ride
Program Air Date: July 17, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Hackett Fischer, author of Paul Revere's Ride, who is Quinton?
DAVID HACKETT FISCHER, AUTHOR, " PAUL REVERE'S RIDE": Quinton is one name of the horse I learned my equestrian lessons on. I took many falls. It requires 1,000 falls before one masters that side of it.
LAMB: Why were you on a horse? What relationship did it . . .?
FISCHER: It started independently of Paul Revere, but the two issues developed at the same time and I began to have a fellow feeling with Paul Revere. There are moments in his accounts of the ride I think only a rider can really understand.
LAMB: Have you taken the ride?
FISCHER: I have taken parts of it. I've ridden along parts of the route. Mostly, it's asphalt and not recommended. I think for some parts of it horses would not be permitted. I doubt Paul Revere could get through these days if he had to travel the whole way.
LAMB: Why did you feel the need to do it yourself?
FISCHER: Well, I wanted to share the experience. I wanted to have a sense of the place, of the presence. Part of it also was walking the battle road that the British troops retreated on. There was one moment on the hill -- it would have little meaning to anybody who hadn't been through the records first, but a hill in Lexington. It was the hill where the militia of Lexington made a stand as the British returned from Concord. I walked that with the superintendent of the National Park Service, and it was on an April day, just the same sort of climate as that April 19th, and the hill is just the same, we think. It has changed very little. There is a sense, more than anywhere else -- more than the bridge, more than the Old North Church -- of that moment. It was very moving, I think.
LAMB: In the back of your book you have, "Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere." I found myself able to say a little bit of that. Why do we know that, and what is it?
FISCHER: That's Longfellow's version of what happened. Longfellow is the man who made Paul Revere a national hero. He was very much of a New England folk hero before that time, but Longfellow was writing in 1861, and he was trying to make a point. The point was, mainly, as the Civil War was coming on and many people were in the agony of a decision, Longfellow was saying that one man alone could turn the course of history. He was trying to persuade people in the North to do as Paul Revere had done. That gave a kind of special interpretation to his version of the event. He made it into a solitary act. Paul Revere did everything by himself. [Longfellow] had one solitary henchman for this New England night errand, and Paul Revere worked his own way across the river in the poem and received the signals and then rode by himself. I found a very different sequence of events, much more of a collective effort. This book began with two discoveries. The first was how little had been written in a serious way about the ride -- not much in the way of a full-scale history but much in the way of rhetoric, poetry and two popular biographies, but no historian had ever published a book on this subject before. The second discovery was how much there was in the way of primary material that one could work from. We have new possibilities that way. We've got computer-driven finding aids so that now we can locate the diaries that were kept on April 18th. From that material we began to find -- I say "we"; it was my students and me, working together -- that a lot of people were involved. We found 60 other riders who were out that same night, and it seemed that, far from detracting from Paul Revere, they actually made his role more important in that he was more than just a messenger, he was an organizer. He was a man who would get things done. He was a great joiner. He was an associating man. Everybody seemed to know him.
LAMB: I want to ask you a lot more about Paul Revere, but you actually got me to laugh out loud on the Mother Goose story in the back. Would you tell that?
FISCHER: It's a story that I was told by the staff at the Paul Revere house.
LAMB: Where is that?
FISCHER: This is in the north end of Boston, on North Square, right at the heart of the north end. About 300,000 people visit it every year. Many more walk the Freedom Trail and quite a number ride tour buses. The tour guides are always looking for something to liven their conversation, and the head of the Revere house said she was amazed to have some of the visitors ask, "Is it true that Paul Revere had an affair with Mother Goose?" Mother Goose is also thought to have been a Boston heroine, apocryphal as that story may be. But it is not true. Paul Revere did not have an affair with Mother Goose, but a tour guide was working with that idea.
LAMB: Here is your cover on the book, and it's a portrait of Paul Revere. Who did it?
FISCHER: It's done by John Singleton Copley. That for me is the starting point of the book itself. The portrait, I think, has much to tell us about this man. It looks at first sight to be a simple, straightforward representation of an artisan at work, but when we study it, it turns into a very complex optical structure. If we look at it, we can see that Paul Revere is sitting at his work table, one hand cradling his chin and the other holding a teapot resting on what was called a hammering pillow, and if we look closely we see it's a web of reflections. The man himself is reflected in his work table. The fingers that made the silver pot are reflected in the silver surfaces. We look again and we can see that there is a window reflected in that pot. It's a window that opens outward on the town of Boston, and Paul Revere is looking outward through that window at his community in a reflective mood. I believe that that artist who knew him very well, John Singleton Copley, who was his fellow townsman, captured him brilliantly in that web of reflection.
LAMB: How old is he in this?
FISCHER: He is about 35. He was born in 1735 and the portrait is about 1770.
LAMB: When was the actual date of his ride, April 19?
FISCHER: It begins April 18th and runs into April 19th, 1775.
LAMB: This was 1770 when this was taken, or not taken, but . . .
FISCHER: This was five years, approximately -- we don't have an exact date for the portrait, but it's approximately 1770.
LAMB: What was he doing then?
FISCHER: He was a silversmith. He called himself a gold and silver smith. He worked in Boston. He had many activities and many interests. He was a great joiner of organizations. He belonged to Masonic and helped to found Masonic organizations. He was an artisan and a member of various artisan groups.
LAMB: Let me stop you and ask you about a Mason. What would a Mason have been back then? What would they have stood for?
FISCHER: This was a benevolent Christian fraternity that had spread very widely through the Western world. Many of the revolutionary leaders were Masons. Many British leaders were Masons. When Paul Revere was captured at the end of his ride, the British officer who caught him used a very curious phrase. He said, "May I crave your name, sir?" and a Mason tells me that may have been a Masonic password and that these two men were identifying themselves to one another, even as they were on opposite sides of that conflict.
LAMB: Before we continue on Paul Revere, why should anybody care about him today?
FISCHER: I think he had a message for us as well. To me, the interest of the story is partly that. I think we can see a kind of message, first of all, in what he was doing. For me it was mainly the kind of collective effort in that cause of freedom, and we forgot about that. We forgot about both sides of it, sometimes. I think people on the left today, some of my colleagues at academe, tend to forget about American ideas of freedom. People on the right tend to forget about collective action. Paul Revere and his friends brought those two things together, and I think that's a message for us.
LAMB: If you go back to the cover of your book, if you pull out on this we can see what's around it. What are those spires on either side?
FISCHER: The spire on the right is the Old North Church, which was the tallest building in Boston, and that's where the lanterns were displayed in the North End. The spire on the right was Paul Revere's church, called the Cockerill Church, where he worshiped, where his mother had been a member before. Behind is a view of the houses of Boston, and he was very much a product of that community. There was a kind of rallying cry that was heard in the streets, when a fire broke out, when the revolution began in 1770, the Boston Massacre. The cry was townborne turnout, and this man was very much a product of that community and there was communal effort in his purposes. He had an idea of freedom that's different from ours. For us freedom means personal entitlement. It means individual autonomy. For Paul Revere it was that, but it was also an idea of a community running its own affairs, and that meant a sense of personal responsibility to that community. He had a kind of balance in that idea which sometimes, I think, we've lost. I think that's another meaning, another message for us today.
LAMB: How many people lived in Boston in 1770?
FISCHER: About 15,000 in 1775. It had grown very little for about 50 years. It was a town that was in trouble. It was caught in the world depression that began -- well, in the early 1760s there was a special kind of edge to it. In 1765 Paul Revere himself was in court for debts he couldn't pay. That was the year when the British Parliament also imposed taxes on America -- Parliament itself caught in that depression.
LAMB: Who ran the town?
FISCHER: The town was run by town meeting, and the town meeting was run partly by a group of organizations which were the first that we know of to be called caucuses. There was a North End caucus, a south and a middle caucus. They had all been founded by the father, Sam Adams, and Paul Revere was a member of the North End caucus; one of many groups that he belonged to.
LAMB: Who was Sam Adams?
FISCHER: Sam Adams had been a family that had been in the brewing business. Sam Adams himself was in some considerable financial trouble. He was deeply devoted to his town. He became, one might almost say, a kind of professional politician. When he was painted by Copley, he is holding the charter of Massachusetts in one hand, and the records of the town are before him. There is a sense of austerity, of a kind of devotion to that cause.
LAMB: What is the relationship of Sam Adams to John Adams or John Quincy Adams?
FISCHER: They were cousins. Sam and John Adams were cousins. John Quincy was the son of John Adams. Both of them were well known to Paul Revere. It's a very small world that they were living in.
LAMB: Where do you live?
FISCHER: I live in a town called Wayland, which is 20 miles due west of the Boston waterfront. It's now part of a kind of suburban sprawl, but it's a town that was founded before 1640 and it doesn't think of itself as sub- anything. There is a sense of pride and history in the New England towns that are the Boston suburbs.
LAMB: What do you do full-time?
FISCHER: I teach at Brandeis and write these books and try to bring those two things together. I've always tried to link my writing and my teaching. My students often help with these, both as paid research assistants and they will be working on parallel projects. And then I try to teach my courses around the books that I'm writing, and I think that kind of union makes for better teaching and better writing as well.
LAMB: Where are you from originally?
FISCHER: I'm originally from Baltimore -- born and raised in Maryland, have deep roots in the Maryland countryside, married a Yankee and have lived for 30 years in Massachusetts.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
FISCHER: I went to Princeton for my undergraduate work and then to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for my graduate training.
LAMB: What is a Yankee?
FISCHER: A Yankee is somebody who is a little bit north of where you are, I suppose. My North Carolina cousins regard Marylanders as Yankees. For me a Yankee is a New Englander. It's a very special folk culture that I've written another book about, deeply rooted, with a strong sense of its place. Paul Revere was both French and English. He was also very much a part of this Yankee world. He talked with a very strong Yankee accent. We know from his spelling. When he and his friends spelled "charter" they spelled it with two t's and one r, or no r at all -- "chatter" -- and he spoke with that sort of Boston accent. I think that's a clue to his bond with his folk culture.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
FISCHER: I've written eight, depending on how one counts, on various subjects but almost entirely in early America.
LAMB: Which one was the biggest seller?
FISCHER: The biggest seller was actually a book of historiography, so far. It's called Historians' Fallacies, and it's been fairly widely used for courses in law schools. It's a book on how to think historically. It's a book about logic, and it's mainly about what I think is sometimes called informal logic; that is, the logic that used to be taught; not the mathematical, symbolic logic that's taught today but structures of reasoning that are related to the field within which one is working.
LAMB: This is really two books, in a way, isn't it?
FISCHER: Well, yes, as to the research in the back. Also, a good deal of it in the back is about the myth, the legend of Paul Revere and how that changed through time.
LAMB: What is a historiography?
FISCHER: A historiography is the study of history, and for some people it means a history of history. For others it means the study of historical method. Here it's mainly about the myths and the way they've changed through time. I think that's a subject that's as interesting to me as the event itself.
LAMB: One of our recent guests was James McPherson from Princeton who writes a lot about the Civil War. In your acknowledgements he kind of leads it off. What did he have to do . . .?
FISCHER: Yes, well, he and I were in graduate school together, and then we have found ourselves moving on parallel lines -- at least some of our work. His history of the Civil War, A Battle Cry of Freedom, is built partly around an idea of contingency; that is, things hanging in the balance, moments when it might have gone one way or the other. He's got four major turning points in the Civil War, and that gives a kind of architecture to his interpretation of that event. I've been very much interested in contigency as well, perhaps in a slightly different sense. For me this is a book about people making choices, of Paul Revere, Gen. Gage. The book has really two protagonists, and one of them is a British commander-in-chief. There were many other people who had major choices to make. I think that one of the major players in all of this was Gen. Gage's wife who was Margaret Kimball Gage. She was American, deeply loyal both to her husband and to her own country, and she felt cruelly divided. There is circumstantial evidence that we can't know for sure, but evidence that when Paul Revere and Joseph Warren were trying to discover what Gen. Gage was trying to on this expedition, they had a secret informer who may well have been Margaret Kimball Gage. She had a choice to make. Gen. Gage had choices to make. He was an English Whig who was trying to hold the empire together, but within what he spoke of as the rule of law. He never declared martial law before these events. He could have arrested Paul Revere. His superiors in London were urging him to do that. But he made choices, and his choices were to act within the letter of the law. He was a believer in English liberty which meant a system that operated under the laws that were passed by Parliament. He tried to be true to that, and it may have made a major difference in the outcome.
LAMB: Back to James McPherson, because you mentioned that you were together on the Delta Queen at one point.
FISCHER: Yes. We were doing a Princeton alumni college, Princeton and Johns Hopkins, re-fighting the western battles of the Civil War. Actually, before we began doing that, we were exploring the western rivers, the Cumberland and the Tennessee in particular. But first we thought we'd visit some of the sites ourselves, just before, and we tried to get close to Fort Henry which is now actually in the Tennessee River. It's underwater. We drove down and got a little bit too close and our car sank into the river mud there, and we, at least I, had some reason to reflect on contingency and the choices we have made just then. That helped to focus my thinking. I have a major debt to Jim in the work that he's done on this.
LAMB: When was the first year that you thought about doing a book on Paul Revere?
FISCHER: Actually, I didn't until about 1992. I was asked to give a lecture to the Massachusetts Historical Society and looking for something that would be suitable, and they happen to own the Revere family papers and the three accounts that Paul Revere himself left of the ride. I thought, well, maybe a short paper might be gotten out of this, and then I got into it and found that there was so much more to be done. It grew from that into this book.
LAMB: How did you go about it?
FISCHER: Well, first, reading the major, primary accounts that Paul Revere had left. There are extraordinary riches that way. This was an event the people called "The Lexington Alarm," and the alarm was a sort of event that we know very well in the 20th century. It was like the assassination of President Kennedy. It was an event that people never forgot. They remembered everything they were doing at the moment when the news reached them. In the 18th century they wrote their memories down, and so we have diaries, we have memoirs, we have pension applications. People who had to apply for pensions were forced to write a narrative of their revolutionary service, and some of these men served at Lexington and Concord. Immediately after the battle of Lexington the Whig leaders tried to collect depositions to prove that the British had fired the first shot, and we have many, many depositions. So altogether, hundreds of these accounts of the event.
LAMB: I've got a map here. You've got this in the book. This is called "The Middle-sex Alarm."
FISCHER: Yes. That's the spread of the news. This is the spread of the warning on the evening of the 18th, before the battle.
LAMB: Where is Boston and where are Lexington and Concord?
FISCHER: Boston is to the right of that map. It's just a little above your finger. Boston is right here.
LAMB: You can see Cambridge there, and Boston to the right.
FISCHER: Yes, and then Lexington and Concord are on a line with Cambridge. Lexington and Concord are running west-northwest from Boston.
LAMB: What is the distance between Boston and Cambridge?
FISCHER: It's about six miles from the Boston waterfront to Cambridge; about 20 miles from the Boston waterfront to Concord.
LAMB: In 1770 you've got Paul Revere and this portrait you've got on the cover. He was married twice, but how many children did he have?
FISCHER: He had 16 children, 52 grandchildren that we know about, thousands of descendants today. The staff of the Revere house welcomes many of them. They tell me that a remarkable number look very much like the Copley of Paul Revere. They arrive in 10-gallon hats and from many parts of the world, but they do resemble their ancestor.
LAMB: Was he married when he was 35 in this portrait?
FISCHER: Yes. He was then married to his second wife, Rachel Revere, who is also a player in these events. Rachel acquired a very large family. There were eight children by the first marriage, and then there were eight more by the second. Paul Revere actually wrote to one of his French cousins that he had "at least 16 children," and we wonder if there may have been yet others that he wasn't sure about.
LAMB: You tell us that in Boston it was run by a local council.
FISCHER: Boston was run by a town meeting.
LAMB: Town meeting, but what control did the British have over the people of Boston in the year 1775?
FISCHER: Gen. Gage was the first to use the word democracy in something like its modern meaning, applying it to the institutions of New England. He persuaded Parliament to pass a set of acts that they called the Coercive Acts. The Americans called them the Intolerable Acts. Two of them transformed the government of Massachusetts and one of them came very close to abolishing town meetings. Gen. Gage was actually trying to shut down town meetings except as administrative bodies, so there was really a head-on collision between these men over ideas of representative government.
LAMB: Let's go to the title of this book, Paul Revere's Ride. What was the atmosphere leading to the ride?
FISCHER: One beginning point would be in the fall of 1774 when Gen. Gage was trying to do another part of his program, which was to disarm the people of New England. He thought that the way to do that was probably to seize their gunpowder. They could not manufacture their own gunpowder in quantity in 1774, and so in September he seized the largest supply in Massachusetts. This caused something that was called the "powder alarm." It was another event that people always remembered. The Massachusetts towns were horrified that their right of resistance would be threatened in that way, and that galvanized many people, amongst them Paul Revere. He organized a kind of intelligence organization, a voluntary association composed mainly of his fellow mechanics in Boston, and what they tried to do was to keep very close tabs on what Gen. Gage was doing. When there were signs that Gen. Gage was striking at the next major powder supply, which was in New Hampshire, Paul Revere made an earlier ride up to Portsmouth in very bad weather_December it was_and he got the message there before Gen. Gage's troops could seize that powder. There were a series of other events like that in the winter in which the two sides were increasingly coming to the edge of hostilities.
LAMB: Did he ride to Portsmouth, N.H., on his own?
FISCHER: Yes, he did. He made many rides before the midnight ride. He had a horse at a stable in town, and he'd been picked first in 1773 to take the news of the Boston Tea Party, a kind of explanation as to what Boston had been doing.
LAMB: What was the Boston Tea Party?
FISCHER: The Boston Tea Party was where the people that met at Boston broke into the tea chests and threw tea into Boston harbor. It was an act of violence and very carefully controlled. They even replaced the locks on the tea chests to make clear that their quarrel was not with property.
LAMB: And whose property were they throwing away?
FISCHER: They were throwing away the East India Company's tea which carried a tax that they didn't wish to pay. That this was an act of violence, there were many moderates in America who were taken aback by it. Paul Revere was asked to ride to Philadelphia and New York to explain what had happened, and after that he made at least five other rides to Philadelphia and New York and helped to organize an American resistance -- this all in the period from December 1773 to April 1775.
LAMB: So we're in April of 1775, and the actual ride was on the 18th and 19th.
FISCHER: It was on the 18th. Gen. Gage was, again, thinking about seizing more munitions and had been ordered in London to move with more force and speed and decided to strike at Concord.
LAMB: How many British troops were in Boston?
FISCHER: There were about 4,000 on April 18th, and about 900 were sent -- it was something like 900 -- were sent to Concord. These were the cream of the army. They were special units that were called grenadiers and light infantry. They were attached to the British regiments in Boston. They were put together in a provisional force and sent out.
LAMB: When were they sent out to Concord?
FISCHER: They were sent out on the 18th. At about 10 o'clock was when they mustered.
LAMB: At night?
FISCHER: At night, just on the back side of Boston Common, and then were rowed across the Charles River by the Royal Navy. This was by sea. This was the "two if by sea" that then caused Paul Revere -- "one if by land, two if by sea." They could have gone another way. They could have gone out across Boston Neck, a very narrow peninsula that connected Boston to the mainland.
LAMB: What does that refer to, the "one if by land, two if by sea?"
FISCHER: This was a warning that was to be sent out of Boston by lantern signals in case Paul Revere himself was unable to get clear. He had made arrangements with the Whigs he knew in Charlestown. He had a network of friends over there, and the signals were to be displayed in the highest building in Boston, which was the steeple of the Old North Church, and as soon as Paul Revere and Joseph Warren discovered that the British troops were moving by sea, that is to say, across the Charles River, then Paul Revere asked his friends to display those lantern signals -- another group of people whom he knew. And then off he went to find yet another group who were watermen, boatmen, in Boston. They rowed him across the Charles River and there he met his friends in Charlestown. They had found a horse for him and took him on his way and got started on his ride.
LAMB: But leading up to the lantern in the Old North Church in the steeple, did they have that well organized?
FISCHER: Oh, elaborately organized -- organized in many different ways. Paul Revere had a problem with the idea of displaying the lanterns there. The Old North Church was Anglican, and the minister was Tory and so unpopular in town that the church was closed. But Paul Revere knew the sexton of the church, and he knew one of the vestrymen, and he asked them to take a hand in that work and they did it.
LAMB: If you were a Tory back then, and a Whig, what would be the main differences in your philosophy?
FISCHER: The main difference was really over the question of whether to resist British rule or to support it. I think it came down to two ideas of freedom, those two ideas that Paul Revere and Gen. Gage personified: on the one hand the sense of self-rule; on the other hand the idea of the rule of law under Parliament. They were two ideas, two ideals, that these groups were fighting for, and they didn't call it the American revolution. They called it a civil war, and it was that way for most of them.
LAMB: Here is a 1931 painting by Grant Wood. Why is this in your book?
FISCHER: That's in the chapter on the mythology, and there we can see a kind of modern version, a 20th century version, of the Longfellow interpretation. We see Paul Revere as a solitary figure, galloping all by himself through a sleeping New England countryside, awakening each of these individual farmhouses. That wasn't at all what happened. It was so many people working together, and what all of them did was not to knock on individual farmhouse doors but to awaken the institutions of New England. It was a collective effort in that way as well.
LAMB: So on that night at 10:00, 900 British soldiers take off to Concord, across the water, and then onto what road?
FISCHER: The crossing point was chosen for secrecy, from the most remote part of Boston to an uninhabited part of Cambridge. When they got across they discovered that the reason it was uninhabited was that it was a swamp, and the British troops were kept in that swamp until between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m.
LAMB: Where was Paul Revere at this time?
FISCHER: By midnight he had gotten to Lexington, and by 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. the word had been carried by other messengers as far as the New Hampshire border, which was nearly 30 miles north of here. These were 18th century times and distances. That was normally a long day's journey.
LAMB: If Paul Revere wasn't there that night, would the people of Lexington still have been tipped off?
FISCHER: That's one thing historians never know, but my hunch is he really did make a difference. He made a difference mainly in the preparations before the ride in organizing the effort. This couldn't have been done spontaneously. The British commanders thought that the American troops must have mustered a day or two days before their march, which they didn't do. But only by that kind of collective effort could this have happened the way that it did, and I think only by the organizing skills of people such as Paul Revere could that effort have been brought together.
LAMB: How many people lived in Lexington?
FISCHER: In Lexington, about 800-900 or something like that. It was very small. It was a dairy town. It was a very scattered population, the town center and only a few houses around the green.
LAMB: What is there now?
FISCHER: Now I don't know what the population is. I would guess 20,000 probably.
LAMB: But if you go there now, is there much to see?
FISCHER: The green is remarkably unchanged in the buildings that immediately abut it. A few buildings have been added. The meeting house is gone. There was a meeting house on the eastern edge of the green, and that was pulled down. But the Buckman Tavern, that big building standing to the north, is still there, and about four houses are still there that were there on that night of April 18th.
LAMB: He's on his horse; he's headed toward Lexington. What's the distance between Charlestown, across the river, and Lexington?
FISCHER: He went in a roundabout way. He got onto the Lexington road, which would have taken him directly there, and as he was moving toward Lexington he saw two British officers in the shadow of a tree just ahead of him. They were part of a patrol that Gen. Gage had sent to stop Paul Revere. Paul Revere pulled his horse around, rode back at a gallop and then north to another town called Medford. This took him in a long, looping detour to the north and then to the west, and it took him safely around those patrols. The British officers gave chase and one of them went cross-country right into a clay pit. The other tried to pursue Paul Revere along the road, but Revere was very well mounted and got away.
LAMB: There is another man by the name of Dawes whose ancestor eventually became vice president of the United States. Was that in there?
FISCHER: That's right. William Dawes and perhaps a third rider as well were sent from Joseph Warren's office in Boston. Dawes took a different route. As Paul Revere went by boat to Charlestown and then rode north to Concord, Dawes went by land across the Boston Neck. It was a southwesterly route that then took him swinging to the north.
LAMB: Have you taken that ride yourself in preparation for this?
FISCHER: I've walked that and ridden it. I didn't ride. That's through a very congested part of the area.
LAMB: You walked the whole way?
FISCHER: I've walked the whole way at various times.
LAMB: So go back -- the British soldiers have captured Paul Revere.
FISCHER: I should say that first Paul Revere, going from Medford, gets around to Lexington. He rode from Lexington Green to the parsonage where Samuel Adams and John Hancock were staying the night. The message he carried was actually addressed to them.
LAMB: What was John Hancock doing then?
FISCHER: They had been out attending meetings of the provincial congress which had been meeting in Concord.
LAMB: Who was he?
FISCHER: He was perhaps the richest man in Massachusetts. He was described as the milk cow of the revolutionary movement. He supported the revolution, and he was out attending the provincial congress with Samuel Adams. Paul Revere brought his message to the house, and there was a guard out front. The guard was a sergeant in the Lexington militia who did not know Paul Revere and was not impressed by this midnight apparition. He told Paul Revere not to make so much noise. People were trying to sleep. Paul Revere said, "Noise? You'll have noise enough before long. The regulars are out." It's interesting what he did not say. He did not say, "The British are coming!" None of those riders said the British were coming.
LAMB: Where did that come from?
FISCHER: It came with the grandfathers' tales that began to be told in the 19th century, but in 1775 these men still thought that they were British. This was a civil war for them, and so they spoke of the regulars, the Redcoats. If they'd been to Harvard they said, "The ministerial troops are out." But they never said, "The British are coming."
LAMB: How far was it between Lexington and Concord?
FISCHER: It's about six miles between Lexington and Concord.
LAMB: So did he wake up Samuel Adams and John Hancock?
FISCHER: He woke them and they talked. About a half an hour later Dawes arrived, and they all agreed that Concord should be warned quickly and that Revere and Dawes were the men to do it. So off they went again, riding on a second ride from Lexington toward Concord. Along the way they met a physician who had been out that night courting his fiancee. His name was Dr. William Prescott. They told him what they were about, and he offered to help, so the three of them rode together toward Concord. They got about halfway into the town of Lincoln -- they were knocking on doors as they went in that part of the trip -- and then suddenly Paul Revere, who was a little bit ahead of them, saw in the distance another two British riders; he said very much in the same position as those in Charlestown. He turned back to his friends, and he said, in effect, that "there are three of us and there are two of them. Let's attack." The adjective that was attached to Paul Revere in the street ballads of 1775 was "bold." He was a very forthright fellow. So they went charging toward the two British officers and suddenly the two officers turned into four and then into eight with pistols in their hands, and Paul Revere was captured. He and Prescott and Dawes were herded off toward the north side of the road into a pasture. As they went William Prescott whispered to Paul Revere in a Yankee dialect, "Put on," and they both put their spurs to their horses. Paul Revere galloped to the right and Prescott went to the left and got clear. Paul Revere was captured. Dawes went back into the road and got away. There was a very interesting encounter between Paul Revere and the British officers who captured him. They asked him who he was, and he said, "My name is Revere." They said, "What? Paul Revere?" They knew him well. They were armed and their pistols were at hand, and yet Paul Revere instantly began to interrogate them. What he did was to ask them what they were doing out at that night on that road. There was a process in which the captive himself regained a kind of initiative in that exchange. What he was trying to do was to move those riders away from Lexington, away from the Concord road, telling them that the militia had been alarmed, that 500 men would soon be in Lexington Green, that they were in danger, the British soldiers.
LAMB: What is this in the back of your book?
FISCHER: That's another part of the myth. That's Paul Revere as the iconoclast as the 1970s saw him. That was another round in the mythologizing in which some of the writers of the Vietnam generation were not only debunking our figures of the past but making Paul Revere almost into a kind of villain's figure who they said betrayed his cause by singing, as they said, to his British captors. This is a picture of Paul Revere as a canary, singing to his British captors. In fact, he didn't do that at all. He wasn't betraying his cause but serving it at that moment.
LAMB: How did he get away?
FISCHER: The British let him go. They decided that they had to carry his news back to the British colony, the news that the countryside was alarmed. And so, they went off at a high rate of speed to the east, and Paul Revere was allowed to go free.
LAMB: Where did he go?
FISCHER: He went back to the parsonage, back to see if Sam Adams and John Hancock had gotten away. He discovered to his horror that they were still there. They were still debating over what they should do.
LAMB: What time of the morning was this?
FISCHER: This was now between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., and so he persuaded them to get clear of Lexington as quickly as possible and helped them on their way to another parsonage farther into the countryside. Then he came back and he met the clerk of John Hancock who said there was yet another job that had to be done. John Hancock had left the secret papers of the revolution in the tavern at Lexington Green. The clerk's name was John Lowell, and he asked Paul Revere if he would help carry off those papers. So back they went to the Buckman Tavern on Lexington Green, and they went racing up the steps and there they found a huge trunk -- it still survives today -- very heavy. They had trouble picking it up. As they bent over the trunk Paul Revere looked out through the window. It was now nearly 5 a.m. -- almost sunrise; about 4:30, perhaps -- and in that gray light before the dawn he was one of the first to make out the sight of the British troops coming up toward Lexington Green. So out they went from [Buckman] Tavern with the trunk between then, staggering across Lexington Green. They went passing through the Lexington militia that were mustering there and carried their trunk beyond. As they went beyond, they could hear the commander, Captain Parker, telling his men, "Don't fire first. Stand your ground but don't fire first."
LAMB: Captain Parker is on the side of the militia.
FISCHER: He is commanding the Lexington militia. They were not minute-men, by the way. This was a company militia.
LAMB: Were they trained?
FISCHER: They were trained. Many of them were veterans. Probably more of them were veterans than were in the first British companies that came up. They had served in the French and Indian War, as Parker himself had done.
LAMB: Had there been any conflicts at this point in this country between the British Redcoats and any rebels anywhere?
FISCHER: There had been two. One was at Portsmouth. This was part of the powder alarm when Paul Revere got the word first. There were actually shots fired there, and one British soldier was wounded. Then the first blood was spilled at another powder alarm in Salem, and this was in February of 1775. So there had been small, scattered episodes before, but no big one.
LAMB: At what point, at what time that morning, was the first shot fired, and who fired it?
FISCHER: It was just about sunrise, just about 5:00, and Paul Revere was behind the American militia, heading away from them. He heard behind him a shot ring out, and he looked back and he couldn't tell where it came from. He thought it sounded like a pistol shot, but he couldn't be sure. Many other people who were there thought they saw it come from several places. The Americans thought that a British officer had fired first, not the British infantry, but there were several officers mounted in front. They were, in fact, the patrol that had captured Paul Revere and they had gone back and joined the column. They were still in a state of panic almost, as they had been since they had met Paul Revere. They may have been the first to fire. The British eyewitnesses were quite sure that it was an American who fired first, perhaps a shot out of the Buckman Tavern. There were young men there who had been drinking, who were armed, and it could well have been a young Lexington man named Solomon Brown. That's possible. We don't know and will never know who fired that first shot.
LAMB: How many people were killed at Lexington?
FISCHER: There were seven people who were killed, and everybody agreed on the field what happened after that first shot was fired. The British infantry fired a volley into the American militia, and then the militia were scattering, were dispersing, and a few of them fired back -- not many. No British soldier was killed at Lexington. One was wounded and the horse of one of the officers was hit. Lexington was a very one-sided affair that way.
LAMB: At what point did Paul Revere go on to Concord?
FISCHER: Paul Revere had gone earlier to Concord -- not to Concord, toward Concord. He never got to Concord that day. He had gone toward Concord about 1:00, had been captured, came back, met Hancock and Adams a second time, then had tried to get the trunk away.
LAMB: Did anybody go to Concord and warn them?
FISCHER: Yes. Dr. Prescott got through. He was the man who alarmed the towns around Concord. He kept riding through the town. He went also to his house. His father was a physician and his brother as well, and physicians owned the best horses in town. They spent much of their time traveling through the countryside. Prescott's brother, Abel Prescott, took the word south, and these were amongst two of those 60 riders who spread the word.
LAMB: There is an awful lot more to talk about, but there was something that I wanted to get you to expound on. As you know, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott are all buried there in that cemetery in Concord, but you have a whole list of people that Wadsworth's, what, grandfather . . .?
LAMB: These were the great writers of the mid-19th century who where the grandchildren of the men who were at Lexington and Concord. A remarkable number of them had that connection. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the grandson of the minister in Concord, William Emerson, who had been very active in the revolutionary movement there and had actually mustered for a time with the militia. Henry David Thoreau was the grandson of a soldier who served as a private, actually later in the revolution, under Paul Revere. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's grandfather had been a general in the revolution. Herman Melville was the grandson of a Boston Whig who had been in the Tea Party. They had grown up on their grandfathers' tales of the revolution and became great tale tellers in their own right.
LAMB: How did you write this?
FISCHER: It began as a lecture and then grew into a book, different from the books I've written before. This was much more of a story mostly. As so many historians have been doing, I've been doing monographs, works that are organized more in terms of analytic structures. I think I and my colleagues have tended to lose touch with the storytelling part of history, and so a large part of this book is to tell the story. It's a story that's remarkable in that it's perhaps -- one of my colleagues says it's the only historical event he can think of that conforms to all the Aristotelian unities of time and place and action. It has kind of dramatic intensity that rarely happens in historical events, and it also has an immediacy and a richness of detail that we don't often get.
LAMB: You have in the acknowledgements that Jacqueline Jones tested several chapters on two young critics on her household. Who is that?
FISCHER: Yes. Jackie is my colleague at Brandeis. My five colleagues who are all the faculty of a program in American cultural history at Brandeis were very supportive of all of this, and Jackie has two young children at home.
LAMB: How young?
FISCHER: I'm not sure of their ages exactly, but they were old enough to be critics and were helpful in that way.
LAMB: You mentioned your wife Judith and John Henry Fischer . . .
FISCHER: That's my father.
LAMB: . . . and Miles.
FISCHER: Miles is my brother. These are all family enterprises, especially on this book. My daughter Susie took time from her career as a barrister in London to help with English materials and was a critic. She was a history major in college and is, I think, one of my toughest critics.
LAMB: What did your wife do?
FISCHER: She helped a lot. She has her own career. She, having raised a family, has gone back to get her own doctorate and is now teaching biology at Leslie College and, even so, found time to help on some of the research trips and also as a critic.
LAMB: Who is Norma Fischer?
FISCHER: Norma is my mother.
LAMB: And she contributed helpful advice and support.
FISCHER: Yes.
LAMB: Your father, John Fischer, read a draft of it. Did he do anything else?
FISCHER: Yes, they read drafts of it and were very helpful. I rely much on the wisdom of my father's advice.
LAMB: Kate Fischer, Anne Fischer, Frederick Turner, John Anderson Fischer, William Pennington Fischer.
FISCHER: These are children, nephews and nieces, all of whom were pressed into service at every opportunity.
LAMB: Where did you write this?
FISCHER: I wrote this in Wayland, Mass., mainly in my study.
LAMB: How do you write, physically?
FISCHER: I write every morning. I find that writing, first of all, requires a kind of discipline. It has to be a habit, and I think every writer has to build that sort of structure into his work. So I make a habit of writing every day, no matter what.
LAMB: Every day now?
FISCHER: Every day, traveling, every holiday I find an hour to write.
LAMB: Do you write longhand?
FISCHER: No, I work now on a computer. I find that giving me much more control. It's not an easy thing to tell a story, I find, particularly a story of this complexity, and the computer helps in any number of ways.
LAMB: In your histriography in the back you paint a picture of the celebration of the bicentennial at the North Bridge in Concord with Jerry Ford and Pete Seeger.
FISCHER: There were two groups that met on the field in 1976. There was a kind of official bicentennial, and then there was something else called the People's Bicentennial, both laying claim to the founders and to the event.
LAMB: Did they celebrate this together or not?
FISCHER: They were both on the same field. The same thing happens very often. When we were at the last Patriot's Day celebration just in 1993, the followers of David Koresch were there with signs, demonstrating against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It's an occasion on which many Americans make a case for their idea of freedom, often in conflict with other ideas.
LAMB: What is the connection between Paul Revere and the Vietnam War.
FISCHER: The legend of Paul Revere went through yet another transformation. There has been an odd rhythm in the 20th century. Americans will celebrate Paul Revere, particularly in moments of crisis -- the Civil War, as Longfellow did, and then again in World War II when Esther Forbes wrote a very good popular biography that made Paul Revere into "a simple artisan," in her phrase, who became a representative of an ordinary American capable of extraordinary things. This was published in the year of Midway, of Corregidor. Then after that Paul Revere became a Cold Warrior. He became a kind of businessman on horseback and was a sort of a symbol of the union of capitalism and democracy. Then suddenly there was a reversal that coincided with Vietnam, and Paul Revere became the target for many American iconoclasts -- the author of that cartoon that you showed a moment ago.
LAMB: The singing canary.
FISCHER: The singing canary, very different from the debunkers of the 1920s who made him into a kind of clown. But he becomes a truly villainous figure for the iconoclasts, and then it's reversing again today.
LAMB: In all the things you saw and the places you went, if you were going to advise somebody who wanted to go and trace these steps or see Paul Revere as they can today, what would you suggest?
FISCHER: I'd say travel the battle road. There is a stretch of the battle road that runs through Lincoln. The stretch is called the Nelson Road, and it's as near to the condition of that countryside in 1775 as any part of it can be. It's a country lane, and one can get a feeling there.
LAMB: Where would you go to look for artifacts?
FISCHER: The artifacts are everywhere. They're in the museums.
LAMB: What is the best one?
FISCHER: We were astounded to find the spurs of Paul Revere in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
LAMB: In New York.
FISCHER: Yes. We were even more astounded to find them again in the Smithsonian, and we've been finding spurs of Paul Revere in other places as well. A good place to go is the Paul Revere house, which is maintained. It's the only 17th-century house that still stands in what was old Boston, and it's maintained by the Paul Revere Memorial Association and is worth a visit. Another . . .
LAMB: I'm sorry, we are out of time. I didn't mean to cut you off. Do you want to finish that sentence?
FISCHER: Well, I was going to mention the Old North Church.
LAMB: Can you go and see the Old North Church?
FISCHER: The Old North Church is open and welcomes visitors as well.
LAMB: This is the book. It's called Paul Revere's Ride, and the author is David Hackett Fischer, a professor at Brandeis University. Thank you very much for joining us.
FISCHER: Thank you for having me.


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