Unformed Thoughts: Sarah Palin

by TylerJ

Late last week, Sarah Palin gave the following now infamous description of Paul Revere’s ride:

“He who warned uh, the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh by ringing those bells, and um, makin’ sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.”

More than enough has been said about this most recent gaffe and so I’m not going to pile on. I would like to posit, however, that this particular type of error is of a different order than the factual mistakes of Palin’s potential campaign challengers. Whereas Bachmann recently mixed up her New England geography, and Cain confused the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (the pursuit of happiness is not in the Constitution), Palin’s interpretation was not a purely factual error. It goes deeper than that.

Paul Revere’s ride, after all, is not just an historical event, it’s a part of American lore. As with all legends, it’s important we separate historical fact from historical myth. The facts surrounding the actual events were so uninteresting that they were hardly worth mentioning in Paul Revere’s obituary. It was only after Henry Longfellow’s 1860 poem,”Paul Revere’s Ride,” that the ride became the ride. In 1860, as the country was dissolving into civil war, Longfellow was captivated by circumstances surrounding the midnight ride and saw it as a perfect allegory for reminding contemporary readers of the courage and mettle that were so important to the formation of the United States of America.

Shortly after the poem’s publication, Paul Revere’s ride became a permanent part of our collective memory and since then has been appropriated in myriad ways for myriad purposes–just as Longfellow did in 1860. When we speak of Paul Revere’s midnight ride, we speak of Longfellow’s Revere, not history’s.