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Sarah Palin’s midnight ride, twice over

at 12:53 PM ET, 06/06/2011

 “We saw where Paul Revere hung out as a teenager, which was something new to learn. He who warned, uh, the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free and we were going to be armed.”

— Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, June 2

 "You know what? I didn’t mess up about Paul Revere. Here is what Paul Revere did. He warned the Americans that the British were coming, the British were coming, and they were going to try to take our arms and we got to make sure that we were protecting ourselves and shoring up all of our ammunitions and our firearms so that they couldn’t take it. But remember that the British had already been there, many soldiers for seven years in that area. And part of Paul Revere’s ride — and it wasn’t just one ride — he was a courier, he was a messenger. Part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there. That, hey, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to take American arms. You are not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual, private militia that we have. He did warn the British. And in a shout-out, gotcha type of question that was asked of me, I answered candidly. And I know my American history.”

— Palin, June 5

Lots of readers have asked us to weigh in on this little kerfuffle regarding Paul Revere’s 1775 ride, so we will do a quick disentanglement of Palin’s words. Over the course of two statements, the former Alaska governor got some history wrong and some history right, but she presented it in such a free-form manner that it left her the butt of jokes and blogosphere commentary. So let’s take a tour through her language and compare it with the historical facts.

 

Palin, Take One

“He who warned, uh, the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms . . .

Paul Revere is best known for warning prominent colonists (who were still technically British subjects) that British troops were coming to arrest them. As the Web site of the Paul Revere House says: “On the evening of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere was sent for by Dr. Joseph Warren and instructed to ride to Lexington, Massachusetts, to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were marching to arrest them.”

  However, to be charitable to Palin, later that evening, Revere was arrested by a British patrol. In Revere’s own account of the incident, written in 1798, he said he warned that 500 Americans militiamen would be awaiting them: “I told him; and added, that their troops had catched aground in passing the River, and that There would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the Country all the way up.”

Still, it seems a stretch to believe that Palin was focusing on this relatively obscure part of the Revere story, rather than his midnight ride (“He who warned, uh, the British . . . ”). Palin also seems to suggest that Revere’s midnight ride was mostly in defense of the as-yet-unwritten Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That’s not right.

 “. . . ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free and we were going to be armed.”

This is wrong. Revere did not use bells and warning shots, though others may have. Revere was supposed to be quiet. He famously used two lanterns, “indicating that troops would row ‘by sea’ across the Charles River to Cambridge, rather than marching ‘by land’ out Boston Neck,” according to the Paul Revere House. “As he approached the house where Adams and Hancock were staying, a sentry asked that he not make so much noise. ‘Noise!’ cried Revere, ‘You’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out!’ ”

 

Palin, Take Two

“He warned the Americans that the British were coming, the British were coming, and they were going to try to take our arms and we got to make sure that we were protecting ourselves and shoring up all of our ammunitions and our firearms so that they couldn’t take it.”

 In her second telling, Palin focuses on the central part of the Paul Revere story and finally gets correct the line that every schoolchild is taught — “The British are coming!”

“Part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there. That, hey, you're not going to succeed. You're not going to take American arms. You are not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual, private militia that we have. He did warn the British.”

It does not appear that Revere planned to get arrested. In fact, Revere’s own account demonstrates that he took great care to avoid the British:

“I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree. 
When I got near them, I discovered they were British officer. 
One tryed to git a head of Me, & the other to take me. I turned  my Horse very quick, & Galloped towards Charlestown neck, and then pushed for the Medford Road. The one who chased 
me, endeavoring to Cut me off, got into a Clay pond, near where the new Tavern is now built. I got clear of him.”

 But Revere certainly made the most of it when he was arrested, inflating the number of colonists who had weapons in an apparent effort to frighten the British soldiers. So Palin is correct to say that he warned the British, but not that it was part of his original mission. She seems to be recasting her earlier comment to avoid admitting that she made a mistake.

  “And in a shout-out, gotcha type of question that was asked of me, I answered candidly. And I know my American history.”

The actual “gotcha question” was rather benign: “What have you seen so far today, and what are you going to take away from your visit?”

Watch Sarah Palin in her own words

Take One

Take Two

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