How Accurate Were Palin's Paul Revere Comments?

Sarah Palin caused a colonial-era commotion last week with comments she made in Boston about Paul Revere's famous ride. Melissa Block speaks with Robert Allison, a professor and historian at Suffolk University, about Palin's comments to see just how historically accurate they were.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Sarah Palin is defending her knowledge of American history. Last week, after Palin visited Old North Church and Paul Revere's house in Boston, a reporter asked her what she had seen, and what she'd take away from her visit.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Former Governor, Alaska): We saw where Paul Revere hung out as a teenager, which was something new to learn. And you know, he who warned the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells and making sure, as he is 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.

BLOCK: Well, after that generated howls of derision for historical inaccuracy, Palin amplified on "Fox News Sunday." Here's part of what she said.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Fox News Sunday")

Ms. PALIN: 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 we're 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.

BLOCK: We are going to fact-check Palin's Paul Revere history now with Robert Allison. He's chair of the history department at Suffolk University in Boston.

Professor Allison, welcome to the program.

Professor ROBERT ALLISON (Chairman, History Department, Suffolk University): Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: And let's review Paul Revere's midnight ride, April 18, 1775. He's going to Lexington, Massachusetts. And according to Sarah Palin, he's riding his horse through town, sending warning shots and ringing those bells. True?

Prof. ALLISON: Well, he's not firing warning shots. He is telling people so that they can ring bells to alert others. What he's doing is going from house to house, knocking on doors of members of the Committees of Safety, saying the regulars are out. That is, he knew that General Gage was sending troops out to Lexington and Concord, really Concord, to seize the weapons being stockpiled there, but also perhaps to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, leaders of the Continental Congress who were staying in the town of Lexington.

Remember, Gage was planning - this is a secret operation; that's why he's moving at night. He gets over to Cambridge, the troops start marching from Cambridge, and church bells are ringing throughout the countryside.

BLOCK: So Paul Revere was ringing those bells? He was a silversmith, right?

Prof. ALLISON: Well, he was - he also was a bell ringer. That is, he rang the bells at Old North Church as a boy. But he, personally, is not getting off his horse and going to ring bells. He's telling other people - and this is their system before Facebook, before Twitter, before NPR - this was the way you get a message out, is by having people ring church bells, and everyone knows there is an emergency.

And by this time, of course, the various town committees of safety, militia knew what the signals were, so they knew something was afoot. So this is no longer a secret operation for the British.

Revere isn't trying to alert the British, but he is trying to warn them. And in April of 1775, no one was talking about independence. We're still part of the British Empire. We're trying to save it. So this is a warning to the British Empire what will happen if you provoke Americans.

BLOCK:Sarah Palin also was saying there that Paul Revere's message to the British in his warning was: You're not going to take American arms - you know, basically a Second Amendment argument, even though the Second Amendment didn't exist then.

Prof. ALLISON: Yeah. She was making a Second Amendment case. But in fact, the British were going out to Concord to seize colonists' arms, the weapons that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was stockpiling there.

So, yeah, she is right in that. I mean, she may be pushing it too far to say this is a Second Amendment case. Of course, neither the Second Amendment nor the Constitution was in anyone's mind at the time. But the British objective was to get the arms that were stockpiled in Concord.

BLOCK: So you think basically, on the whole, Sarah Palin got her history right.

Prof. ALLISON: Well, yeah, she did. And remember, she is a politician. She's not an historian. And God help us when historians start acting like politicians, and I suppose when politicians start writing history.

BLOCK: Are there other historians, Professor, whom you've talked with who say you're being entirely too charitable towards Sarah Palin here, and she really did misread American...

Prof. ALLISON: I haven't talked to many - well, I don't know. I mean, I haven't talked to too many historians today. And you know, Sarah Palin is a lightning rod. I just was thinking about how many times, you know, I've spoken about Paul Revere. I've organized events about the American Revolution. No one ever pays any attention. Suddenly, Sarah Palin comes to town, makes an off-the-cuff remark about what she learned, and suddenly, you're calling me to find out what I think about Paul Revere and the American Revolution.

It's a great honor to talk to you, Melissa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALLISON: I wish it didn't take Sarah Palin coming to town to bring us together.

BLOCK: Well, we'll have to do this again sometime.

Prof. ALLISON: I hope so.

BLOCK: Professor Allison, thanks so much.

Prof. ALLISON: Thanks. Take care.

BLOCK: Professor Robert Allison is chair of the history department at Suffolk University in Boston.

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