Sometimes you wonder. Having been told by a Democrat that if we had “screwed up” at Saratoga we would today have national health insurance, I suppressed a number of reactions that came to mind by deciding to start smoking again. One was to suggest that if anyone needed health insurance, it could easily be obtained. Another was to ask just who constitutes “we.” Yet another was to suggest that if my friend had studied the history of the Revolutionary War, he would know that it was won in the South. And still another was to speculate that if his mother had known who his father was, it would still be a long way to Tipperary.

But of course we all engage in historical speculations, consider “might-have-beens,” and somehow acknowledge the contingency of history in the way we try to connect with it. We would do better if we knew what we were talking about, which brings us to the subject at hand. Apparently, everyone has heard of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, but no one knows much about it—not until Professor Fischer got on his horse.

His remarkable book is especially welcome just now, and I think the author knows it. He is certainly not unaware of trends involving the reinterpretation of history, particularly American history. He seems to have voted with his computer and his professional allegiance against Walt Disney, Ken Burns, multiculturalism, and the studied neglect of our history by the educational establishment, and by the public as well.

What we have here is a treatment of legend and history by a professional historian who also is a talented writer. His topic is not grand, but it inspires many insights into history and into the byways of historiography, bibliography, and national mythology. Above all, he tells a story with intensity and drama, wrapping it in the mantle of historical perspective. The result is highly readable, even fascinating.

I suppose that Professor Fischer is a particularist in his insistence on detail and context and petite histoire. The following example is one that, though violent, is somehow very pleasing. I like to think of Samuel Whittemore, who, though crippled and 76 years old, picked up a musket and two pistols and a saber when the Redcoats marched through Menotomy. Bv himself, he opened fire on the column, killing one soldier and wounding two others. One Regular then blew away part of Whittemore’s face while others bayoneted him—he was wounded 14 times. Samuel Whittemore lived for 18 more years, without national health insurance. I think we all owe a debt to Fischer for relating that story, and many others.

Fischer places Paul Revere in the context of a distinct culture, and depicts the beginning of the American nation as in effect a colonial and regional English Civil War. His emphasis throughout on a forgotten sense of individual responsibility as well as a sense of collectivity, as distinguished from our contemporary atomism and obsession with individual rights, is a valid lesson, though not without its darker implications.

His evenhandedness produces striking results. He tells the story of the Redcoats with sympathy and understanding, and, unlike some historians, he is able to discuss armies and military culture without discomfort or false notes. The drama he presents is, I think, an ambiguous one, for there can be no doubt that the patriots were dishonest both before and after the violence began. But he shows them as a community who insisted on defending their perceived interest, and who challenged legally constituted authority to do so.

Paul Revere rode and sent signals to warn the people and his network of spies and fellows that the Redcoats were coming—but we have forgotten what they were coming for. They intended to confiscate gunpowder and ammunition and even cannons which the people had gathered. Fischer does not extrapolate, but I think it was rather a bad sign when the farmers started collecting cannons in Kansas in 1858 and later on when the Boers did the same. John Brown seized an armory, and the Civil War broke out essentially over control of weapons, forts, and soldiers. Viewed in that light, the fashionable sneering at the National Rifle Association and the decision that eccentrics who have weapons can be slaughtered with impunity are literally un-American, if anything can be.

I frankly doubt that Professor Fischer means to imply that Americans should rise up to defend violently their right to amass weapons, though that is precisely the collective interest that the Minutemen fought for. He seems rather to be committed to a celebration of the early people of Massachusetts, about whom, we can all agree, there is much to be admired. But this celebration appears to lose its point when Massachusetts is isolated from its neighbors and from the erosion of history. Fischer, in other words, sees continuities where I see radical discontinuities. “Their many enemies who lived by a warrior ethic always underestimated them, as a long parade of Indian braves, French aristocrats, British Regulars, Southern planters, German fascists, Japanese militarists, Marxist ideologues, and Arab adventurers have invariably discovered to their heavy cost.” The juxtaposition of Southern planters with German fascists says more about the contemporary mindset of Massachusetts (the one that sustains noble leaders such as the Hero of Chappaquiddick, not to mention Gerry Studds and Barney Frank) than it does about the culture that produced John Adams and Daniel Webster. Fischer confuses Massachusetts with New England and New England with America, a common mistake. Why was the South supposed to accept from New England what New England would not accept from the King of England? He does not seem to understand that New England lost the Civil War as surely, though not as obviously, as the South did, nor does he seem to have heard of Vietnam. He seems to equate civil war with public relations stunts such as the little expedition to Kuwait, which was mounted by a technologically obsessed mass society ethnically and materially unrelated to the Massachusetts of 1775.

Even so, Fischer’s attempts to force his vision beyond the scope of his topic do not render his book invalid. On the contrary; Paul Revere’s Ride is a work of national importance, and we are better off for having it. We would be even better off if our children absorbed some of its truth by reading it in school, as teachers and pupils used to do in the old days.


[Paul Revere’s Ride, by David Hackett Fischer (New York: Oxford University Press) 44S pp., $27.50]