June 6, 2011 — -- Sarah Palin said that Paul Revere warned the British during his midnight ride in 1775. Historians beg to differ.
"He didn't warn the British," said James Giblin, author of "The Many Rides of Paul Revere." "That's her most obvious blooper."
During her "One Nation Tour" last week, the former Alaska governor uttered a now-infamous recounting of the Revolutionary War hero's midnight ride, telling reporters that Revere "warned, uh, the ... the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells." She defended her explanation on "Fox News Sunday," saying "Part of his ride was to warn the British that we're already there -- that, 'Hey, you're not going to succeed. '"
Experts agree that warning the British -- Revere was an American patriot, remember, he was against the folks across the pond -- was not crucial to the midnight ride.
"Revere's assignment that night was to go to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were moving in that direction from Boston," explained Kristin Peszka, director of interpretation and visitor's services at the Paul Revere House, which Palin visited Thursday. (Peszka noted that Palin offered her convoluted account before touring the historic site.)
"People did ring bells that night," she added. "It was a common way of alerting people to come out. But Revere was not the person ringing the bells."
Peszka offered her own halting take on Palin's explanation.
"I think she's … being accused of being caught in an error and she's trying to correct herself," she said. "I think the story of the midnight ride is one that's confusing to lots of people."
Indeed, since Revere-gate (or would it be Revere-gait?) started at the end of last week, many questions have been raised about what actually happened during the midnight ride.
"It was an extremely complicated situation which she sort of regurgitated in a garbled way," Boston University's Brendan McConville said. "It has been, as an American history professor, disconcerting to realize that no one seems to know what happened in this iconic event."
The most famous account comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride." The problem: It's historically inaccurate (Revere never made it to Concord, Mass.). Retellings of the ride abound online, but this weekend, liberal bloggers suggested that Palin's supporters tried to revise Wikipedia's entry about Revere to line up with her description, and some of Palin's fans took to Twitter to circulate a website that mentions the bells she referenced.
To the source: In a 1798 letter, Revere wrote that after being captured by British officers during the midnight ride, he told them "there would be five hundred Americans there in a short time for I had alarmed the Country all the way up." Does that mean he warned the British? Not exactly.
"He wasn't really warning the British when he was a captive," said "Rides of Paul Revere" author Giblin. "He was just, in a way, boasting about the capabilities of Americans. 'You don't know what you're going to be up against,' etc. He was playing the patriot even there. He did maybe inflate the American strength, but that was to throw the British off guard. He was propagandizing, really."
"It was kind of an effort to intimidate them," said professor McConville. "It was meant to give Samuel Adams and John Hancock a chance to escape and avoid getting arrested."
So according to multiple accounts, it would be inaccurate to say that Revere warned the British and rang bells on his way to Lexington. Still, questions remain, like the logic circulated on Twitter -- by everyone from Palin advocates to Steve Martin (jokingly) -- that the "he was warning the British" explanation makes sense "because all the citizens WERE British. There was no America yet." What about that?
"Well that's sort of bogus to me," McConville said. "That's not how someone should read or discuss the situation."
Giblin offered a simpler answer. "Oh," he said, "that's just a fudge."