President Donald Trump confused folklore with history at a speech to thousands of members of the National Rifle Association.
Addressing an enthusiastic crowd at the organization’s annual convention in Atlanta April 28, Trump said, "Freedom is a gift of God."
"It was this conviction that stirred the heart of a great American patriot.," Trump said. "On that day, April, 242 years ago, it was the day that Paul Revere spread his Lexington alarm, the famous warning that, ‘the British are coming, the British are coming!’ Right? You've all heard that, right? The British are coming. Now we have other people trying to come. But believe me, they're not going to be successful. That I can tell you."
There’s just one hitch with Trump’s statement. Revere didn’t say "the British are coming," plus, Trump took some poetic license with the precise purpose of Revere’s mission that night.
Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer wrote a detailed account in his 1994 book Paul Revere’s Ride. In it, Fischer wrote how Revere was part of a fair number of people who were on the move that night of April 18, 1775. An informant (most likely the American wife of a British general, Fischer believes) had alerted the colonials that a British patrol was out to detain two of their leaders, John Hancock and Sam Adams.
Revere’s mission was to warn those two men. The Redcoats also aimed to seize the armory at Concord, but that, Fischer wrote, was secondary for Revere.
Revere evaded British patrols and arrived at a parsonage in Lexington where Hancock and Adams were staying. A Sergeant William Munroe stood guard outside. We’ll let Fischer take over the tale here.
Sergeant Munroe did not know Paul Revere, and was not impressed by the appearance of this midnight messenger. In the eternal manner of sergeants in every army, he ordered Revere not to make so much noise -- people were trying to sleep!
"Noise!" Paul Revere answered, "You’ll have noise enough before long! The Regulars are coming out!"
The alert reader will note what Paul Revere did not say. He did not cry, "The British are coming." Many New England express riders that night would speak of Regulars, Redcoats, the King’s men, and the "Ministerial Troops," if they had been to college.
But no messenger is known on good authority to have cried, "The British are coming," until the grandfather’s tales began to be recorded long after American Independence. In 1775, the people of Massachusetts still thought that they were British. One of them, as we shall see, when asked why he was preparing to defend his house, explained, "An Englishman’s home is his castle." The revolution in national identity was not yet complete.
Many other history minded groups have tried to undo the myth that Revere rode about the countryside with his warning cry. The Paul Revere Heritage Project, an effort by the Boston University Graduate History Club, wrote, "Paul Revere certainly did not shout the famous phrase which was later attributed to him."
The History Channel has the same message. "The operation was meant to be conducted as discreetly as possible since scores of British troops were hiding out in the Massachusetts countryside," the producers wrote.
The image of a brave man on horseback sounding the alarm in the name of freedom has been burned into our collective brains. (Thank you Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for the line "so through the night went his cry of alarm/To every Middlesex village and farm.")
By all accounts, Revere, and many colleagues that night, were brave. They also seem to have been relatively quiet and more targeted.
Trump’s version plays off an inspiring and popular tale, but it miscasts what Revere was up to that night.
Donald Trump, Speech at National Rifle Association convention, April 28, 2017
Paul Revere, Heritage Project, Facts about Paul Revere You May have not Known, accessed April 28, 2017
David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, Oxford University Press, 1994
History.com, 10 Things You May Not Know About Paul Revere, April 16, 2013
PolitiFact, Was trash-talking the British part of Paul Revere's ride?, June 6, 2011
Poets.org, Paul Revere’s Ride, accessed April 28, 2017