A century-and-a-half ago today, in our January 1861 issue, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published what's still his best-known poem, "Paul Revere's Ride
." In Sunday's New York Times,
Jill Lepore explains
what the poem was doing here: Despite the demure Longfellow's aversion to playing directly into public debate, he was -- like The Atlantic
's whole founding generation -- an intensely committed abolitionist, who wrote "Paul Revere's Ride" with the coming Civil War, as much as the War of Independence Revere rallied for 85 years earlier, in mind. In 1842, Longfellow had put out a volume called "Poems on Slavery" for his best friend Charles Sumner
(later a leader of the anti-slavery movement in Massachusetts and, later still, of the Radical Republicans
in the U.S. Senate during the Civil War and Reconstruction); for years, Longfellow quietly spent the earnings from his best-selling poetry to buy slaves their freedom; and on December 2, 1859, the day when the radical abolitionist John Brown
was executed for treason against the state of Virginia, Longfellow wrote in his diary, "This will be a great day in our history, the date of a new Revolution quite as much needed as the old one."
Pondering that new Revolution, Longfellow got to thinking about the old one. In April 1860, he began writing "Paul Revere's Ride." While he worked on the poem, he worried about the fate of the nation. Around the same time he went to see Frederick Douglass speak and read Sumner's latest speech, which predicted that "the sacred animosity between Freedom and Slavery can end only with the triumph of Freedom." In November, weeks after finishing "Paul Revere's Ride," Longfellow rejoiced in his diary that Lincoln had won the presidency; echoing Sumner, he wrote: "Freedom is triumphant."
"Paul Revere's Ride" was published in the January 1861 issue of The Atlantic, which appeared on newsstands on Dec. 20. It was read as a rallying cry for the Union. It is a poem about waking the sleeping, and waking the dead: "Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,/ In their night encampment on the hill." The dead are Northerners, awakened, at last aroused. But the dead are also the enslaved, entombed in slavery -- an image that was, at the time, a common conceit: Douglass called his escape "a resurrection from the dark and pestiferous tomb of slavery."