Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s most popular work has been passed down through the generations as the quintessential Revolutionary War poem. But in fact it was the rift over slavery that Longfellow had in mind as he wrote the classic story of Paul Revere.
Longfellow was a committed abolitionist who had been quietly donating money toward buying the freedom of slaves. The day John Brown was hanged in 1859, the poet observed 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.”
With “Paul Revere’s Ride,” he sought to create a patriotic national myth that would remind readers of their shared heroic past while galvanizing them to once more stand up for the nation’s founding principles. His poem didn’t exactly match the historic record—for example, Paul Revere was intercepted by the British before he got to Concord—but Longfellow was less concerned with being accurate than with fashioning a stirring common history.
On December 20, 1860, the day South Carolina seceded from the Union, the January 1861 issue of The Atlantic came out, featuring Longfellow’s poem.—Sage Stossel
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend,—“If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,—
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”