The Midnight Message

Preserving American democracy in a moment of peril

Photo of Paul Revere statue with Old North Church in background
Yoav Horesh

In the January 1861 issue of this magazine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of The Atlantic’s founders, published what would become perhaps his most popular poem, the opening stanza of which is immortal: “Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” But the past century or so has not been overly kind to “Paul Revere’s Ride,” or to the rest of the Longfellow canon. He’s been adjudicated by many critics to have been a purveyor of sentimental, manipulative doggerel. But stay with me for a minute, because beneath its putative literary failings, the work has hidden layers. Longfellow, like most of The Atlantic’s founders—including Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—was an ardent abolitionist, and used funds raised from the sale of his poems to buy freedom for enslaved people in the South.

“Paul Revere’s Ride” should not be read as mythmaking patriotic twaddle. Longfellow wrote this poem to serve as a wake-up call to the sleeping North—a summons to join the great abolitionist struggle when the future of the Union itself was in doubt. It was animated by a belief that America was worth saving. “In the hour of darkness and peril and need, / The people will waken and listen to hear / The hurrying hoof-beat of that steed, / And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.”

The Atlantic of that era did its part in the fight for freedom and equality and union. A few months before the editors published “Paul Revere’s Ride,” they endorsed Abraham Lincoln for president, and scored the debased ethos of the age:

Sordid and materialistic views of the true value and objects of society and government are professed more and more openly by the leaders of popular outcry, if it cannot be called public opinion. That side of human nature which it has been the object of all law-givers and moralists to repress and subjugate is flattered and caressed; whatever is profitable is right.

The current stewards of The Atlantic would not claim today’s magazine to be the moral or aesthetic equivalent of The Atlantic of the antebellum era. But we still believe America is worth saving. And in this moment of peril, in which a man uniquely unsuited for the presidency stands for reelection, and in which purveyors of sordid and materialistic views enable this man to demolish the institutions and ideas that make America—you should pardon the word—great, we have tried, and will continue to try, to bring you the truth of this crisis. Our cover story this month, by Barton Gellman, is a clear warning about what the coming months could bring. David Frum, who early on in these pages identified the encroaching danger of autocracy, warns that representative democracy in this country hangs in the balance. Over the past four years, The Atlantic’s writers have exposed corruption, depredation, racism, and the fragility of our democratic experiment. We will continue to do this work, no matter what happens on November 3 and after.

We thank you for reading, and for joining us on our modest version of Paul Revere’s ride.