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.”