When Paul Revere Won the Boston Marathon

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Library of Congress

Today is the day of the Boston Marathon, but it’s also a big anniversary for the United States. I’ll let Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describe it:

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.

“Paul Revere” by J.S. Copley (Wikimedia)

That’s April 18, 1775, exactly 241 years ago. Longfellow was writing in the January 1861 issue of The Atlantic, and the poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” is how I first learned the story—which my first-grade teacher had in picture-book form—of the Boston silversmith who rode all night to warn local militias that British troops were coming to seize their military stores. By the morning of April 19, the patriots were assembled on Lexington Green, ready to fire the first shots of the American Revolution.

It’s a tale that looms large in American culture, and that’s where the Boston Marathon comes in. As Yoni wrote three years ago, the first version of the race was partly intended as a retracing of the path Revere and his countrymen took:

The runners in that 1897 race, fifteen young amateurs, bore little outward resemblance to the minutemen whose journey they symbolically retraced. But alongside each runner rode a uniformed militiaman, providing lemons, water, and wet handkerchiefs, as he followed the paths used more than a century before by militia converging on Boston.

I like the thought of that convergence—in space, in time. Maybe the runners, tiring, imagined themselves as heroes rushing to battle. Maybe they heard the hoofbeats beside them and pictured Revere at a gallop. Here’s Longfellow again:

A hurry of hoofs in a village-street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed that flies fearless and fleet:
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

The meaning in itself is exciting, but reader, look at those rhymes: They repeat, but not quite in an even pattern. Like Revere with the British, you know they’re coming, but you can’t be sure when, and in that way Longfellow drives the poem forward in a rhythm that pushes steadily on without turning rote. It’s a galloping horse, running footsteps—a gasp, a stumble—another step forward. It’s urgency and inevitability, the push toward the finish line, the race to a future and a freedom that you deeply believe in.

Incidentally, another famous poet to commemorate Lexington and Concord was Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the founders of The Atlantic. Some of his writing for the magazine is here, but what’s probably his best-known work is his 1837 poem “Concord Hymn,” written for the dedication of a monument at the Revolutionary battlefield:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

I have family near Concord, and when I go to visit, we’ll sometimes stand by that monument—“on this green bank, by this soft stream,” as Emerson put it. It’s quiet there, surprisingly so for a tourist spot. And what runs through my mind is Emerson’s whispery second stanza:

The foe long since in silence slept,
Alike the conquerer silent sleeps,
And time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

The contemplative tone (and yes, the rhyme scheme) couldn’t be more different from Longfellow’s urgency. But both poets are writing of history—not just their subject matter, but the way time creeps and gallops onward. In our American dreams of manifest destiny, upward mobility, and a race toward freedom, there’s a sense that history is left behind—that we move on, always, to something better. Yet that forward movement often means retracing old paths, and maybe that’s for the better. Back to Yoni:

The Boston Marathon doesn’t distract from the events it commemorates. It has, instead, come to embody our long march toward greater freedom. The Athenian victory that first inspired it preserved liberty, but only for a privileged elite. The battles at Lexington and Concord that it honors gave birth to a new republic, but one marred by slavery. The Civil War it commemorates turned slaves into citizens, but for women, equality remained elusive.

Like the runners navigating the hills of the race’s course, we have made uneven progress, and our pace has sometimes faltered. We should not be so consumed by the task at hand, though, that we fail to look back to the starting line and recognize how far we have come.