Sunday, December 19, 2010

Paul Revere's Ride Against Slavery


The New York Times

December 18, 2010

Paul Revere’s Ride Against Slavery


Cambridge, Mass.

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW published his best-known poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” 150 years ago tomorrow — the same day that South Carolina seceded from the United States.

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Before Longfellow published those lines, Revere was never known for his ride, and Longfellow got almost every detail of what happened in 1775 wrong. But Longfellow didn’t care: he was writing as much about the coming war as about the one that had come before. “Paul Revere’s Ride” is less a poem about the Revolutionary War than about the impending Civil War — and about the conflict over slavery that caused it. That meaning, though, has been almost entirely forgotten.

Longfellow, a passionately private man, was, just as passionately and privately, an abolitionist. His best friend was Charles Sumner, for whom he wrote, in 1842, a slim volume called “Poems on Slavery.” Sumner, a brash and aggressive politician, delivered stirring speeches attacking slave owners; Longfellow, a gentler soul, wrote verses mourning the plight of slaves, poems “so mild,” he wrote, “that even a slaveholder might read them without losing his appetite for breakfast.”

Still, publishing those poems cost Longfellow something: a piece of his privacy, with pressure from fellow abolitionists to enter politics. “I should be found but a weak and unworthy champion in public debate,” he demurred. Asked to write once more about slavery, he refused: “I think no one who cares about the matter will be at any loss to discover my opinion on that subject.”

Yet Longfellow’s abolitionist zeal didn’t abate. He secretly spent money he earned from his best-selling poems, like “The Song of Hiawatha,” to buy slaves their freedom. In 1856, when Sumner gave his famous “Crime Against Kansas” speech in the Senate, Longfellow congratulated him: “At last the spirit of the North is aroused.” That speech nearly cost Sumner his life — it so incensed a South Carolina representative, Preston Brooks, that he beat Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor.

The next year, Longfellow wrote to Sumner calling the Dred Scott decision heart-breaking, and wishing he could find a way to write about it: “I long to say some vibrant word, that should have vitality in it, and force. Be sure if it comes to me I will not be slow in uttering it.” On Dec. 2, 1859, the day John Brown was hanged, 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.”

Much of the poem echoes stanzas in Longfellow’s earlier abolitionist verses, including “The Witnesses”:

These are the bones of Slaves;

They gleam from the abyss;

They cry, from yawning waves,

‘We are the Witnesses!’

Thanks to poems like “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow was once the country’s most respected and beloved poet. But, beginning with the rise of New Criticism in the early 20th century, literary scholars have dismissed his poetry as cloying, drippy and even childish. Generations of schoolchildren have memorized “Paul Revere’s Ride”; critics have barely read it.

Yet neglecting Longfellow, taking the politics out of Longfellow, thinking of Longfellow as childish, have both occluded the poem’s meaning and made it exceptionally serviceable as a piece of political propaganda. It is, after all, a rousing call to action:

In the hour of darkness and peril and need,

The people will waken and listen to hear

The hurrying hoofbeats of that steed,

And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

With the history of the poem forgotten, this became all-purpose stuff. “We still need some Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is still at hand,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967. In 1971, the Vietnam Veterans against the War marched Revere’s ride in reverse; four years later, Gerald Ford quoted Longfellow to call for renewed pride in America.

This year George Pataki came to Boston to unveil an organization called “Revere America: “We’re here today to tell the people of America,” he declared, “that once again our freedom is in danger” ... from health care.

A century and a half ago, there was quite a bit more at stake. “The dissolution of the Union goes slowly on,” Longfellow wrote in his diary in January 1861. “Behind it all I hear the low murmur of the slaves, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy.” They cry, from the abyss.

Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard and the author, most recently, of “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History.”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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