This past week, former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin attempted to explain Paul Revere’s historic midnight ride in a manner that many history buffs took issue with. Specifically, speaking to an audience at a church visited by Revere, Palin described Revere thusly:
“He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells, and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.” While it sounds from Palin’s account as though Revere was warning the British, according to the New York Times, “In fact, on the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere rode out from Boston to warn the American patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were marching from Boston to Lexington to arrest them.”
Palin has since claimed that she “know[s] her American history,” knows the details of Revere’s ride, and is the victim of a “gotcha” media. But several political bloggers report that Palin supporters have taken a rather more creative approach to defending her from criticism: Going straight to the Wikipedia article on Paul Revere and editing it to make history sound more in line with Palin’s recollection of events.
Dave Weigel: “Palin’s taking heat for saying Revere ‘warned the British’? No problem: Just add the line in italics.”
Revere did not shout the phrase later attributed to him (“The British are coming!”), largely because the mission depended on secrecy and the countryside was filled with British army patrols; also, most colonial residents at the time considered themselves British as they were all legally British subjects.
If nothing else, the Palin flap has stirred up public interest in Revolutionary history, which has, to Palin’s credit, chipped away at mainstream myths associated with Revere’s ride. As no less an authority than comedian Steve Martin points out, “Paul Revere did not warn that ‘The British are coming,’ because all the citizens WERE British. There was no America yet.” So Palin may be right that the ride “warned the British.” Bells and guns: Maybe not so much. Still, though this particular case is more trivial than not, and Wikipedia editors are usually reasonably vigilant about sudden, topical edits to old articles, there’s something a little unnerving about public knowledge resources being turned to political ends, by partisans of any stripe.