JISHOU, HUNAN — Sarah Palin erred in one way. Wikipedia got “corrected” in another. Somehow the twain met and still exposed the weaknesses of both.
If the current Wikipedia page about Paul Revere is to be trusted (the citations look solid, anyway), Paul Revere did in fact warn the British about the Massachusetts militiamen ready to fight them. But he didn’t do it at all like Palin said he did.
Predictably, Palinites are declaring victory for Saint Sarah, ignoring that the truth that she’s still embarrassingly wrong about a well known moment in American history.
Here’s the play-by-play.
At a rally Friday in Boston, Palin told the crowd that Revere rode through town, firing shots off like John Wayne and ringing bells like Bing Crosby, to warn the British (the British –OK?) that the red-blooded colonists were not going to give up their arms to any Redcoats without a fight. Here’s the exact quote, complete with her folksy diction:
“He who warned, uh, the…the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells and um by makin’ sure that as he’s ridin’ his horse through town to send those warnin’ shots and bells that uh we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free…and we were gonna be armed.”
So, Revere is on horseback making a lot of ruckus to alert the British army that the colonials were ready to shoot them. Nothing like tipping your hand. And this woman wants to be commander-in-chief?
Of course, Revere did nothing of the sort. On Sunday, Chris Wallace of Fox News (where Palin is employed as commentator, or something) surprisingly called her out on the mistake. Palin’s reply approached reality, but only asymptotically.
CHRIS WALLACE: I gotta ask you about that real quickly, though. You realize that you messed up about Paul Revere, don’t you?
PALIN: You know what? I didn’t mess up about Paul Revere. Here’s what Paul Revere did. He warned the Americans that “the British were coming, the British were coming.” And they were going to try to take our arms so got to make sure that, uh, we were protecting ourselves and, uhm, shoring up all of our ammunitions and our firearms so that they couldn’t take them.
But remember that the British had already been there — many soldiers — for seven years in that area. And part of Paul Revere’s ride… And it wasn’t just one ride. He was a courier. He was a messenger. Part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there that, “Hey. You’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to take American arms. You are not gonna beat our own well-armed, uh, persons, uh, individual private militia that we have. He did warn the British.
And in a shout-out, gotcha type of question that was asked of me, I answered candidly. And I know my American history.
Thanks for your answer, Sarah. Please see me after class. Now, let’s turn to page 121 …
Notice how she manages to work in allusions to gun control laws and the Second Amendment, neither of which existed in 1775.
The first part of her statement is almost right. Revere was on a mission to warn people in Lexington and Concord that the “regulars were coming.” He didn’t holler, “The British are coming!” like some damn fool in a panic. (Besides, back then, Americans were still British, so people might have been just a little confused.) He didn’t also charge through the streets like some drunken cowboy firing his six-shooters. He went door-to-door to quietly warn residents that the regulars were getting ready to march out of Boston.
His mission was supposed to be low-key, hush hush, part of the colonials’ guerrilla tactics.The British were not supposed to know he was warning anyone of their plans. The signal lights, “one if by sea, two if by land,” were part of the silent early warning system. Under no circumstances was Revere intending to get near the King’s Army. That part of Palin’s version is still palpably Wrong with a capital W. And no amount of whitewashing by her supporters can validate her misstatements.
Here’s where Wikipedia enters into the story.
Later on Sunday, Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs reported that someone was trying to revise the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere to include Palin’s nonsense. Some of the attempted changes were also nonsense, but by this afternoon, the entry contained some valid kernels of truth about Revere’s unplanned encounter with the British army. If you look at them sideways, with a squint, they might almost sort of corroborate Palin’s version of American history.
If the Wikipedia entry is to be trusted, the British caught Revere along the way. He did spill the beans, as it were, by telling them there were 500 militiamen waiting for them down the road. This gentlemanly courtesy (or macho swagger, or stupidity — your choice) did not help the Brits in the end. And Revere was also able to escape to complete his mission.
This information comes from Paul Revere’s Ride, a 1994 book by David Hackett Fischer published by Oxford University Press, which seems to be a pretty unimpeachable source. The same book also includes some details about the colonial early warning system, which included bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a trumpet, as well as (presumably quiet) couriers on horseback.
Revere telling his captors about the militiamen. Bells. Guns. These details were all added after Palin’s speech on Friday, and her added folderol and Johnson’s report on Sunday morning. They were not there when I wrote my own post at 3:20 am UTC Monday. But they were there by the time I woke up.
Here’s some conjectures as to what happened.
1. (The original reaction by me and others) Palin, who has after all not been factually correct most times, ad libbed her memory of Paul Revere’s ride and got it wrong. Somehow, the real history got mixed up with her supply of right wing talking points about gun control, government intrusion, liberty and this Great Country We Live In, and out came one of her typical garbled word salads. Meanwhile, some history buff updated the Wikipedia page with new information.
2. (Very unlikely, but somewhat plausible) Between her many, many stops for her coy non-campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, Palin found time to read Fischer’s scholarly analysis of Revere’s ride, but remembered it poorly. All that remained of his original work were the words “bell,” “guns,” “British” and “warning,” which she reconstructed into her own condensed alphabet soup version of reality. Meanwhile, some history buff updated the Wikipedia page with new information.
3. (Slightly more likely, and somewhat more plausible) Alternatively, Palin’s staff gave her a quick rundown of Paul Revere’s ride, perhaps adding details from Fischer’s book (which I confess I never knew before either), and Palin’s steel-sieve brain strained out all the factual parts and left only the incorrect associations. Meanwhile, some history buff updated the Wikipedia page with new information.
4. (About the same as #2) Palin has read no history of Paul Revere’s ride since the 7th grade, and no one prepped her for the question, which was after all unscheduled. A Palin supporter with a knack for history found reliable information that mirrored some of what Palin said and added it to Wikipedia after the fact, so that her loyal minions could point to it and say she was right all along, even though she still isn’t.
As for me, I’m going with number 1, since it’s the simplest and involves the fewest assumptions. Occam’s Razor and all that.
Whatever the explanation, this whole episode underscore one salient truth: don’t automatically trust everything you read or hear, especially if the sources are a politician or Wikipedia.