We all know a little more about Paul Revere than we did a week ago, thanks to Sarah Palin – or more accurately, thanks to the avalanche of posts analyzing what she meant by her impromptu response to an unrecorded question about Revere:
. . . he who warned the British that they weren’t gonna 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 gonna be secure and we were gonna be free.
The reactions to Palin’s remark were more interesting than the remark itself. Buried within them is a connection between Palin and Revere, unrelated to his Midnight Ride, which bears on her coming decision about running for president.
The initial wave of comments about Palin’s remark treated her as simply stupid — everyone knows Revere warned his own countrymen, not the British. Our basic knowledge on the subject comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. We don’t remember much of his 986-word poem, but we remember whom Revere was warning.
A day or two later, we learned that Palin had been basically right. In his lengthy 1798 letter recounting his ride, Revere described his harrowing detention by British officers after midnight and how he frightened them by warning he had alarmed the country all along his ride and there would be 500 armed Americans waiting for them. That part of Revere’s ride is not described in Longfellow’s poem.
Palin was also right about “taking away our arms.” Revere’s ride had resulted from discovering that British General Thomas Gage had received orders that all cannons, small arms, and other military items be “seized and secreted” and that “the persons of such have committed themselves in acts of treason and rebellion, should be arrested and imprisoned.” Revere was summoned to ride to Lexington to alert John Hancock and Samuel Adams. And there were shots and bells as well.
The second wave of comments acknowledged that Palin’s remark was correct but asserted that truth was not a defense. Revere’s letter was supposedly “obscure” and something her supporters had “dug up” to defend her. She had been only inadvertently right. In a widely-read post at Forbes.com, E.D. Kain noted Revere’s letter but asserted you don’t “babble incoherently about warning the British” (he was referring to Palin, not Revere’s letter): “If you answer a question about Paul Revere . . . you recite Longfellow.” In going beyond the words taught to schoolchildren, Palin had gone rogue.
The third wave of comments took the position that the problem was not Palin’s accuracy, but her “incoherence.” Some prominent bloggers on the right took this line, concluding that Palin’s inelegantly expressed remark was further evidence of her “chronic problem” — an alleged inability to speak clearly even when making valid points. Some expressed the hope that this trait, allegedly evidenced by the latest kerfuffle, would end her presidential prospects.
The tri-part reaction to Palin’s remark — (1) she’s stupid; (2) she was only unknowingly right; (3) she was right, but she can’t speak good English — was an elite response. It was the reaction of a class that prizes, above all else, educational credentials and the ability to speak well.
Ironically, that is part of our current predicament. The sitting president is someone elected without experience or accomplishments, largely because he was well-educated, spoke well, and wrote a book. Some Republicans and conservatives thought Obama was potentially a great president while lacking even the qualifications of the vice-presidential candidate on the opposing ticket — a sitting governor with an impressive record of achievement.