Palin, Paul Revere, and Republicanism
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.
As Joshua Green chronicles in this month’s Atlantic, Palin was a “transformative governor” -- repeatedly challenging her own party on ethics violations, reaching out to Democrats, confronting the oil companies that controlled Alaska, vastly improving her state’s fiscal condition. But the very day Palin was selected by John McCain, David Frum described her as an “untested small-town mayor.” Michael Medved asserted that “by any standard” she was “less prepared as commander in chief than Obama” (without specifying the “standards” for comparing her to an untested first-term senator). A few days later, George Will called her “a person of negligible experience.” David Brooks later labeled her a “cancer” to the Republican Party (he evaluated Obama by applying a sartorial standard to his pants).
There was something about Sarah Palin that set her off from the elite from day one, preventing her from joining the club. And this takes us back to Paul Revere.
Jayne E. Triber’s acclaimed 2001 biography of Paul Revere, A True Republican, portrays him as a working man whose artisan status excluded him from the council of the elite in the Revolution and the political leadership thereafter, but who played a critical role for reasons unrelated to his Midnight Ride. In the words of one review:
Triber’s well-substantiated thesis is that Paul Revere was an excellent representative of an eighteenth-century artisan/mechanic culture, which sought, not entirely successfully, to bridge the gap between artisans and the social and political elite. . . . [A]s a leader of an emerging working class, Revere, "a true republican," should be considered along with his more famous elite colleagues as one of the creators of the American republic.
Another review noted that Revere’s republicanism was evidenced in his relationships with his family, his socioeconomic status, occupation, and associations, and that:
Revere was more than the romantic figure created by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, more than an ambitious goldsmith caught up in the crucible of Revolution; rather, his ambition for “prosperity [and] social distinction led to Republican ideals of liberty and equality based on merit.”
More than two centuries after the Boston Tea Party (which, as we all know, occurred in 1773), another “tea party” revolution came to America, led not by the Republican elite, but by private citizens such as Sarah Palin, who had resigned her governorship and was having an extraordinary influence on the national political debate from her Facebook page. She drove the national conversation with phrases such as “death panels” and “hopey-changey stuff,” which drove the elite crazy but communicated the key issues in a compelling fashion. During the 2010 election, she was instrumental in forging the connection between the “tea party” and the Republicans that created a political earthquake (also known as a “shellacking”).
This does not necessarily mean she should run for president, any more than Paul Revere should have. Revere never held elective office. After the Revolution, he championed the ideas of republicanism -- particularly the necessity of virtue in public life -- and gave critical support to the battle to ratify the Constitution. Sarah Palin may likewise be more effective as the voice of those who -- with good reason -- do not trust the political elite. She reflects Angelo Codevilla’s cogent observation that “a revolution designed at party headquarters would be antithetical to the country class's diversity as well as to the American Founders' legacy.”
She may be better as a Paul Revere than a president. But we should acknowledge that as a candidate, she would not likely say anything as dumb as her prior problems were caused by working too hard for her country; nor say anything as incoherent as her health care legislation was great for her state but would be terrible for the nation. If she decides not to run, she will not likely schedule a live TV announcement to say anything as ludicrous as all the external signs said she would win but God told her to keep her TV show.
She speaks with an honesty and directness still found in the “artisan class” to this day, often missing from the eloquence of the elite, which is why -- more than three years after the elite denigrated her as an unprepared small-town mayor of negligible experience -- she is still a major political force.