Before we all ride the Palin-Revere fiasco utterly into the ground, it’s worth noting what she really got wrong, and what the rest of us did as well.
Sarah Palin said that Paul Revere “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.”
As the author of a book about Revere’s life, when I heard this, I groaned. From Revere’s own account, it’s clear that he didn’t fire a shot, he didn’t ring a bell, and he didn’t intend to warn the British of anything (unless you count the townsfolk as British, which they technically were for a little while longer).
The unarmed Revere left Boston in total silence. He muffled the oars of his boat as men rowed him to Charlestown, and he rode in silence after leaving Charlestown by horseback. He was, after all, on a secret mission to alert John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington that they were in danger.
Only after scaring up two redcoats on horseback and turning away to Medford did he begin waking the countryside. He first woke the militia captain in Medford and then rode to Lexington raising the alarm — by shouting, mind you, not shooting or ringing bells.
In short, Palin basically got the whole story wrong. So people piled on to imply that she was ignorant, dumb, daffy, whatever. Most quotes of her comments even featured the uh’s and um’s which, for simple courtesy’s sake, are usually removed from transcribed comments. Everyone looks dimwitted on the page when umm-ing unevenly through a statement.
But that, of course, wasn’t the end. Palin doggedly insisted that she was right, that she knew her history better than her detractors.
That’s when the counterattack was launched, and so we must return to Revere’s famous ride.
Revere made it to Lexington and then later set off for Concord, stirring up the countryside, but was captured about halfway there. While in British custody, Revere warned his captors about mobilizing militias.
Not much to work with, really, but this is politics. Palin’s defenders jumped in to say, See! She was right all along. Never mind that he only warned the redcoats because he was captured; it had nothing to do with his original mission. Never mind that his warning did not come while riding through town and was attended by neither gunfire nor the peal of bells.
A gun was heard as Revere and his captors came back toward Lexington — fired by the Minute Men massing in the town. The redcoats, spooked, took off and left Revere to find his way back on foot.
It was a harrowing night for Revere. Meanwhile, our episode is thoroughly absurd. Palin got the story wrong. Big deal. It’s not worth mocking her and saying she’s a dummy. Nor is it worth trying to pull her bacon out of the fire with a lame and halfblind excuse for how she was really correct, sort of, if you look at it from the right angle, while basically ignoring her actual words. Both sides look foolish.
Palin should have been humble and admitted she got the story wrong. She could have spun it to say that she got the spirit of the thing right. She could have done a lot of things. But persisting in a flashing-neon error as she’s done is prideful, and that kind of pigheadedness is very unattractive in someone vying for public office. Sarah’s sin was in her lack of humility.
But then there’s us, we who revel in the cheap shot and the takedown. People make mistakes. People say cockamamie things. But high-vaulting and jumping down their throats is rarely called for. Still, we’ve cultivated a whole media culture of such acrobatics. That is also prideful and unattractive.
— Joel J. Miller is the author of The Revolutionary Paul Revere and the vice president of editorial and acquisitions at Thomas Nelson Publishers.