By Jeremy Lott
Joel Miller is a vice president at Thomas Nelson who oversees the publisher's nonfiction line (full disclosure: that includes my new book William F. Buckley). He had written books about the drug war (Bad Trip) and overweening government (Size Matters). For his third book, he decided to go in a different but -- he argues -- still related direction by giving readers a lively historical biography of the famous Boston goldsmith and tea partier Paul Revere -- The Revolutionary Paul Revere.
Revere is best remembered for his ride, memorialized by a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in a poem that appeared in The Atlantic in 1861. It began, "Listen my children and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere" and told the lightly fictionalized tale of Revere's ride (along with several other patriots) to warn the citizens of Massachusetts that British reinforcements were on the way to put down an incipient rebellion.
Revere was also an important player in several other moments in the early history of the new nation. Yet while some founders have gotten the full-length biographical treatment in recent years, Revere's life had languished. Miller looked to fill that gap. He aimed to retell Revere's life with an eye on some of the controversies of today. I corresponded with him recently about bailouts, tax resistance, and how his subject "embodied the new order."
You've written books about the drug war and the size of government. Why did you decide to write a biography of Paul Revere?
There were at least a couple reasons. The first is that I knew a bit of the Revere story and saw very little in the market about him. George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas
Jefferson, Ben Franklin -- there's enough out there on these guys to collapse a bookcase. Just seemed like a good idea to get Revere into the mix.
There's a set-the-record-straight reason as well. Revere's life is remembered for his famous ride, and because of that his name has been devalued to the point it serves as a mere synonym for Bringer of Alarm. In both 2002 and 2006, for instance, U.S. congressmen introduced whistleblower legislation named after him. During the 2004 presidential race, Michigan's governor compared John Kerry to Revere because, she said, he "has been waking up America." Salon.com even invoked him for a story on depleted petroleum reserves: "Today's Paul Reveres of 'peak oil' aren't waiting for Washington to save us from apocalypse." Worse, the headline (the oil is going, the oil is going!) tied him to Chicken Little, a peculiar humiliation.
In many ways, the man embodied entrepreneurialism and was a commercial visionary, but we only remember him as a trope. I wanted to fix that.
Revere's profession is listed as "goldsmith," but that doesn't come close to describing what he produced over his lifetime, right?
Goldsmith was the proper term for a smith who worked in fine metals, usually silver and gold -- usually more of the former than the latter. They also worked with copper and other metals. The output of his shop included everything from spoons to platters to goblets to teapots to -- and I'm not making this up -- a chain for a guy's pet squirrel.
But Revere wasn't content with that. He also engraved copper plate for printing, creating political cartoons for local publications like the Boston Gazette and the Massachusetts Spy. He worked as a dentist and a coroner, built a gunpowder mill during the Revolution, cast cannon and bells, and revolutionized the way copper was utilized in the fledgling United States. Robert Fulton, for example, got copper sheets for his early steam engines from Paul Revere.
When I was working on the book, Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers and I remember thinking that Revere was a great example of his 10,000-hour rule. When you look at Revere's career, the more metallurgic knowledge he accumulated over the years the bigger creative and entrepreneurial leaps he was able to make. He went from a simple shop-bound artisan to one of America's first industrialists.
When he was fifteen, Revere's father beat him for going to the church of the radical pastor Jonathan Mayhew. Some people have suggested that this was because of Mayhew's politics. What's your view?
Mayhew's politics can smack people as pretty radical. When Paul was 15, for instance -- around the time of the infamous thumping -- Mayhew preached a sermon on the right of civil resistance, arguing against the divine right of kings and defending the beheading of Charles I.
But this isn't as radical as it a might seem. Mayhew was speaking from what was by then a long tradition of civil resistance, primarily from the Calvinists. While John Calvin himself opposed rebellion, his Huguenot heirs in France penned treatises defending it: François Hotman, Theodore Beza, and Phillipe du Plessis-Mor-nay and his famous Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. Ditto for Calvin's Puritan heirs like George Buchanan, Samuel Rutherford, and John Ponet. These writers shaped Puritan and Huguenot ideas about civil power and rights and were hardly radical to those standing in their stream. John Adams spoke glowingly of them. "The original plantation of our country was occasioned, her continual growth has been promoted, and her present liberties have been established by these generous theories," he wrote, specifically referring to Ponet and the Vindiciae.
All this matters because Paul's family was Calvinist. His dad was a Huguenot refugee from France and married into a Puritan family in Boston. Mayhew's politics wouldn't have been radical to him at all, and preachers all over Boston echoed Mayhew's political sentiments. The problem for Revere's dad was therest of Mayhew's theology. Mayhew was a winsome, exciting preacher -- and also a heretic. He denied some basic Christian teachings, such as the Trinity. From my reading, Paul got the beating for lending ear to a heretic. Mayhew's politics were actually pretty orthodox for their time and place, which was one of the reasons Boston so quickly fell into their resistance against England.
How important was Mayhew to the resistance of Bostonians to the British government?
I think very important -- but not by himself. In Paul's day, you learned about politics from the papers, the pubs, and the pulpits. Pastors like Mayhew were key voices in their communities. And they used their pulpits to inveigh against unjust laws, arbitrary rule, burdensome taxation, all the stuff that formed the list of grievances against Britain. And that lent the resistance a kind of divine approval that no doubt justified resistance while it also empowered it. I highlighted Mayhew's role in the narrative because of his proximity to Paul, but there were dozens more men of the cloth that opposed the imperial government as well.
How common was smuggling in the British colonies?
How common is going to the grocery story today? In the papers of Massachusetts's royal governor Thomas Hutchinson I found a report from 1676 -- a hundred years before Independence -- in which a crown official complained about the Bay Colony's total disregard of England's trade laws. I paid the most attention to Massachusetts in my research, but it was true for other colonies as well. The trade laws were restrictive and designed to channel as much business as possible back to Britain and prevent trade with foreign powers, particularly France and Holland. But the colonists ignored the rules from the start. When the Crown finally cracked down on smuggling, there was more than a hundred-year tradition in the practice. Try stopping that.
And it's not just like ruffians were doing it. The reason John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence with such gusto was that just a few years prior, the Crown had seized one of his ships, the Liberty. He learned all about smuggling from his uncle Thomas Hancock, Boston's leading merchant. It was a widespread practice and seen by most as a legitimate response to excessive taxes and regulations.
What were "writs of assistance"? What role did they play in inflaming Bostonian passions?
Writs of assistance were one of the early crackdown measures used to combat smugglers. They were search warrants that allowed customs men vast and arbitrary powers. They ran directly afoul to the deep-seated legal principle that a man's home is his castle. Because a man's privacy could be violated whenever the authorities chose to do so, the colonists put up a vigorous fight against the writs. They failed -- and their legality was a constant sore spot for patriots. I quote from a letter by royal governor Francis Bernard that shows the Stamp Act riots that came several years later were fueled by the people's ongoing resentment to the writs.
Several of the conflicts of Revere's lifetime seem remarkably similarly to issues that we are still hashing out today. For instance, how was the Tea Act like the auto bailout?
The link to taxes and regulation are easy to see, but I was really struck by the auto bailouts. The British East India Company was in dreadful disorder and in hock to the government for over a million pounds. So Parliament gave them a bailout package that sounds eerily similar to the deals given the automotive and financial sectors. They extended a loan to cover the existing debt and also extended their reach into the corporate governance of the company. They then turned around and made decisions with significant tax implications and pointedly ignored the people on whom the burden would fall. I remember flipping between the newspaper and the history books and saying, "This is the same story.
About 20 years ago, there was a book titled I Love Paul Revere Whether He Rode or Not. Did he ride, or not?
He definitely rode -- and it's a pretty adventurous story. Spies and subterfuge, rowing a boat under the bow of a British battleship, narrow escapes on horseback. He just didn't get as far as some might think. He made it to Lexington but was captured by redcoats before he could get to Concord. He was set free when the soldiers realized that they were riding into a swarm of Revere's compatriots, all of them armed and ready for trouble.
What surprised you most about Revere's story?
Penobscot. Paul Revere won fame for his ride across the New England countryside. But his darkest period came later when he was court-martialed for his part in America's greatest naval disaster -- the route of the fleet at Penobscot, Maine. Revere was responsible for the artillery, and the entire expedition was a botch from the word go. The story has all the elements -- disaster, slander, revenge. This episode in his life came entirely out of the blue for me.
What role did Revere play in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution?
The story goes that Sam Adams was basically on the fence about it. Don't forget the Constitution expanded the powers of the central government and many patriot leaders, Patrick Henry for instance, were opposed to it. Revere backed the new plan and rallied a slew of fellow artisans to sign a petition in favor of the charter. Revere put the petition under his old friend's nose, and Adams decided to sign off on the Constitution.
The working title for your book was Paul Revere: The New Man in the New World, and an epigraph tells us that Revere "embodied the new order." What was new about Revere?
The class ladder in America was as short as it was rickety, and a man like Revere could start out life the son of a poor French immigrant and end up wealthy, well-esteemed by neighbors high and low, as well as having lived a life of honor and worth. That sort of social and economic advance was virtually impossible in Europe. Not so in America -- and I thought that Revere embodied that change. The book starts with the quote from John Winthrop that England has grown weary of its inhabitants. America and its people like Revere were the counterpoint to that -- fresh, exciting, and full of possibilities.
Jeremy Lott's most recent book is William F. Buckley, part of Thomas Nelson's Christian Encounters series.