Here & Now Guest:
Jill Lepore, professor of American history at Harvard and author of "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History."
Fox News' Sarah Palin is defending her comments about Paul Revere's ride, saying "she did not mess up" the history when she said he "warned the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms."
But Harvard Professor of History Jill Lepore argues that we should have compassion for anyone struggling with the facts of the Paul Revere story, because even historians don’t know many details of it.
“There are few more canonical episodes in American history so poorly understood even by historians," she said to Here & Now's Robin Young, "so we ought to be a little bit forgiving for the mass of confusion out there in the Internet battle going right now."
"For the left, the right, people running for office, people founding political movements, the Revere story as fictionalized by Longfellow is incredibly captivating.”Jill Lepore, Harvard professor of history
Lepore said that Sarah Palin conflated Paul Revere’s ride with his capture, but that Palin "covered herself as best she could."
"She sort of bulloxed up her explanation of what is really a legend based on a fictional poem based on a memory based on a poorly recorded event. So we are really looking at many layers of confusion for anyone trying to understand what happened that night,” Lepore said.
Lepore goes on to make the point that Longfellow was not writing a history, he was creating a story that Americans could turn to in a moment of national crisis.
“Most of what people think they know about Revere’s ride comes from Longfellow’s poem. It’s a wonderful poem, but Longfellow was not trying to write history, he was writing a legend. He was trying to invent a legend about American history. But he was also trying to offer up a parable to the people of New England on the eve of the Civil War. The poem is an attempt to rouse New Englanders to action against the institution of slavery.”
Lepore said that Palin is also not the first to take up the story of Paul Revere’s ride to help a cause.
“Martin Luther King in 1967 said we still need some ‘Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is at hand," Lepore said. "So for the left, the right, people running for office, people founding political movements, the Revere story as fictionalized by Longfellow is incredibly captivating.”
Story compiled by Here & Now's Hitesh Hathi.
This segment aired on June 6, 2011.