An obituary in the Boston Intelligence commented, “seldom has the tomb closed upon a life so honorable and useful”. This seems an accurate representation of the life of one of the more modest and trustworthy men who ever walked the face of the earth.
Born in Boston’s North End in December, 1734, Paul Revere was the son of Apollos Rivoire, a French Huguenot (Protestant) immigrant, and Deborah Hitchbourn, daughter of a local artisan family. Rivoire, who changed his name to Paul Revere some time after immigrating, was a goldsmith and eventually the head of a large household. Paul Revere was the second of at least 9, possibly as many as 12 children and the eldest surviving son.
Revere was educated at the North Writing School and learned the art of gold and silversmithing from his father. When Revere was nineteen (and nearly finished with his apprenticeship) his father died, leaving Revere as the family’s main source of income. Two years later, in 1756, Revere volunteered to fight the French at Lake George, New York, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the colonial artillery.
In August, 1757, Revere married Sarah Orne. Together, they had eight children. Soon after Sarah’s death in 1773, Revere married Rachel Walker with whom he had eight children.
Revere’s primary vocation, a trade he learned from his father, was that of goldsmith/silversmith, meaning he worked in both gold and silver. His silver shop was the cornerstone of his professional life for more than 40 years. As the master of his silversmith shop, Revere was responsible for both the workmanship and the quality of the metal alloy used. He employed numerous apprentices and journeymen to produce pieces ranging from simple spoons to magnificent full tea sets. His work, highly praised during his lifetime, is regarded as one of the outstanding achievements in American decorative arts.
Revere also supplemented his income with other work. During the economic depression before the Revolution, Revere began his work as a copper plate engraver. He produced illustrations for books and magazines, business cards, political cartoons, bookplates, a song book and bills of fare for taverns. He also advertised as a dentist from 1768 to 1775. He not only cleaned teeth, but also wired in false teeth carved from walrus ivory or animal teeth. Contrary to popular myth, he did not make George Washington’s false teeth. Fabricating a full set of dentures was beyond his ability.
Revere’s political involvement arose through his connections with members of local organizations and his business patrons. As a member of the Masonic Lodge of St. Andrew, he was friendly with activists like James Otis and Dr. Joseph Warren. In the year before the Revolution, Revere gathered intelligence information by “watching the Movements of British Soldiers,” as he wrote in an account of his ride. He was a courier for the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, riding express to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He also spread the word of the Boston Tea Party to New York and Philadelphia.
The Midnight Ride
The role for which he is most remembered today was as a night-time messenger on horseback just before the battles of Lexington and Concord. His famous “Midnight Ride” occurred on the night of April 18/April 19, 1775, when he and William Dawes were instructed by Dr. Joseph Warren to ride from Boston to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of the movements of the British Army, which was beginning a march from Boston to Lexington, ostensibly to arrest Hancock and Adams and seize the weapons stores in Concord.
The British army (the King’s “regulars”) had been stationed in Boston since the ports were closed in the wake of the Boston Tea Party, and was under constant surveillance by Revere and other patriots as word began to spread that they were planning a move. On the night of April 18, 1775, the army began its move across the Charles River toward Lexington, and the Sons of Liberty immediately went into action. At about 11 pm, Revere was sent by Dr. Warren across the Charles River to Charlestown, on the opposite shore, where he could begin a ride to Lexington, while Dawes was sent the long way around, via the Boston Neck and the land route to Lexington.
In the days before April 18, Revere had instructed Robert Newman, the sexton of the Old North Church, to send a signal by lantern to alert colonists in Charlestown as to the movements of the troops when the information became known. One lantern in the steeple would signal the army’s choice of the land route, while two lanterns would signal the route “by water” across the Charles River. This was done to get the message through to Charlestown in the event that both Revere and Dawes were captured. Newman and Captain John Pulling momentarily held two lanterns in the Old North Church as Revere himself set out on his ride, to indicate that the British soldiers were in fact crossing the Charles River that night. Revere rode a horse lent to him by John Larkin, Deacon of the Old North Church.
Riding through present-day Somerville, Medford, and Arlington, Revere warned patriots along his route – many of whom set out on horseback to deliver warnings of their own. By the end of the night there were probably as many as 40 riders throughout Middlesex County carrying the news of the army’s advancement. Revere did not shout the famous phrase later attributed to him (“The British are coming!”), largely because the mission depended on secrecy and the countryside was filled with British army patrols; also, most colonial residents at the time considered themselves British as they were all legally British subjects. Revere’s warning, according to eyewitness accounts of the ride and Revere’s own descriptions, was “The Regulars are coming out.” Revere arrived in Lexington around midnight, with Dawes arriving about a half hour later. Samuel Adams and John Hancock were spending the night at the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington, and they spent a great deal of time discussing plans of action upon receiving the news. Revere and Dawes, meanwhile, decided to ride on toward Concord, where the militia’s arsenal was hidden. They were joined by Samuel Prescott, a doctor who happened to be in Lexington “returning from a lady friend’s house at the awkward hour of 1 a.m.”
Revere, Dawes, and Prescott were detained by British troops in Lincoln at a roadblock on the way to Concord. Prescott jumped his horse over a wall and escaped into the woods; Dawes also escaped, though soon after he fell off his horse and did not complete the ride. Revere was detained and questioned and then escorted at gunpoint by three British officers back toward Lexington. As morning broke and they neared Lexington Meeting-house, shots were heard. The British officers became alarmed, confiscated Revere’s horse, and rode toward the Meeting-house. Revere was horseless and walked through a cemetery and pastures until he came to Rev. Clarke’s house where Hancock and Adams were staying. As the battle on Lexington Green continued, Revere helped John Hancock and his family escape from Lexington with their possessions, including a trunk of Hancock’s papers.
The warning delivered by the three riders successfully allowed the militia to repel the British troops in Concord, who were harried by guerrilla fire along the road back to Boston. Prescott knew the countryside well even in the dark, and arrived at Concord in time to warn the people there. An interactive map showing the routes taken by Revere, Dawes, and Prescott is available at the Paul Revere House website.
Revere’s role was not particularly noted during his life. In 1861, over 40 years after his death, the ride became the subject of “Paul Revere’s Ride”, a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem has become one of the best known in American history and was memorized by generations of schoolchildren. Its famous opening lines are:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year
Today, parts of the ride are posted with signs marked “Revere’s Ride.” The full ride used Main Street in Charlestown, Broadway and Main Street in Somerville, Main Street and High Street in Medford, to Arlington center, and Massachusetts Avenue the rest of the way (an old alignment through Arlington Heights is called “Paul Revere Road”).
The war erupted and Revere went on to serve as lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts State Train of Artillery and commander of Castle Island in Boston Harbor. Revere and his troops saw little action at this post, but they did participate in minor expeditions to Newport, Rhode Island and Worcester, Mass. Revere’s rather undistinguished military career ended with the failed Penobscot expedition.
Post Revolutionary War
Revere expanded his business interests in the years following the Revolution. He imported goods from England and ran a small hardware store until 1789. By 1788 he had opened a foundry which supplied bolts, spikes and nails for North End shipyards (including brass fittings for the U.S.S. Constitution), produced cannons and, after 1792, cast bells. One of his largest bells still rings in Boston’s Kings Chapel.
Concerned that the United States had to import sheet copper from England, Revere opened the first copper rolling mill in North America in 1801. He provided copper sheeting for the hull of the U.S.S. Constitution and the dome of the new Massachusetts State House in 1803. Revere Copper and Brass, Inc., the descendent of Revere’s rolling mill is best known for “Revereware” copper-bottomed pots and pans. Revereware is now, however, manufactured by another company.
Revere’s community and social involvements were extensive. He was a Freemason from 1760 to 1809 and held several offices in St. Andrew’s and Rising States Lodges as well as the Massachusetts Grand Lodge. A member of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, Revere also served as the association’s first president. Founded in 1794, the group was an organization of artisans, and small businessmen who sought to improve the conditions under which their peers worked and aided members in “distressed” circumstances.
In 1811, at the age of 76, Paul Revere retired and left his well-established copper business in the hand of his sons and grandsons. Revere seems to have remained healthy in his final years, despite the personal sorrow caused by the deaths of his wife Rachel and son Paul in 1813. Revere died of natural causes on May 10, 1818 at the age of 83, leaving five children, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The son of an immigrant artisan, not born to wealth or inheritance, Revere died a modestly well-to-do businessman and a popular local figure of some note. An obituary in the Boston Intelligence commented, “seldom has the tomb closed upon a life so honorable and useful.” Paul Revere is buried in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground.