Writing About History Is Writing Toward Truth

By Mark Nichol

The latest chapter in the depressing saga of Sarah Palin’s losing battle with chronic foot-in-mouth disease illustrates a point writers and editors should take careful notes about, because it’s going to be on the test. It has to do with history and repeating, but not with history repeating itself. It has to do with repeating accounts of historical events.

Palin was in the news again last week because she recently made some confused statements about Paul Revere’s legendary ride, implying that one purpose of the mission was to warn the British military occupation that colonial militiamen were prepared to oppose their advance through Massachusetts to arrest rebel ringleaders and confiscate munitions.

So, where’s the writing tip amid the historical histrionics? First, I readily concede that Palin is not an entirely reliable source of American history. But, in her defense, she actually got it partly right, and her detractors are also mistaken in some respects.

Here’s the background: The legend of Paul Revere we all know from history class and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is just that — a legend. His ride is historical, but the details, as they’ve been handed down to us, are a bit muddled: Paul Revere was not a lone hero galloping off in the moonlight to rouse unprepared farmers and villagers to repel a surprise British advance. He was just a minor part of a long-prepared, well-organized network of planners, couriers, and militiamen who had rehearsed for the eventuality of the military maneuver, which they knew was inevitable. It was Longfellow’s poem that elevated a fairly trivial historical figure into an icon of the American Revolution.

The most egregious issue in the latest Palin controversy is that one of her supporters attempted to revise Wikipedia’s Paul Revere page to deflect criticism of her. The intent was to support her by introducing a comment suggesting that it would have been odd for Revere to cry out, “The British are coming!” when those who responded to his call identified themselves by that term of nationality. A Wikipedia monitor rejected the change, but the truth is that it’s a valid point: Revere’s warning likely referred to “the regulars,” not “the British,” to announce the impending arrival of regular British army units.

The British colonists in America were just that: British subjects. Many of them were disgruntled British subjects, but on the eve of the battles of Lexington and Concord, in April 1775, most of them remained loyal to the British crown and wanted not independence, but redress of grievances.

Furthermore, British army scouts captured Revere before he accomplished his entire mission. It is at this point that he reportedly informed his captors of the stout defense they could expect if the army unit marched inland; one purpose of this challenge was evidently to try to divert them from the vicinity of the farmhouse where rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock were in hiding. If this is true, then Sarah Palin’s comments are essentially accurate.

On this point this post hinges: History is a work constantly in revision. Unfortunately, it is a target also of revisionism, and it is difficult to wade through legend and lore and romanticized heritage to reach the truth. And truth is asymptotic; you will never arrive at it. Walk halfway to a destination. Walk halfway again. And again. Repeat into infinity. You’ll never technically arrive, but you’ll get closer — and it is incumbent on writers, when discussing history (or current events), to step ever forward toward the destination of truth.

Resist complacent reliance on schoolbook history. Reject the partisan playbook. Read multiple sources of history and information originating from all along the ideological spectrum. Judge what you read — and what you write — by the standards of objectivity.

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12 Responses to “Writing About History Is Writing Toward Truth”

  • Cindy Cotter

    And it’s not just history. Science is the same, as are all those offshoots of science… I’m thinking of medicine and nutrition, but I’m guessing the same is true of civil engineering and lawn care. Heck, even the “eternal” truths of religion seem to change slowly as cultures change.

    The problem is, we’re all faced with the necessity of making decisions based on insufficient evidence, sometimes really important decisions, and that feels a lot better if you can convince yourself that you really know what you’re doing.

  • Herrin Larkan

    We ourselves do not remember things, as they were. Let alone written down. There are however know signs in the writing itself of the integrity of the source but even then, we are dealing with their perception.

    Afraid of the unknown, we fill in the gaps in an instant and in some cases make a rather Hollywood production out of it, but we’re all different.

    Fortunately.

    Great story and nice way to tie it in with the language! 🙂

  • Rose

    Why, in the first paragraph, did you say Sarah Palin was wrong when, later in the post, you also say she was right? Were you being sarcastic?

  • Emma

    But the Wikipedia article on Paul Revere DOES say that he would have said “The Regulars are coming,” rather than “The British are coming.” Wikipedia is generally reliable about such things.

  • Fred Bauder

    A Wikipedia article is a compendium of what generally reliable sources contain about a subject. Those sources should be cited. No pretense is made that the information is true; only that it is a summary of generally accepted knowledge.

    It’s hard to know what Sarah Palin meant to say at the time; but it belongs in the article on Sarah Palin.

  • Mark Nichol

    Rose:

    In this rare case, Sarah Palin was essentially correct in spite of herself. But as usual, she was barely coherent, and undermined her argument by her folksy obfuscation, so that once again she was roundly criticized for mangling the facts. Hence the reference to chronic foot-in-mouth disease.

  • Mark Nichol

    Emma:

    Yes, the Wikipedia article on Revere is correct in that he likely used the word regulars, but ask ten Americans to recite his warning cry, and at least nine — and perhaps all ten — will say “The British are coming!”

  • Annie

    Thanks for this article Mark. I’m in the process of updating the history of a small village in South Australia, and am finding that the truth is very much a matter of perception and persuasion. The facts are often quite different when compared with the accounts given by people who’ve lived in the district all their lives. Stories are passed down through generations with the slant, intended or not, of the story-teller, who most likely is not aware that the stories are actually a part of history.

  • Ted

    I look forward to you wrestling a “writing tip” out of Obama’s blaming automation/ATM’s/airport kiosks for the terrible economy, Mr. Nichol!

  • Ted

    On the campaign trail, President Obama said he wanted to be president of “these 57 United States”. I’m sure he was just tired, right Mr. Nichol?

  • Maeve

    …ask ten Americans to recite his warning cry, and at least nine — and perhaps all ten — will say “The British are coming!”

    And for this reason, all the nit-picking to explain why Sarah Palin doesn’t know what “nine out of ten Americans” know is pretty silly.

    Much of what is taught in grades K-12 is incomplete and superficial. A general education is intended as a platform on which to build.

    We learn history in layers, from generalities to particulars. Much of what we learn is a simplified, or even mythologized version of history. The purpose of basic education is to give students a general idea about a lot of things, and sufficient reading skills to enable them to learn more about the specific topics that interest them most.

    Sarah Palin, like most of us, probably got her ideas about Paul Revere from fiction (“Paul Revere’s Ride,” Johnny Tremaine), or a very brief account in a basic history book. Based on what she was probably taught, she got it wrong. And that’s all right. Nobody remembers everything taught in elementary school. I happened to have been required to memorize Longfellow’s poem, so the fact that Paul Revere was riding to warn the colonists that the British were coming is burned into my brain.

    He said to his friend, “If the British march

    By land or sea from the town to-night,

    Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

    Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–

    One if by land, and two if by sea;

    And I on the opposite shore will be,

    Ready to ride and spread the alarm

    Through every Middlesex village and farm,

    For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

    What’s not all right is feeling that one must devise convoluted explanations based on arcane knowledge to justify a simple mistake or memory lapse.

    Btw, Longfellow does use the term “British regulars”:

    You know the rest. In the books you have read
    How the British Regulars fired and fled,–

    But nowhere in the poem is the line “The British are coming!” The reader is expected to infer that this was “the midnight message of Paul Revere.”

  • Al

    “In this rare case, Sarah Palin was essentially correct in spite of herself. But as usual, she was barely coherent . . .”

    That’s the problem with speaking as opposed to writing–no chance to revise for clarity. I still don’t know why this merits a plug on a writing blog when “corpse-man” didn’t make the cut.

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