Writing About History Is Writing Toward Truth
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.