Paul Revere explains fight for Independence

Paul Revere

1813 portrait of Paul Revere by Gilbert Stuart (Wikimedia Commons).

With the arrival of the Fourth of July, I think it’s worth pointing out the commitment to the cause of Independence that people from many levels of society possessed and expressed. Eloquent and toplofty patriots like Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams could plumb the philosophical depths of the quarrel between Britain and America and rationalize why the Americans were in the right. But what of the average Joe? They knew their way around the quarrel as well, and could explain it in words and thoughts of their own.

I don’t think there is any better representative here than the goldsmith and express rider Paul Revere, the “blue-collar” revolutionary. Instead of references to Lord Coke and John Locke, in this 1 July 1782 letter to his British cousin John Rivoire, Revere references the book of Joshua and Aesop’s fables, but the takeaway is the same (I’ve left his idiosyncratic spelling and grammar untouched):

You say “we have entered into a war with Brittain against all laws human & divine.” You do not use all the candour which I am sure you are master of, else you have not looked into the merits of the quarrel. They covenanted with the first settlers of this country, that we should enjoy “all the Libertys of free natural born subjects of Great Britain.” They were not contented to have all the benefit of our trade, in short to have all our earnings, but they wanted to make us hewers of wood, & drawers of water. Their Parliament have declared “that they have a right to tax us & Legislate for us, in all cases whatsoever”—now certainly if they have a right to take one shilling from us without our consent, they have a right to all we possess; for it is the birthright of an Englishman, not to be taxed without the consent of himself, or Representative. . . .

You say “You will suppose for one moment that there is faults on both sides; that is, England & America are both in fault.” The supposition is intirely groundless, the fault is wholly on the side of England, America took every method in her power by petitioning &c. to remain subject to Brittain; but Brittain (I mean the British King & Ministers) did not want Colonies of free men they wanted Colonies of Slaves. Like the fable of the Woman & Hen, by grasping at too much they will lose all.

I ran across this letter in my research for The Revolutionary Paul Revere and included it in The Portable Patriot, the collection of foundational documents I co-edited with my colleague Kristen Parrish. The hewers and drawers reference is an allusion to Joshua 9:27: “And Joshua made them that day hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation . . . .” Popularly used, the reference meant someone forced or enslaved to do menial tasks for the benefit of another. The “Woman & Hen” is of course from Aesop, about someone who tries getting two eggs from her hen instead of one and ends up with none at all, a spot-on description of what happened between Britain and America when the former began pushing for new taxes on the latter without counting the cost.

I think it’s useful to be reminded that the Revolution was not fought or even led only by the elevated in colonial society. Middle-class men like Revere knew the grievances as well as arguments and expressed them in language of their own. They had a vital role to play in the struggle for American Independence. They also stand as reminders of the continuing need in our own time for people at every level to be aware of the threats to our political liberty.


One thought on “Paul Revere explains fight for Independence

  1. This is a great reminder of the role of the common man in achieving and maintaining liberty. I think that too often today the “common man” acquiesces to the “expert.” This is a good reminder that it takes all of us acting together to preserve our freedoms.

    Excellent post!

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