Perhaps the most iconic image of Paul Revere is John Singleton Copley’s painting (pictured below) at the Museum of Fine Arts. This canvas represents not only an enduring portrait of an American patriot, but also an intriguing study in pre-Revolutionary War politics. Revere’s dress in the portrait is symbolic of his independence-minded beliefs: Revere is shown wearing a white linen shirt, thus honoring Boston women who had, in defiance of a British law against the domestic production of linen, created a large quantity of it illegally. Meanwhile, the silver teapot in Revere’s left hand sends a conflicting message: Because of the taxes that the British levied upon tea in the colonies, men such as Revere refused to drink it. It is unknown whether Revere chose to include the teapot as a provocative political statement or simply to showcase his silversmithing skills.
Although Revere was surely a great patriot and a distinguished Bostonian, the poem significantly misrepresented the events of that fateful night—when Revere traveled by horseback from Boston to Lexington and Concord to rouse the colonists against an approaching force of British soldiers.
In reality, Revere was one of three riders to make the trip—William Dawes, another revolutionary-minded Son of Liberty, took a different route out of Boston after the signal of two lanterns was hung in the steeple of the Old North Church. The men were charged with warning area militias that British troops were marching on Concord, seat of the Provincial Congress and home to considerable stores of weapons. Samuel Adams and John Hancock, both of whom were wanted by British authorities on charges of treason, were also to be alerted of the approaching troops. (And instead of “The British are coming!”, the men shouted “The Regulars are coming out!” since the colonists considered themselves British at the time). It was in Lexington where the third rider, Dr. Samuel Prescott, joined with the two patriots.
But before this trio could make it to Concord, they were stopped at a Redcoat roadblock. Prescott escaped and continued on, Dawes escaped but was recaptured, and Revere was detained for the next several hours. Thus, when Longfellow writes that “It was two by the village clock / When [Revere] came to the bridge in Concord town,” he is recounting an event that never took place; in fact, it was Prescott who actually completed the mission.