Person

Paul Revere

Portrait of Paul Revere with his elbow on a table and hand holding up chin, next to a silver item.
John Singleton Copley painted this famous portrait of American Revolutionary Paul Revere.

Photograph © August 2021 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Quick Facts

While many people know of Paul Revere as an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and an accomplished master silversmith, there is more to his story. After the Revolution, he established a successful foundry and copper mill. A public-spirited citizen, Revere was also ambitious and often brash, traits which he embraced during both his Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary life.

Born in Boston's North End on December 21, 1734, Revere was the third of nine children and oldest surviving son.1 His father, Apollos Rivoire, was a French Huguenot (Protestant) who emigrated to Boston at thirteen. Apollos anglicized his name to Paul Revere, passing his name and goldsmith trade to his son. His mother, Deborah Hichborn, descended from seventeenth-century English Puritan emigrants to Massachusetts.2

Paul Revere likely finished school at thirteen and became his father's apprentice. When his father died on July 22, 1754, nineteen-year-old Revere could not legally operate a shop for two more years. In February 1756, he instead found a patriotic way to earn money.3

From February to November 1756, Second Lieutenant Paul Revere was an artillery officer in New York, joining thousands of Massachusetts men who served in New York and Canada during the Seven Years' War. He saw no military action, returning home unharmed, with money to quickly resume civilian life.4

He married Sarah Orne on August 4, 1757. They had eight children between 1758-1773.5 Revere made shoe and knee buckles for fellow artisans and elegant tea pots and sugar bowls for merchants. When he joined St. Andrew's Lodge of Freemasons on September 9, 1760, he gained a steady stream of customers. By 1763, when Great Britain defeated France, Revere owned a thriving business.6

In 1764, Revere's income was £102. In 1765, after Great Britain passed the Sugar and Stamp Acts to pay for the Seven Years' War, his income dropped to £64. This decrease in pay due to new taxes possibly motivated Revere to become a Son of Liberty.7 As he later explained, Great Britain "wanted to make us hewers of wood and drawers of water [enslaved people]."8

In February 1770, Revere bought a home in North Square in the North End. As a Son of Liberty and member of the North End Caucus, Revere engraved political cartoons and helped plan and implement resistance to British policies.9 His career as a "Messenger of the American Revolution" began on December 17, 1773, carrying news of the Boston Tea Party to New York. Thereafter, he regularly relayed information between the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.10

On October 10, 1773, five months after the death of his first wife, Revere married Rachel Walker. While her husband was away delivering political information, Rachel Revere cared for six surviving stepchildren and gave birth to eight of her own.11

Revere's April 18-19, 1775, ride to Lexington was an intelligence mission directed by Boston’s Revolutionary leader Dr. Joseph Warren and executed by Paul Revere, William Dawes, and a network of individuals. Based on spying by Revere and others, the likely object of a British expedition seemed to be either the arrest of John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington or the seizure of munitions in nearby Concord. Although British soldiers captured Revere before he got to Concord, he had provided earlier warnings.12

Revere's Revolutionary service as Lieutenant Colonel of the Massachusetts Artillery ended in charges of insubordination, neglect of duty, and cowardice for his role in a massive amphibious assault to take Fort George in Penobscot Bay, Maine. After nearly taking the British fort on July 28, 1779, militia and naval officers spent over two weeks heatedly debating whether to continue the siege. In Councils of War on August 7 and 13, Revere voted with the minority to end the siege. British naval reinforcements arrived on August 13, resulting in a chaotic retreat, with high casualties and enormous cost.13

After the failed assault, a military court charged Revere with two charges of insubordination for ordering his men to retreat without orders from his commanding officer, General Solomon Lovell, and for not immediately turning over a boat to Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth to evacuate the crew of a schooner drifting towards the enemy. Since he considered the siege over, Revere believed he was no longer under Lovell's command. He admitted not immediately obeying Wadsworth's order, saying "he had all his private baggage" on the boat "but afterwards ordered her to go." During his court-martial, Revere aggressively and successfully cross-examined witnesses who testified to his general military ineptitude. His best defense was the panicked retreat of the expedition. He was fully exonerated on February 19, 1782.14

The post-Revolutionary Revere became a prosperous entrepreneur and respected citizen, owning a silver shop, hardware shop, foundry, and copper mill. He took pride in making useful manufactures for his country.15 Revere held several civic offices, including Grand Master of the Massachusetts Grand Lodge, Suffolk County Coroner, and President of the Boston Board of Health.16

Paul Revere died in Boston on May 10, 1818, at the age of eighty-three. The Boston Intelligencer and Evening Gazette called him "cool in thought, ardent in action" and noted both his benevolent character and service "in the early days of our Revolutionary drama…as well as at a later period of its progress."17

It would take another forty-three years for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to make Paul Revere a legend.18

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Footnotes

  1. When Great Britain began using the "New Style" or Gregorian Calendar, Revere’s date of birth became January 1, 1735. Sources count 9-12 children. See Donald M. Nielsen, "The Revere Family," The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 145 (1991): 291-296; Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942), 46; Patrick M. Leehey, "Reconstructing Paul Revere: An Overview of His Ancestry, Life, and Work," in Paul Revere-Artisan, Businessman, and Patriot: The Man Behind the Myth (Boston: The Paul Revere Memorial Association, 1988): 6.
  2. A master goldsmith worked in gold and silver. Andre J. and Pamela Labatut, "Paul Revere’s Paternal Ancestry: The Rivoires: A Huguenot Family of Some Account," The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 150 (1996): 277-298; Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, 3-17; Leehey, "Reconstructing Paul Revere," 15-27; Jayne E. Triber, A True Republican: The Life of Paul Revere (Amherst: University of Boston Press, 1998), 7-20.
  3. He may have worked under his mother's name. Triber, A True Republican, 15-17, 20; Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, 39-41.
  4. Revere's reminiscences of military service, fragment, second copy, April 27, 1816, Roll 3, Revere Family Papers (loose manuscripts and undated materials, 1814-1964), Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS); Triber, A True Republican, 22-25; Fred Anderson, A People's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).
  5. Two children died young. Nielsen, "The Revere Family," 296-301; Triber, A True Republican, 25.
  6. On Revere's customers, range of work, income, and critical assessment, see Waste Book and Memoranda, Vol. I (1761-1783), Roll 5, Revere Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; Janine E. Skerry, "The Revolutionary Revere: A Critical Assessment of the Silver of Paul Revere," and Deborah A. Federhen, “From Artisan to Entrepreneur: Paul Revere’s Silver Shop Operation," in Paul Revere-Artisan, Businessman, and Patriot: The Man Behind the Myth, 41-64, 65-93; Triber, A True Republican, 15-17, 25-27. On how Freemasonry influenced his business and leadership opportunities, see Triber, A True Republican, 27-31.
  7. On British taxation as cause for colonial resistance, see The Sugar and Stamp Acts; Anger and Opposition to the Stamp Act; Revere’s Waste Book and Memoranda, Vol. I, Roll 5, Revere Papers (MHS).
  8. The quote is from Joshua 9:21 of the Old Testament. In Paul Revere to Cousin John Rivoire, July 1, 1782, Revere Papers, Roll 1 (MHS).
  9. His most famous engraving was of the Boston Massacre in 1770. See Clarence S. Brigham, Paul Revere’s Engravings (New York: Atheneum, 1969). Revere's Hichborn cousins and many of his artisan friends, neighbors, and fellow Freemasons were also Sons of Liberty and members of the North End Caucus. See Alan Day and Katherine Day "Another Look at the Boston Caucus," Journal of American Studies 5 (April 1971): 19-42.
  10. Triber, A True Republican, 37-100; Appendix D, "Paul Revere’s Role in the Revolutionary Movement," in David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 301-307.
  11. The majority of the children were born during the Revolution. Five of the eight survived to adulthood. See Nielsen, “The Revere Family,” 298-302.
  12. Hancock and Adams were staying in Lexington at the parsonage of Reverend Jonas Clark while attending the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Concord. Revere rode to Concord on April 8 and Lexington on April 16. On April 18, Warren ordered Revere and Dawes to ride to Lexington. They continued to Concord on their own, aided by Dr. Samuel Prescott of Concord. Revere wrote three accounts of his ride: a deposition for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, written within a month of the event, a slightly revised deposition, and a more detailed 1798 letter to Jeremy Belknap of the Massachusetts Historical Society, in Paul Revere's Three Accounts of his Famous Ride: A Massachusetts Historical Society Picture Book (Boston: MHS, 1976). The most complete analysis of his ride is in Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride. See also, Triber, A True Republican, 101-105; Christian Di Spigna, Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution's Lost Hero (New York: Broadway Books, 2018), 163-167.
  13. Orderly book (containing orders of General Solomon Lovell, commanding officer of the Penobscot Expedition, correspondence between Lovell and the Massachusetts Council and Council of War minutes), Solomon Lovell’s Letterbook, July 7-12, 1779, and “State of facts respecting the Penobscot Expedition” by William Todd (one of Revere’s chief accusers), all in Solomon Lovell Papers, MHS; Revolution: Penobscot Expedition, Vol. 145, Massachusetts Archives Collection, passim; Eldridge Henry Goss, The Life of Colonel Paul Revere (Boston: Joseph George Cupples, 1891), Vol. 2, Chapter 10 (“Penobscot Expedition), Chapter 11 “Revere’s Diary of the Penobscot Expedition; Russell Bourne, “The Penobscot Fiasco,” American Heritage 25 (October 1974): 28-33, 100-101; William M. Fowler, Jr., “Disaster in Penobscot Bay,” Harvard Magazine 81 (July-August 1979): 26-31; Triber, True Republican, 133-139.
  14. After two civilian inquiries did not completely vindicate him, Revere spent nearly three years petitioning for a court-martial. He believed he was the victim of a "deep laid" plan by two accusers, disgruntled former members of his regiment. Revere's brash personality may have caused tension in the regiment and during the Penobscot Expedition. Disobeying the order from General Wadsworth was a perfect example of insubordination. Ironically, Wadsworth was the maternal grandfather of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who made Revere famous. On Penobscot and the "deep laid plan," see Revere to General William Heath, October 24, 1779, William Heath Papers, MHS Collections, 7th ser., 4 (1904): 318-326; Revolution: Penobscot Expedition, Vol. 145; Massachusetts Archives Collection; Goss, Life of Paul Revere, Chapter 12 (“Investigation, Testimony, and Vindication”); Frederic Grant, Jr., “The Court-Martial of Paul Revere,” Boston Bar Journal 21 (April 1977): 5-13; Michael M. Greenburg, The Court-Martial of Paul Revere: A Son of Liberty and America's Forgotten Military Fiasco (Lebanon, N.H: ForeEdge Press, 2014); Triber, A True Republican, 133-139.
  15. After a brief foray as a hardware merchant in the early 1780s, he opened a foundry in 1788. He opened a copper mill in 1801, after several years of experimentation and a $10,000 loan from the United States government, which he repaid in copper sheeting. In his letters, he often bragged about the quality of his works, claiming they were equal to British manufactures. His trade card, c. 1796-1803, lists his work, including "Cast Bells and Brass Cannon…Manufacture Sheets (copper sheeting)…Bolts, Spikes, Nails, etc…." The most complete account of Revere’s post-Revolutionary industrial career is Robert Martello, Midnight Ride, Industrial Dawn: Paul Revere and the Growth of American Enterprise (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2010.) See also Triber, A True Republican, 141-146, 158, 165, Chapter 10, passim.
  16. Triber, A True Republican, 168-176.
  17. Revere sold his North Square home in 1800. He and Rachel spent winters in Boston at their Charter Street home and summers in Canton, Massachusetts, site of his copper mill. Rachel died on June 13, 1813. His oldest son, Paul, Jr., died five months earlier. See Triber, A True Republican, Chapter Eleven ("In My Last Stage, How Blest Am I, To Find Content and Plenty By"); Nielsen, "The Revere Family," 296-304; Boston Intelligencer and Evening Gazette, May 16, 1818, 2.
  18. Longfellow visited the Old North Church steeple on April 5, 1860. Inspired by his visit, he began writing "Paul Revere’s Ride" the next day. The poem appeared in Atlantic Monthly magazine (January 1861) and Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863). See Triber, A True Republican, 1.

Last updated: August 10, 2021