“Paul Revere’s Ride” is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s most famous poem and certainly one of the most famous poems in American literature. Revered in its time and loved by schoolchildren today, it has suffered from critical dismissal and disapprobation due to its perceived sentimentalism and its historical inaccuracy. However, current scholarship on the poem has led to a new understanding of its role as an abolitionist text.
Longfellow was indeed an abolitionist, albeit a quiet and polite one. His closest friend was the fiery senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, and he’d written Poems on Slavery in 1842 (although the poems were relatively anodyne). He gave money to help slaves and support black organizations, attended speeches by Sumner and Frederick Douglass, voted for Lincoln, and wrote volubly in his journal about his hatred of the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott Supreme Court case.
Longfellow, who had turned to historical figures before in his verse, began writing the poem sometime before or on April 19th of 1860 after he had visited the Old North Church and finished by October 13th, 1860; during this time he continued to talk to Sumner, who lambasted slave-owners and Southern states, and went to see Frederick Douglass speak. This was right before the election of Lincoln and the secession of most of the Southern states to form the Confederacy. The poem was published in The Atlantic Monthly in January 1861; in December of the prior year it had come out in the Boston Transcript right as South Carolina seceded. It was then included in the collection Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), a loosely linked collection of poems in the vein of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
In its own time the poem was read as a wake-up call to the Union, as a call to arms. Longfellow had not intended to be historically accurate in his poem; rather, he wanted to depict a representative heroic citizen and use him as a way to inspire support for the Union.
The poem made Paul Revere, a little-known revolutionary figure at the time, into one of the most beloved American heroes. Historians in the subsequent century sometimes used the poem as a factual text, spreading the idea that Revere was the most important figure that night in April 1775, but contemporary historians have worked to revise these mistaken assumptions. As early as 1896 there was some pushback against the idea of Revere’s solitary heroism, with Helen E. Moore publishing a parody of the poem that called attention to the ignored William Dawes, also a rider that night: '”Tis all very well for the children to hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere; / But why should my name be quite forgot, / Who rode as boldly and well, God wot? / Why should I ask? The reason is clear— / My name was Dawes and his Revere.”