When the poem was written in 1860, America was on the verge of Civil War. Longfellow first came forward publicly as an abolitionist in 1842 with the publication of his Poems on Slavery. Though he admitted the book made little impact, it was written for his best friend, Charles Sumner, an activist abolitionist politician with whom he would continue to share common cause on the issues of slavery and the Union. "Paul Revere's Ride" was published in the January, 1861, issue of the The Atlantic magazine on December 20, 1860, just as South Carolina became the first state to secede from the United States. The poem was meant to appeal to Northerners' sense of urgency and, as a call for action, noted that history favors the courageous. Longfellow, who often used poetry to remind readers of cultural and moral values, warns at the end of the poem of a coming "hour of darkness and peril and need", implying the breakup of the Union, and suggests that the "people will waken and listen to hear" the midnight message again. By emphasizing common history, he was attempting to dissolve social tensions.
The phrase "Hardly a man is now alive" was true as one of the last men alive at the time had only recently died. Jonathan Harrington, the young fifer for Lexington's militia during the battles of Lexington and Concord, died at the age of 96 in 1854, a few years before the poem was written. The poem fluctuates between past and present tense, sometimes in the same sentence, symbolically pulling the actions of the Revolution into modern times and displaying an event with timeless sympathies.
Longfellow's poem is not historically accurate but his "mistakes" were deliberate. He had researched the historical event, using works like George Bancroft's History of the United States, but he manipulated the facts for poetic effect. He was purposefully trying to create American legends, much as he did with works like The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858).