Of But Not In: Paul Revere’s Struggles for Leadership and Legitimacy

May 1, 2020

Image of the State House in Boston, MA

Paul Revere’s address at the dedication for the state’s new capitol in 1795 was a highlight of his public life

Paul Revere had a chip on his shoulder through his entire life. Time and again, he felt slighted by the American Revolution’s political leaders, and then after its completion, the new United States government. While he almost always felt he did not receive the credit he deserved for his skills and service, he nonetheless persevered through his life to make significant contributions to his family and nation at every turn, culminating in his last and most successful business venture at the age of 65.

The first case of Revere’s prickly posturing came as a result of his educational background. Unlike his revolutionary contemporaries from Massachusetts that are also inscribed in the pantheon of American heroes- John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock- Revere did not have a formal education beyond the age of 13. He was no Harvard man, and he knew it. Revere lacked the requisite ticket to the upper echelons of local and then Revolutionary leadership, and that fact proved to be an impediment throughout his life. Despite his lack of collegiate bona fides, Revere was clearly a man of high intellect. Time and again, he taught himself the necessary skills for his various trades with very little information or prior knowledge. This pattern repeated itself in his efforts to open the first gunpowder mill in Massachusetts in 1776, in running his iron foundry in Boston’s North End starting in 1788, and then in his most famous industrial venture: opening the first copper rolling mill in the United States in 1800. In short, Revere’s ingenuity made up for, but never fully replaced, his perceived educational deficiencies. 

It was this ingenuity that allowed him to join, and then ultimately rise within, groups like the Freemasons and the Sons of Liberty. Both groups allowed him to make contacts and assume leadership within his societal class and work directly with Boston’s rebellious leadership. Revere knew and conversed with the so-called brace of Adamses and John Hancock, though clear lines of demarcation remained. Long before Revere’s midnight ride, he served regularly as a post rider for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and worked with these men directly in transmitting vital communiqués. Nonetheless, Revere seems to have functioned exclusively as an emissary, not a decision maker. John Adams recorded in his diary a 1772 conversation with revolutionary leader James Otis in which Otis specifically excluded Revere from the meeting between social peers. In immediately dividing the small gathering between the better sort and middling class, Otis said “You Mr. Edes, You John Gill and you Paul Revere, can you stand there Three Minutes.—Yes.—Well do. Brother Adams go along with me.” Thus Revere was in the action, just on the wrong side of the door. 

Revere certainly played a more central role on his midnight ride of April 18, 1775, and clearly had a strong familiarity with Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Upon raising the alarm and awakening the residents at the Clarke House where Adams and Hancock were staying with their coterie, one account records Hancock as calling out “Come in, Revere, we’re not afraid of you.” Regardless of the authenticity of such a quote, it speaks to their understanding that Revere would have entry and sustained dialogue with the leaders that evening (in addition to the meeting they all had a few days before on Revere’s preliminary ride). 

Revere believed his efforts in both his famous rides and his previous service would place him squarely in the mix for a prime position in the Continental Army at the onset of the Revolutionary War. No such position was forthcoming. Revere had no military background, and though many war leaders for the Americans were in a similar position, Revere importantly lacked the academic or financial status required to join such ranks. He held out for a position, and ultimately accepted more minor roles in the Massachusetts militia. His service was undistinguished and frustrating, ending prematurely in 1779 with his role in the Penobscot disaster, the worst defeat for the America military during the Revolution. His conduct in that fiasco initially placed him under house arrest in Boston, though repeated efforts to have his name cleared through a military court martial paid off. Revere was off the hook for wrong doing, but the affair set him back years in business and likely crushed any hopes he had entertained of joining the ranks of the top leaders that emerged from the Americans’ triumph in the war. 

Revere slowly rebuilt his name and reputation over the 1780s, reviving his silver practice and then wielding his intellect to pivot into running an iron foundry. He served on numerous local boards and positions as he aged and worked his way back into society. An ardent Federalist, he was one of the leaders of the mechanics in Boston that helped, in some fashion, to sway Hancock and Samuel Adams towards full support for the new federal Constitution. In likely one of his proudest moments, Revere later joined Adams, then Governor of Massachusetts, on the stage for the dedication of the new state capitol building in 1795. As the Grand Master of the Massachusetts Grand Lodge of Freemasons, Revere gave one of his few public addresses to the crowd on July 4th of that year, a speech that contained all of the requisite republican rhetoric of the age. 

Though his renown grew at the local level, Revere still yearned for more. He pushed hard for a role in the new national government, petitioning for a position as the director of the United States mint. In an exchange with arch-Federalist Fisher Ames, Revere made his case, and while Ames responded graciously, it is clear Revere was never legitimately a contender for the position. Despite repeated attempts, he would never attain the true federal position he coveted, so once again he embarked on an industrial venture that would allow him to make arguably his greatest contribution to the nation. 

Revere’s copper rolling mill, which opened in 1800, required innovation, entrepreneurship, industriousness, and a strong measure of gall. He convinced the American government he could do a great service to the nation in opening such an operation based mostly on his personal conviction that he could. Revere constantly battled with the national government, especially with the Jeffersonian ascendancy to power following the election of 1800, for promised funds. Revere harangued Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert for assistance, and ultimately Revere secured his required funds and set about accomplishing what proved to be a vital role for the United States. Revere’s efforts helped outfit the USS Constitution and its sister ships in the early Navy with copper hulls. This positioned the U.S. fleet to attain a level equal to or even superior to the British fleet during the War of 1812. After a lifetime of striving, Revere’s name may not have been on par with the Revolution’s political leaders, but his great and lasting service during its second, and final, war with Great Britain proved indispensable.

Robert Shimp is the Research and Adult Program Director at the Paul Revere House