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On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the insurrection at the Capitol, the vicar of Boston’s Old North Church lit two lanterns in the church’s belfry.

The Rev. Dr. Matthew Cadwell explained the symbolic gesture in a Facebook post.

“Tonight we lit the lanterns at the Old North Church to stand for our American democracy and in solidarity with election workers across the country.”

William Galvin, who as Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts oversees the state’s elections, and who attended the ceremony, spoke outside the historic church. “[F]rom our beginning, the lights of the lanterns in the steeple of Old North Church have served as both a warning and a call to action.” Now, he said, the two lanterns “call us to action to defend American democracy by protecting the integrity of our electoral process and those throughout the nation who honestly administer it.”

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In an article posted on its website about the decision to light the lanterns, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, of which the Old North Church is a part, had a lot to say about elections but very little to say by way of explaining the choice of the lanterns as the appropriate symbol for honestly administered elections.

“Two lanterns famously shone from the steeple of the Old North Church on the night of April 18, 1775. Inspired by those beacons lighting the way for American freedom and democracy, we continue to cherish and hold sacred the hard-fought values and ideals of our nation.”

The Diocese’s statement implies that the link between the Old North Church’s lanterns and American democracy reaches back to 1775.

In fact, in the decades following the American Revolution, few would have recalled that the Patriots flashed two lanterns from the then peninsular city’s North End as a signal to their allies across the water in Charlestown that British troops were en route to the towns of Concord and Lexington to find and confiscate the Patriots’ secreted military stores. It was Harvard professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who, in his 1860 poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” turned the story into a legend and the lanterns into the potent symbol mobilized by the Diocese.

Longfellow used strong end rhymes and a meter that sounds remarkably like a galloping horse to elevate Revere’s invention of a semaphore system to the status of myth.

One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.

By the end of Longfellow’s ten-stanza poem, Revere has not only set up the semaphore system, he has rowed to Charlestown under the cover of darkness, received the message flashed from the Old North Church’s belfry, and delivered it to Concord on horseback. In Longfellow’s symbolic terms, Revere has used the two lanterns to lit a fire.

A hurry of hoofs in a village-street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed that flies fearless and fleet:
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

That fire is the new nation.

The Diocese is hardly the first to have been inspired by Longfellow’s assertion that anyone can light this fire.

At the 1967 Southern Leadership Conference, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We still need some Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is still at hand.”

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Four years later, in the spring of 1971, when the New England chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) wanted to warn the country about Nixon’s acceleration of the American air war against Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, its members kicked off a three-day protest march by invoking Revere’s semaphore system in Longfellowian terms.

“One if by land, two if by sea, and three if by air,” was how the veterans put it in a press release before shooting off six flares near the Old North Church to symbolize that the United States was attacking Southeast Asia from all three directions.

Longfellow’s achievement in crafting such a potent symbol is all the more remarkable when we consider the degree to which he departed from the historical record. As David Hackett Fischer and Jeff Lantos explain in their respective books, Paul Revere’s Ride (for adults) and Why Longfellow Lied: The Truth About Paul Revere (for middle schoolers), Revere was part of a large and intricate warning system comprised of many kinds of pre-arranged signals. Of course, those sent by gunfire traveled faster than any of the many warning riders ever could. Perhaps most surprising for those who have mistaken the poem for fact, British troops were significantly delayed in starting their mission, not having enough long boots to make their water crossing in one trip, such that Revere’s arrival in Lexington did not give the colonists the advantage the poet insists won the Revolutionary War. (In imagining Revere arriving in Concord, Longfellow conveniently “forgets” that he was captured by British guards in the town of Lincoln.)

Not everyone was pleased with VVAW’s appropriation of one of America’s most cherished symbols. On the second day of the march, two hundred antiwar Vietnam veterans and as many civilian supporters were arrested for occupying the Lexington Battle Green in what remains the largest mass arrest in the state’s history.

Nor was everyone pleased by the Diocese’s recent appropriation, as evidenced by the Facebook comments.

“[S]hame on my fellow Episcopalians.”

“[S]top using historical landmarks for Leftist hyperbole.”

“Instead of remembering the riot of Jan. 6th, the Democratic party used it as a stumping speech for a change in voting rights. They have no shame.”

The problem with these complaints is that national symbols have never been nor will they ever be free of political baggage.

This was true even when Longfellow crafted “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Historian Jill Lepore has argued in an article for The American Scholar that Longfellow’s poem was an anti-slavery assertion. “The poem was read at the time as a call to arms, rousing northerners to action, against what Charles Sumner called the Slaveocracy.”

If, in the intervening years, “Paul Revere’s Ride” has been mobilized for a variety of purposes, that is because Longfellow emptied Revere’s warning of its specific content. Recall that he opened the poem quoting Revere’s warning: “For the country-folk to be up and to arm.” (It’s a line the January 6 insurrectionists might have appropriated, if they had thought of it.) But, by the end of the poem, Longfellow very cagily removes that assertion of violence, saying only that Revere voiced a “word that shall echo forevermore.”

By opening up space to imagine whatever cause the reader desires, Longfellow made it possible for Sarah Palin to infamously assert after her 2011 visit to the Old North Church that Paul Revere “warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms.”

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Palin aside, Longfellow has helped Americans take a stand against slavery, Jim Crow, the Vietnam War and, now, insurrection.

His is a record any poet would be proud of.

Elise Lemire
History News Network