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The Revolutionary Paul Revere
By Joel J. Miller
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Joel J. Miller
All right reserved.
In which the forebears of our hero trade the trials and hardships of the Old World for the uncertainties and hopes of the New, starting our story rolling in the boisterous town of Boston, in the British colony of Massachusetts.
This land grows weary of its inhabitants." That's what John Winthrop thought of his home. England was too small, geographically, theologically, politically, and economically. He couldn't stand the cramp, and the feeling was mutual: England couldn't stand him. Winthrop was a Puritan and ran afoul of the Act of Uniformity, which outlawed doctrinal squabbles (something at which the Puritans excelled) in the Anglican Church.
It came to this: Winthrop, a onetime government lawyer, needed new digs, preferably where he could structure a little government of his own. So in 1630 he gained control of the Massachusetts Bay Company and led a pack of Puritans to America. Picture Moses leaving Egypt with the children of Israel, except in this case the promised land was the wilderness.
The plan was to settle in Salem. Some Pilgrims were already there, and Winthrop figured they could farm alongside. But that plan was hatched several thousand miles away, and when Winthrop and company actually arrived, they realized that clearing the dense woodland was too big a chore. They could hunt the game-thick forest, but they were largely inexperienced, and Winthrop was a klutz with a gun. As a young man, he gave up hunting because "I have gotten ... nothing at all towards my cost and labor," a roundabout way of admitting that he was a lousy shot. So, down with Salem.
After further scouting the New England coast, Winthrop decided on the peninsula of Trimountain, as the earliest English settlers first called Boston. It had ample room at seven hundred square acres, good drinking water, and breathtaking landscape. The best feature? The mile-long muddy finger that gripped the mainland. Boston Neck doesn't exist today as it did then. In the seventeenth century, before the hills were leveled into the bay to expand the land mass, the slender sinew was narrow enough to keep enemies out (or inhabitants bottled in, as the British army would later discover).
The Puritans had their base of operation; now they had to operate. England might have grown weary of its inhabitants, but fledgling colonies needed to create businesses profitable enough to survive in their new homes and enrich underwriters and benefactors in their old. Fattening British purses was a colony's reason for existence-so much so that colonies were often called "plantations." Production was the whole point.
Virginia had tobacco.
New York had furs.
And Boston had the "sacred cod."
It's an apt adjective. The fish is one of the earliest Christian symbols, so it makes a providential sort of sense that Winthrop and his Puritans bettered themselves through the burgeoning industry. He didn't have the foresight to keep up his hunting practice as a lad, but he was smart enough to bring shipbuilders with him to the New World. As one observation had it, "[T]he Puritans took to sea with such vigor that ... their commerce smelled as strongly of fish as their theology did of brimstone." By 1640, Massachusetts exported three hundred thousand dried and salted cod, the very foundation for Boston's future wealth and status.
By the time Paul Revere's father, Apollos Rivoire, hit shore in 1716, the settlement had grown from a bedraggled band barely fit to occupy the dirt under their feet to a bustling and prosperous seaside city of nearly fifteen thousand inhabitants, bursting with as many opportunities as people. No mistaking it: Boston was an unweary place. English Puritans were not alone in the world. A like-minded group, the Huguenots, lived in the predominantly Catholic France. But just as England wearied of its inhabitants, France tired of its Huguenots-to the point of persecution. Fearing trouble, Isaac Rivoire baptized newborn son Apollos in secret in 1702 because the law forbade Protestant rites.
Huguenots dodged trouble in three ways; they phonied up an allegiance to Rome, kept a low profile, or took off. Isaac opted for one of the first two. He owned land near the wine-rich region of Bordeaux and remained there the rest of his life. But he chose option three for Apollos. Sending the boy away must have been hard, though not as difficult as watching authorities seize the child should they suspect Isaac of teaching him Protestant doctrines. So in November 1715, thirteen-year-old Apollos boarded a boat for the English Channel Island of Guernsey. His uncle Simon previously fled there and now arranged for Apollos's passage from Guernsey to Boston.
If young Apollos's trip was typical, then the journey was probably rough. Food stores, often insufficient, just as often went bad. Stormy winter waves endangered anyone above decks. Most passengers trekked it below in the ill-lit, damp interior, the ship throbbing and undulating with the nauseating swell of the sea. Cramped quarters, poor food, and stale air meant that voyagers often took sick. Days and weeks passed, and the voyage seemed interminable.
Then land. Lumpen masses rose from the sea. Hazy coastline sharpened and firmed against the horizon. Smells of earth and vegetation blew from shore as the ship approached. Threading narrow Nantasket Channel, the vessel glided past Castle Island on the right. On the left, Governour's Island and then little Bird Island. Steering clear of the shallow Dorchester Flats, the ship washed into a welcoming wharf and disgorged its cargo as excited passengers bounded ashore. All but Apollos, whose family indentured the boy to pay for his apprenticeship to goldsmith John Coney. Apollos could no more do as he pleased than could one of the slaves attending the brocaded merchants by the docks.
Indenture ensured long-term care and safety. Apprentices were guaranteed humane treatment, room, board, and education. But for this moment, while he waited for the captain to transfer him to his new master, Apollos was also guaranteed the dehumanized status of a living, breathing transaction waiting for paperwork and fulfillment.
Commerce was everything. Boston's fortunes were built on cod, but trade follows trade. For that John Winthrop could have hardly picked a better spot. Boston was well sheltered and closer to England than any other American port. The shoreline sprouted an ever-growing tangle of wharves, docks, and shipyards, all sprawling over the water's edge as if the peninsula were pulsing and alive.
Trimountain was nothing like the calm, rolling hills of Bordeaux. Likely both anxious and fearful, Apollos took in the display around him. The skyline jagged in its hectic array of rooflines, bristling with church steeples and glinting weather vanes. Wharves spiked with ship masts. Merchants, sailors, and artisans scurrying along wooden planks and muddy streets, in and out of warehouses, counting houses, shops, inns, taverns, and coffeehouses, hasty with errands and missions. Shipwrights and joiners bending to their tasks, maintaining the fleets of vessels that brought textiles from England, sugar from the Caribbean, wine from the Canaries, tea from Holland, and slaves from Africa. Within earshot there were the clink-clinking of hammers, the ringing and clanging of bells, the haggling of shopkeeps, the shouting of tradesmen, the cursing of seamen, the barking of seals, the cawing of gulls. Maritime smells suffused the air: salty breezes, hot tar, wood smoke, breweries, rum distilleries, soap boilers, whaleworks, and of course, fish, particularly cod-caked with salt and drying in the sun, ready to make its way back to the ports and markets of England and Europe, possibly even Rochelle, the port from which Apollos forever departed his home only months before.
A long shot from the serene vineyards of home-stretching before him now was the turbulent preurban tussle of Boston and the vast expanse of America.
In which the father of our hero, Apollos Rivoire, comes into his own, and changes the family name before buying his freedom, marrying a good Yankee girl of hardy stock, and then bringing little Paul into a world beset by economic troubles.
For all the freshness and novelty of America, some things didn't change. As apprentice and master, Apollos and Coney commenced a relationship unaltered since the Middle Ages. Apollos had to learn, serve, submit, and not embarrass or harm Coney by thieving, whoring, gambling, or boozing. He was, as the standard contract language had it, to "behave himself as a faithful apprentice ought." Meanwhile, Coney's job was to provide "sufficient meat, drink, apparel, lodging and washing befitting an apprentice" and to "use the utmost of his endeavor" to teach his "trade or mystery."
It was a lucky stroke for Apollos that New England boasted some of the finest goldsmiths in the colonies, and Coney was one of the best. There were around five hundred working in America then, some good, some bad. Apollos might have been apprenticed to a hack and been degraded day and night. Benjamin Franklin, just a few years Apollos's junior, was indentured to his abusive brother, a Boston printer. Ben split for Philadelphia rather than buckle under. Many apprentices beat town, just as many masters beat the stragglers into submission. Things weren't so bad for Apollos.
Coney showed Apollos the tools and techniques of the trade: how to melt silver coinage and recast it as salver, tankard, or bowl; how to beat an ingot of silver into a large sheet; how to raise a disc of flattened silver into a teapot; how to engrave everything from porringers to printing plates.
Apollos spoke no English but picked up his new tongue with his craft. He proved a quick study, capable, industrious, and worked hard to apply himself. In time he turned an ample income, enough by 1729 to purchase a copy of The Life of the Very Reverend and Learned Cotton Mather, evidence of decent finances, religious devotion, and adequate command of the language. So thoroughly anglicized was Apollos by this point that he called himself "Paul" and changed his last name "Rivoire" to "Revere." His son, our story's Paul Revere, said he made the switch because "the Bumpkins pronounce it easier." At least he hadn't lost that native French charm. To avoid confusion I'll use the old name, but the change is significant. While some things remained the same continent to continent, other things changed dramatically. Out of the persecutions and struggles of the Old World, Apollos emerged a new man in a New World, so self-possessed he rechristened himself with a name of his own invention.
Apollos never finished his apprenticeship under Coney. In 1722, the old man died. Coney's widow could now sell his indenture, and with the death of her husband, she might well need the cash. Facing several additional years of uncertain servitude, Apollos pulled together the funds and bought his own contract.
No longer the captive boy on the dock, he could now do as he pleased.
Deborah Hitchborn, as it happened, pleased him right down to the ground. Apprentices took up with the boss's daughters often enough, and Coney had a handful within easy reach. But convenience isn't everything, and Apollos cast his gaze in a different direction. Deborah lived next door.
Puritans were supposed to hold two competing values in tension: "diligence in worldly business, and yet deadness to the world." That's from the pen of Puritan divine John Cotton. The Hitchborn family was expert in the former even if members sometimes flagged in the latter. Thomas, the paterfamilias, built and repaired ships, operated a tavern, and owned Hitchborn Wharf, a mansion, and several other properties. He was not unique. Since hitting the New England dirt, succeeding generations of Hitchborns and their in-laws commonly hiked further up the ladder of success and status. Even the rowdy ones like Thomas Dexter, an infamous scofflaw whose only known hobbies were cheating Indians and offending magistrates, made their ascent rung by rung.
Coney's neighbor Deborah saw Apollos trying the same hand-over-fist climb. Now he was finally in business for himself. She could do worse for a husband. The couple married 19 June 1729, when he was twenty-seven and she was twenty-five.
The newlyweds kept climbing. Within a year of marrying, they announced in The Weekly News Letter their move "from Capt Pitt's, at the Town Dock, to the North End over against Col Hutchinson's."
Their new neighbor, the Colonel, was one of Boston's leading citizens, a merchant who weathered the hazardous waves of oceangoing commerce and came out ahead more times than not. Pilasters and a cupola adorned his brickwork manse. Fenced and girt with gardens, the estate counted fruit trees and coach houses among its rare features.
The Reveres moved next door with big hopes. The North End was a cramped and cockeyed place where wealthy merchants and common artisans shared scarce space, and proximity promised business. It was handy for a goldsmith to have wealthy merchants in the neighborhood; they were always needing salvers and tea sets. The Reveres encountered the Hutchinsons on the street and saw them at church, the New Brick Church, commonly called the Cockerel after its rooster-shaped brass weather vane. Apollos would soon count the Colonel and his rising-star son, Thomas Hutchinson, as customers.
Financial advantage was no doubt on Apollos's mind. The Puritan ethic might have made wealth more likely-hard work never hurt-but it guaranteed nothing. Boston suffered from several economic crises. Smallpox hit in the twenties, and deaths tallied almost two thousand, wiping out as much as an eighth of the total population. Traders avoided the wharves. Farmers avoided the markets. The Revere family felt the financial impact long after the birth of Paul's eldest sibling. Deborah, named for her mother, arrived in 1732. Apollos had enough money to muster his Mather in '29, but there was less jingle in the purse now, and his family was growing.
As Boston recouped from those shocks, Parliament leveled another. The Molasses Act of 1733 slowed the spigot of cheap French molasses to American distillers. Pity more than poor tipplers. Rum was big business, so that blow was bad enough, but industries connected to the trade staggered as well. Orders for new ships fell by half. Cuts in the fishing trade-the cornerstone of Boston's economy-were even more dramatic. Sailors, carpenters, rope makers, and others felt the bruise and, as one writer put the additional misfortune, "did not even have the consolation of cheap rum in which to drown their sorrows."
Apollos and Deborah's second child, our Paul Revere, arrived a year later, in December 1734, on the twenty-first day of the month, and the family finances suffered throughout his early years.
The Reveres knew from the Bible that the love of money was the root of all evil. They also knew that the lack of it wasn't much better. English trade laws rerouted gold and silver back to England, where it stayed. Enough of the coinage that colonists kept ended up as spoons, bowls, and tankards that they were constantly short on specie. Following philosopher David Hume's comparison of money in an economy to oil in a wheel-housing, the Massachusetts economy was grinding along with a fair share of bumps and knocks. Between 1736 and 1738 Apollos found himself strapped and dragged into court three times for debts he couldn't pay.
Without hard cash, colonists had to get creative. They printed paper money. Apollos's old master was one of the colony's first engravers and printers of the stuff. But paper currency had drawbacks, the worst of which was that it never seemed to be worth as much one day as it was the day before.
Merchants and shop owners turned to barter. Grain, gunpowder, and salt cod replaced pounds, shillings, and doubloons. Oats for hymnbooks and Bibles. Molasses for guns and blankets. Leading merchant Thomas Hancock kept detailed records. Biographer Harlow Giles Unger tells of one particular trade: a tailor purchased tea, paper, and gloves from Hancock in exchange for, among other things, two pairs of britches for Hancock's young nephew John.
Excerpted from The Revolutionary Paul Revere by Joel J. Miller Copyright © 2010 by Joel J. Miller. Excerpted by permission.
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