Saturday, May 12, 2007

David Hackett Fischer Interview

I've been browsing through the transcript archives of C-SPAN's Booknotes (which unfortunately came to an end a few years ago) and came across this interview with David Hackett Fischer about his book Paul Revere's Ride. Here are a few excerpts that I found interesting:

LAMB: Before we continue on Paul Revere, why should anybody care about him today?

FISCHER: I think he had a message for us as well. To me, the interest of the story is partly that. I think we can see a kind of message, first of all, in what he was doing. For me it was mainly the kind of collective effort in that cause of freedom, and we forgot about that. We forgot about both sides of it, sometimes. I think people on the left today, some of my colleagues at academe, tend to forget about American ideas of freedom. People on the right tend to forget about collective action. Paul Revere and his friends brought those two things together, and I think that's a message for us.
He had an idea of freedom that's different from ours. For us freedom means personal entitlement. It means individual autonomy. For Paul Revere it was that, but it was also an idea of a community running its own affairs, and that meant a sense of personal responsibility to that community. He had a kind of balance in that idea which sometimes, I think, we've lost. I think that's another meaning, another message for us today.
LAMB: Let's go to the title of this book, Paul Revere's Ride. What was the atmosphere leading to the ride?

FISCHER: One beginning point would be in the fall of 1774 when General Gage was trying to do another part of his program, which was to disarm the people of New England. He thought that the way to do that was probably to seize their gunpowder. They could not manufacture their own gunpowder in quantity in 1774, and so in September he seized the largest supply in Massachusetts. This caused something that was called the "powder alarm." It was another event that people always remembered. The Massachusetts towns were horrified that their right of resistance would be threatened in that way, and that galvanized many people, amongst them Paul Revere.

He organized a kind of intelligence organization, a voluntary association composed mainly of his fellow mechanics in Boston, and what they tried to do was to keep very close tabs on what General Gage was doing. When there were signs that General Gage was striking at the next major powder supply, which was in New Hampshire, Paul Revere made an earlier ride up to Portsmouth in very bad weather -- December it was -- and he got the message there before General Gage's troops could seize that powder. There were a series of other events like that in the winter in which the two sides were increasingly coming to the edge of hostilities.
LAMB: If you were a Tory back then, and a Whig, what would be the main differences in your philosophy?

FISCHER: The main difference was really over the question of whether to resist British rule or to support it. I think it came down to two ideas of freedom, those two ideas that Paul Revere and General Gage personified: on the one hand the sense of self-rule; on the other hand the idea of the rule of law under Parliament. They were two ideas, two ideals, that these groups were fighting for, and they didn't call it the American revolution. They called it a civil war, and it was that way for most of them.

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