It’s April 18th, 1775.
A horse gallops down a country road, a few miles outside of Boston, Massachusetts. In the saddle is forty-year-old silversmith; an American colonist, Paul Revere. Paul’s heart pounds as he urges his steed forward through the cold, starless night. As he tears through the countryside, Paul sees something in the road up ahead: two British soldiers out on patrol.
Paul ducks his head down low and slows to a trot. He quietly turns his horse around to ride off in the other direction. But it’s too late…
The British soldiers have spotted him.
They quickly mount up and give chase.
Paul cracks his whip and takes off at a gallop. His horse thunders through the moonlit countryside, splashing through creeks and jumping over ditches. The British soldiers try to catch up but it’s no use. Paul’s horse is simply too fast. And soon, Paul loses the British soldiers and disappears into the dark of night.
Then at around midnight, Paul reaches the town of Lexington. He gallops through the quiet streets until he reaches a large house. As he approaches, a guard standing sentry outside tells him not to make so much noise.
Paul leaps from his horse and replies: “Noise? You’ll have noise enough before long!”
Paul pushes past the guard and hammers on the front door.
Standing in the doorway, their eyes bleary with sleep, are the men Paul is here to see: John Hancock and Samuel Adams, two leading advocates for American independence. Paul gives Hancock and Adams the news he's carried with him: “The Regulars are coming out!”
After hearing that British troops were preparing to seize the weapon stores of the colonial militia, Paul Revere rode through every town between Boston and Concord, warning his fellow patriots that the British were coming.
Soon, the militia companies in Lexington and Concord will ready their defenses in preparation for the impending British attack, and the American colonies will be plunged into a war for independence; a struggle that began in earnest almost immediately after Paul Revere’s midnight ride on April 18th, 1775.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 18th: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.
Act One: The Boston Massacre
It’s March 1765, in London; ten years before Paul Revere’s midnight ride.
Inside Buckingham Palace, King George III of Great Britain is about to sign an Act of Parliament. With the King’s authorization, this so-called Stamp Act will impose on the American colonies a new tax on all printed materials; things they use every day like newspapers, legal documents, wills - even playing cards. King George knows the law is bound to be unpopular with the colonists. But he also knows the Stamp Act will provide a much-needed source of revenue for Britain. So he dips his quill and signs the parchment.
Between 1754 and 1763, Britain was embroiled in a series of battles against France and their Native American allies over control of North America, a conflict known as the French and Indian Wars. Britain eventually emerged victorious, capturing the French citadel of Quebec and driving their longtime enemy out of the New World.
But that victory came at a cost.
After nine years of fighting, Britain is on the brink of financial ruin. National debt almost doubled during the course of the conflict. And 10,000 British soldiers remain stationed in the American colonies to repel future French invasions. Keeping these troops armed and at the ready is a cost Britain simply cannot bear.
So, in April of 1764, Britain’s Prime Minister George Grenville passed the Sugar Act, raising the import duty on molasses into America. Nearly one year later, in March 1765, Parliament introduced an even more controversial tax: the Stamp Act.
Both laws are immediately met with fierce opposition in America. And soon, prominent public figures in the colonies begin voicing their dissent. Boston lawyer James Otis asserts that “taxation without representation is tyranny” – a sentiment echoed by his fellow Bostonian, Samuel Adams, who says that “if taxes are laid upon us without representation, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of slaves?”
In response to these unpopular taxes, the colonists form secretive networks of organizations to coordinate opposition to British authority. One group operating out of Boston and New York adopts the name “Sons of Liberty”. They quickly become a powerful force, staging public demonstrations, organizing trade embargoes of British goods, and disseminating pamphlets advocating for greater colonial independence.
Finally, after months of protest, in March of 1766, the British Parliament caves and votes to repeal the Stamp Act. But the very same day, they send a message to the colonies by passing the Declaratory Acts, asserting that the British government has unrestrained legislative power over the colonies.
One year later, in 1767, Parliament will use that power to pass the Townshend Acts. These include the imposition of new taxes on imported goods like paint, china, glass, lead, and tea. Once again, the colonists fight back. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty help to coordinate a trade embargo, persuading local merchants to suspend the importation of British goods. But before long, customs officials request military assistance to break up the boycott. In June 1768, the British Army sends four regiments to quell unrest in the city.
But this British military occupation of Boston will exacerbate an already volatile situation.
It’s March 5th, 1770, two years after British regiments arrived in Boston.
Edward Garrick, a wigmaker’s apprentice, trudges through the snowy streets. It’s unseasonably cold in Boston. The ground is covered by an inch of snow, and icicles hang from the eaves of the houses along King Street. Edward lowers his head against the biting wind when out of the corner of his eye, he notices a group of British soldiers further up the road.
Edward despises these British soldiers, whose presence in Boston he fiercely resents. So he begins hurling insults. One of the British soldiers, a lowly private, overhears Edward’s slurs and tells the apprentice to show some respect. Edward ignores him and continues his verbal assault. Incensed, the British private strikes Edward with the butt of his musket.
News of the altercations spread fast. And soon, angry townspeople surround the private and begin throwing snowballs and shards of ice from the ground. Seven other British soldiers rush to the private’s aid, led by Captain Thomas Preston. These soldiers fix bayonets and form a semi-circle around the besieged private. In the midst of this tense standoff, someone cries out: “fire.” The soldiers discharge their weapons into the crowd. When the smoke clears, five colonists are dead or mortally wounded.
In November 1770, these British soldiers are put on trial for murder – but the charges are eventually reduced to manslaughter. A public outcry ensues, with the people of Boston demanding harsher punishment for the guilty redcoats. But their appeals will fall on deaf ears.
The Boston Massacre, as this event will come to be known, further fuels revolutionary sentiment in the colonies. Before long, rebel militias will begin to mobilize and stockpile weapons. In response, Parliament will send in more troops, aiming to extinguish the ideological flame of American independence once and for all, but only succeeding in fueling it.
Act Two: Intolerable Acts
It’s December 16th, 1773, three years after the Boston Massacre.
A group of angry Bostonians march through the city towards Boston Harbor, where three shipments of tea have just arrived. Leading the group is the prominent local politician, Samuel Adams.
In the wake of the Boston Massacre of 1770, tensions between colonists and British authorities in Boston escalated. Then in 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, granting the British East India Company a monopoly on tea imports to America – and undercutting the business of colonial merchants. This enraged the colonists, who would now have to pay an additional tax on imported British tea.
So tonight, rather than allowing this latest shipment of tea to be unloaded, Samuel Adams and his fellow patriots storm the ships and empty hundreds of tea chests into Boston Harbor. In response to the so-called Boston Tea Party, the British government passes the Intolerable Acts of 1774, a series of punitive laws aimed at punishing the colonists for their insubordination. Among other harsh measures, the Intolerable Acts force the closure of Boston’s port until the colonists pay for the destroyed tea.
These acts do not have the desired effect. The colonists are not quelled but instead organize. In the fall of 1774, representatives from all thirteen colonies head to Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. There, the delegates will rally behind Massachusetts in its boycott of British goods, and petition the Crown to repeal the Intolerable Acts.
This newfound unity is a problem for Massachusetts’ newly appointed royal governor: General Thomas Gage, who's also the commander-in-chief of the British Army in North America. Fearful of an uprising, General Gage reallocates large numbers of troops to Massachusetts. And before long, he hears rumors that a colonial militia is stockpiling weapons in Charlestown, a neighborhood in Boston. So, in early September of 1774, Gage deploys 250 British regulars to search the area, where they discover two artillery pieces and a large gunpowder magazine.
News of the Charlestown raid spread through Massachusetts like wildfire; along with embellished rumors that the British have razed Boston to the ground. Within a day, 4,000 colonial militiamen have gathered in Charlestown fully prepared for war. But after learning that the rumors of Boston’s demise are untrue, cooler heads prevail and violence is avoided; for the moment.
But the Powder Alarm, as this event comes to be known, gives General Gage pause. Concerned at how quickly the colonial force was able to assemble, Gage writes to London asking for urgent reinforcements.
One month later, in early October 1774, Patriot leaders in Massachusetts meet in Concord to form a new provincial government in open defiance of General Thomas Gage’s authority. This new government establishes a localized system of communication, made up of riders and alarms, to spread the news in event of a British attack. Sections of the colonial militia are then organized into elite companies that can be mustered within one minute; eventually earning them the name: Minutemen.
By implementing these systems of communication, and by mobilizing their colonial militias, the Patriots are ensuring that when the British launch their next attack, they’ll be ready.
It’s April 18th, 1775, in Boston, Massachusetts.
A physician named Joseph Warren paces around his home, his mind racing. Joseph is a member of the Massachusetts provincial government, and he’s just learned from an informant that British troops are planning a raid on the colonial militia’s weapon stockpile in Concord. Warren has learned something else, too: the British intend to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock – two leaders of the provincial government.
So Warren summons two fellow Patriots; men who’ve volunteered to alert militias in the event of a British raid. One is a tanner named William Dawes, and the other is a silversmith, named Paul Revere.
Paul’s been engaged in the fight for independence for nearly a decade. After the controversial Stamp Act of 1765, Paul started lending his services to the Patriot cause by joining the Sons of Liberty. Tonight, his loyalty and courage will be put to the test.
Paul Revere and his compatriot, William, arrive at Joseph Warren’s house at 10 PM. Warren asks them to ride west to the town of Concord to warn the colonial militia there of the impending British raid. On the way, they are to stop in Lexington and deliver word of the British scheme there to two leaders of the Sons of Liberty: John Hancock and John Adams, whose own liberty may be in jeopardy.
Without hesitation, both men quickly make preparations for the long journey ahead. William takes the southern route. Paul the northern. The two men ride from town to town, evading British patrolmen and rousing the slumbering militias to let them know that the British are coming. The two riders reunite in Lexington, where Paul warns John Adams and John Hancock of the redcoats’ plan. From there, Paul, William, and a third Patriot, Samuel Prescott, join together and head for Concord. But on the way there, disaster will strike, leaving the colonial forces of Concord exposed, vulnerable, and unaware of the impending British attack.
Act Three: Lexington & Concord
It’s the early hours of April 19th, 1775.
As Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott ride for Concord, the cold morning wind stings their cheeks.
Paul gallops out in front. Like his two companions, Paul’s been pushing all night. He’s freezing and he’s worn out. He’s so exhausted that he barely sees the danger right in front of him: a roadblock of British soldiers standing in his path.
William Dawes and Samuel Prescott manage to escape. But Paul isn’t as quick to react. The soldiers take him prisoner. They hold him for some time, question him and eventually release him. But they only let him go after confiscating his horse. Defeated and discouraged, Paul gives up hope of ever reaching Concord. Instead, he turns around and walks back to Lexington on foot.
The sun is rising over the hills by the time Paul limps into town. He takes shelter in the same house as Samuel Adams and John Hancock where he drifts off to sleep. But around 5 AM, the loud crack of musket fire shatters the morning air. This is the very beginning of the American Revolutionary War, “the shot heard around the world.”
Around 700 British regulars have reached Lexington. But thanks to the efforts of Paul Revere and the other messengers, the colonial militia is ready. Still, despite the advanced warning, the minuscule force of 80 militiamen are vastly outnumbered, and the British army easily brushes them aside.
But this is a defeat in only the first battle of the brewing war. By the time, Paul’s fellow messenger, Samuel Prescott, managed to reach Concord and warn the militia there, a force of 400 Patriots has assembled. This time, the colonists manage to gain the upper hand, inflicting heavy losses on the British, and eventually driving them back to Boston.
The Battles of Lexington and Concord spark a colonial uprising that will escalate into a full-scale war for independence. Seven years later, in September 1783, America will emerge victorious, and the United States will be officially recognized as an independent country. That victory would have been impossible without the cooperation and cohesion of those united by their belief and their patriotism, people like Paul Revere, whose midnight ride alerted Massachusetts to the impending British attack, on April 18th, 1775.
Next onHistory Daily.April 19th, 1995. Timothy McVeigh bombs the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.