Paul Revere and the Making of Patriot Martyrs

As we examine documents from the American Revolution this month, it’s worth considering how images, text, and media were used to spark the Patriot cause. Paul Revere’s “The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King-Street Boston on March 5th 1770, by a party of the 29th Reg” is a sensationalized portrayal of the Boston Massacre from the Patriot perspective, and provides an example of how popular media can turn seemingly inconsequential events into continent-spanning conflicts. 

Paul Revere 

Paul Revere (1735–1818) is a more significant figure in the history of the American Revolution than many writers give him credit for. A leading businessman in eighteenth-century Boston, he became involved in the Patriot cause soon after the French and Indian War (1754–63), part of a larger conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War. Revere’s father, Apollos, was a Huguenot (French Protestant) immigrant to Massachusetts who learned silversmithing as an apprentice in the early eighteenth century. When Apollos died in 1754, his son inherited the family business. He soon became known throughout the town for his skill in metalworking and for his business acumen.

Revere also became widely known for his public service. During the French and Indian War, Revere served as an officer in the colonial militia and saw action in an expedition against Crown Point on Lake Champlain in New York. On his return to Boston he joined the Masons, and ten years later his fellows named him master of his lodge. He also was welcomed into a private organization called the Long Room Club, which was headquartered in the same building as the Boston Gazette. The editors of the Gazette, Benjamin Edes and John Gill, commissioned the “Bloody Massacre” engraving shortly after the events in Boston on March 5, 1770. Edes and Gill, along with the members of the Long Room Club, were active in the movement to oppose British activity in Boston.

“The Bloody Massacre” and the Construction of the Patriot Cause

Revere’s engraving was based on a drawing by Henry Pelham, who was upset that Revere’s version of his work was published before his own and wrote Revere an angry letter about it later. The engraving misrepresents the events of the massacre, in part by depicting the British soldiers firing together into the crowd and by showing Captain Preston behind the soldiers (later testimony showed that he was in fact in front of them, trying to keep them from firing). Revere’s engraving is not a journalistic depiction of the massacre, but rather is famous as a piece of propaganda for the Patriot cause. This is not an impartial visual account of events; it’s the shaping of an American myth. 

As you examine the engraving, consider how Revere depicted the British soldiers as opposed to the colonists. How might this portrayal of a British soldier support the Patriot cause, and what might Revere’s goals be in depicting the Boston Massacre this way?

Learn more about this document and others covering the American movement for independence in The Schlager Anthology of the American Revolution!