Vicar tells all: Sarah Palin's history flub, and how it happened

By Stephen T. Ayres

Here is the inside scoop on the Boston history massacre.

I had carefully set aside last Thursday to work on the sermon to be delivered at my 35th reunion at Hamilton College last weekend. Then the National Park Service called Wednesday afternoon inquiring whether we could open up early for a special visitor. No problem. We are a house of prayer for all people and we try to be hospitable to politicians of all stripes, whether or not we happen to agree with them.

I arrived around 7:45 Thursday morning and immediately fielded a phone call from the NPS police asking if they could bring a bomb sniffing dog by to secure the church. Given how freely Governor Palin mingled with the crowds later that morning, the bomb sniffer seemed like a bit of overkill, but I guess if you have a bomb sniffing dog, you take every advantage of an opportunity to use him. The intrepid hound found two suspicious looking bags, which turned out to be used clothing left in the donation box pew. The last time I saw the NPS bomb sniffer was aboard USS Constitution during a turnaround cruise. While there were no bombs aboard, the poor pup freaked out when the canons were fired.

About 8:30, we thought we spotted Governor Palin shopping by herself in the gift shop across the street. We went over to investigate, but she turned out to be a Sarah Palin impersonator, who just happened to be in the neighborhood returning a tee shirt she had purchased. Such a coincidence!

The governor's entourage pulled up around nine, just as a school group from Waltham was entering the church. She was accompanied by her parents, her daughter, Piper, two aides and a photographer. Fifteen or twenty media people materialized seconds after. The first to greet the Governor was Dino DiFronzo of Parziale's Bakery, who encouraged the governor to stop by for coffee and pastry after her visit to Old North. This is probably the first time a politician has gone anywhere but Mike's Pastry in the North End, and given Governor Palin's subsequent experience there, it may be the last.

The impersonator, named Cecelia Thompson, was next up to greet the governor, skillfully getting her picture with the governor in the paper. Governor Palin offered to let Cecelia take on press duties for the morning. Unfortunately for the governor, Cecilia stayed at Old North after the entourage headed off to Parziale's.

Finally Foundation director, Ed Pignone, and I greeted the governor and escorted her party inside. Governor Palin told me she had been to Old North once before as a hockey mom with her son's team. She encouraged them to pay attention because knowing our history is so important. On Thursday, she had to encourage her daughter to pay attention as the media cameras were somewhat distracting. The family was quite charming, particularly the governor's parents. They didn't strike me as very different from the 500,000 other visitors we see each year. They asked a number of questions about our story, laughed at my jokes, and enjoyed themselves.

I gave them our standard talk about Paul Revere and the two men who hung the lanterns in the steeple, Robert Newman and John Pulling. I added a bit about the debate between John Hancock and Sam Adams after they received the warning from Revere (Hancock: "Staying and fighting will look good on my resume when I run for president." Adams: "You are too rich to fight. Let's get out of here." Adams ultimately won that debate.) I did mention that Revere was arrested by British troops and led back to Lexington, warning those British troops that the minutemen had been alerted.

After the introductory talk, we climbed up to the bell ringing chamber, where I talked about how Paul Revere how founded our bell ringing guild in 1750 as a teenager. Governor Palin was particularly interested to see a copy of the original bell ringing contract between Paul Revere and his friends and the rector of Old North, Dr. Cutler. The contract portrays a group of teenagers using democratic principles to organize their bell ringing guild. We did not have the time to get to the top of the steeple to see the lanterns.

We briefly toured the tombs beneath the church before exiting to a large and excited crowd. Governor Palin handed out signed copies of the Constitution. Like John Hancock, her signature was clearly visible. The governor then went into the gift shop to buy a few souvenirs (like all good visitors should!) Her visit to Old North stay lasted nearly an hour.

We left the campus and walked down the street to Parziale's Bakery. I cannot testify to what happened inside, as I was distracted by The Daily Show's John Oliver, who was haranguing me about giving our fair city back to the British and questioning Old North's role in betraying the Crown and head of our church. The truth be told, my predecessor, the Rev. Mather Byles, Jr. left the employ of the church the morning the lanterns were hung and cannot be blamed for the unfortunate rebellion that ensued.

I was surprised and bemused when the video of Governor Palin's impromptu history quiz went viral the next day. I knew where all the factoids she cited came from and take responsibility for putting them in her head. I will not take the blame for the odd order those factoids came out. Perhaps it was too much information in too short a period of time to digest properly. Maybe if we climbed to the top of the steeple and viewed the lanterns, the governor wouldn't have focused on the bells. Who knows?

I am amazed that this silly story refuses to die. Lots of pundits berated Governor Palin's grasp of history. Many of them have made their own mistakes, usually of the Revere cried out "The British are coming!" variety. If Revere yelled anything streaking across the countryside, he might have been shot by a local Tory or by one of the many British patrols out that night. He never would have said "The British are coming!", because everyone was British then. He may have said "The Regulars are out!"

A story just came across the web from The Washington Post that a battle is brewing over at Wikipedia, where some Palin supporters have attempted to rewrite the entry on Paul Revere to reflect the governor's interview. This isn't the first time Paul Revere's story has been revised. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took a great deal of poetic license in retelling the story in Paul Revere's Ride, a political poem published on the eve of the Civil War. While Longfellow upset antiquarians in New England, he was not subjected to thousands of newspaper stories and blog comments attacking or defending his poem. One hundred and fifty years later most of the pundits and many of us assume Longfellow's poem was historically correct. I hate to break it to you, but Revere was not standing on the opposite shore, did not make it as far as Concord (Massachusetts or New Hampshire) that night, and finished his ride to Lexington before midnight.

As vicar of the Old North Church, I am profoundly grateful for Governor Palin's visit. She succeeded in her stated intention of drawing attention to America's historical sites and inadvertently provided us with priceless free publicity by misplacing a few facts when quizzed on her visit. I hope all of her political peers from both parties come to visit the church where historically Paul Revere's ride began and where mythically, thanks to Longfellow, God blessed America. We will be happy to give any politician a thorough history lesson and a few crib cards in case the media is lurking in the weeds. You can't go wrong with "One if by land, or two if by sea" when the cameras are rolling.

I am somewhat saddened by what passes for news and for fact these days. We can laugh at Governor Palin, who may not have gotten all her facts wrong, but certainly didn't get them all straight. But what does this story, with its incredible legs, say about the rest of us? Why was such a large media contingent following the governor in the first place, particularly when many of them were publicly complaining that the trip was not newsworthy? What do we say to the pundits who accuse Palin of mangling history while treating Longfellow's poetic interpretation of the ride as fact? Why have so many prominent historians weighed in on this story to criticize or defend Palin's off the cuff remarks? For that matter, why am I weighing in?

Is spectacle more newsworthy than substance? Do firmly held opinions take precedence over fact? What is truth, or is it truthiness?

The Rev. Stephen T. Ayres is vicar of the Old North Church, also known as Christ Church in the City of Boston. This essay first appeared in the parish's weekly e-mail newsletter.

Comments (2)

Thanks Stephen -- an an excellent question - is the answer "fiddling while Rome burns"?

Thank you for a very nice explanation of that day, and for the work you do as vicar!

The "left", including much of the media, decided in 2008 that they were going to destroy Sarah Palin. There is written proof that many of them actually conspired and colluded in that effort. It's a sad statement about our media today.

[akw - In the future, sign your full name to your comments. It's our policy. - eds.]

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