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The Power of the Messenger

Malcolm Gladwell Paul Revere The Tipping Point

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Lesson: The success of your message depends heavily on the likability and social connections of the messenger.

Think: Whom should I bring this message to? The young stable boy stood pondering for a minute. He had just overheard two British Redcoats saying, “There will be hell to pay tomorrow.” Young though he was, he knew that to tell the wrong person this information could spell disaster for his fellow colonials. Then like a cannon’s blast it dawned on him. Of course, there was only one man to tell. The boy flew across town to the home of the silversmith. He was a gregarious, mature, and well-known personage in 1775 Boston life. When the stable boy found the man, he could sense that his decision was a sound one. As always, the silversmith made the boy feel as though he were the center of the universe. This is how Paul Revere made everyone feel when he talked to them.

But, unbeknownst to most in our own era, this was not the only boy or the only messenger on that April afternoon, 1775. News had also gone out to a local tanner by the name of William Dawes. He was a good loyal colonial as vested and concerned about the cause as was Revere.

 Both men contemplated the problem before taking action. The British were after the colonial leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams, as well as a vast storehouse of weaponry. At that time, the rebels dotted the countryside but they had no formal means of communication amongst them. And there was a limited amount of time to organize a fleet of riders to warn all of the relevant militia leaders. Revere and Dawes must go themselves, each, individually, and attempt to move the local American farmers to take up arms.

With some help from friends, Paul Revere crossed into Charleston that night, and awaited a signal to ride. Two if by sea and one if by land, he had told his confidant. His objective was Lexington. Along the way, in the towns of Charleston, Medford, North Cambridge, and others, he would raise the alarm to every Middlesex village and farm. Similarly, Dawes planned to head in the opposite direction to spread the same message.

Later that night the signal was given. Without missing a beat, the storming hooves of a single man’s horse erupted through the night. It was midnight and Paul Revere was on the ride that would one day make him famous.

Along his route he was met with numerous individuals. A farmer, walking his tired horse, saw Paul Revere galloping toward him with a fury. The normally kind and generous visage was set in determination, which shocked the farmer. Revered looked the farmer in the eye, and in his hardened resolve he simply stated, “The British are coming.” The farmer listened. He rushed home to prepare to join his militia unit.

“The British are coming. Paul Revere told me so,” The farmer went on to say to everyone he met.

William Dawes raced along his southerly route. He too ran into dozens of men. Facing a farmer, Dawes told him “The British Are Coming. Prepare to fight!” But the farmer just looked perplexed. “Who are you?” He asked? But Dawes had no time, he continued toward the first village on his trek.

Revere, at his village, ran directly to the houses of the most prominent men, the leaders of the town, the militia commanders. He stirred them from bed and told them: “The British are coming!” And then, quick as a hoof beat, he disappeared toward the next town.

Dawes, at his village, ran randomly to the houses of various villagers. Sleepy men walked to the door and opened it cautiously. Dawes told them: “The British are coming!” and then raced to the next house and then the next. The men, each one in turn, was bewildered and unsure who the stranger was, so they closed the door and returned to bed.

Revere’s message was getting through. And as the poem goes:

And so through the night went his cry of alarm

To every Middlesex Village and Farm—

A cry of defiance and not of fear

A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,

And a word that shall echo forevermore!

Through all our history, to the last,

In the hour of darkness and peril and need,

The people will waken and listen to hear

The hurrying hoof beats of that steed

And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

 

The militia in Lexington and Concord went on to win their battles.

But what of Dawes and his message? No one was stirred and no one was moved, for he was no Paul Revere. In Boston, Dawes may have been known and liked, but there was a power that Paul Revere held over men; a power that Dawes lacked.

Revere had become the social glue of a disparate band of rebels. These bands were dots on a page, connected only by Paul Revere. He was a social connector that knew everyone and everyone knew him.

He was perfect for the job. In 1774 it was Revere who was asked to serve on the committee to receive the first stoplights in Boston. Revere helped to found the Massachusetts Mutual Fire Insurance Company after a major fire. Revere was chosen as foreman of the jury for Boston’s most infamous murder trial. Of the seven revolutionary groups in Boston, Revere was on 5. Only a few other men were on more than two. Revere was the man chosen to send messages from these rebel groups to others in Philadelphia, New York and New Hampshire.

Revere was the powder spreading in a line from dot to dot, sparking and spreading the conflagration that led to revolution. Dawes, with all his good intentions, had none of the social talents of Paul Revere.

 

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