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7 American History Myths and Misconceptions

When I was in college, my European history professor twice explained how feudalism worked in the Middle Ages.

The first time, it was straightforward. There was a king, and then nobles, and below them knights and clergy, and finally the peasant class. He charted these relationships in a lovely little pyramid, and then he wrote above it “Oz.”

Next, he wrote the same words down — king, noble, knight, clergy, peasant — but he drew a messy, tangled web of lines between them. This noble cut a deal with that noble and pledged allegiance to two kings, and so forth. It was confusing. My professor labeled this system “Kansas.”

He explained that we like to think of history in Oz terms: easy, clear, and logical. In fact, history is more often the Kansas version of events: complicated, muddled, and based on emotion. Like in The Wizard of Oz, the land over the rainbow looks pretty and appeals to us more; there are good guys and bad guys and rousing moments of sentiment and song. But we live in Kansas, the real world, and life here is messy.

I taught history to middle schoolers in East Harlem for three years, and I tried my best to present them with the Kansas view of history. This often meant going above and beyond the textbook, which told Oz-like stories, myths which many of my students had learned as pure fact.

With all this mind, and with the upcoming national holidays of Memorial Day and, later, the Fourth of July, I hereby present some great myths of American history debunked!

  • A Fun Fact to Get Started 1 of 8
    dollar bill

    George Washington started losing his teeth at age 19, and wore dentures made of ivory, gold, lead, human and donkey teeth! He was also an excellent dancer and horse rider. So his stern-faced, pristine visage on the dollar bill gives a false sense of how the first president looked in real life.

    Click on for American historical myths debunked!

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • MYTH: Columbus Discovered America 2 of 8
    Vikings

    Let's start at the beginning: Columbus didn't "discover" America for the obvious reason that the continent was already populated, but moreover, Columbus wasn't even the first European who had visited North America! The Norse — more commonly known as The Vikings — were the first Europeans who landed on these shores, as far as anyone can tell. The explorer Leif Erikson was here as far back as the 10th century, though Norse explorers began raiding and settling different parts of the world starting around the 8th century, at least 500 years before Columbus' famous 1492 expedition.

     Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • MYTH: Witches Were Burned at the Stake in Salem, MA 3 of 8
    salem

    Wow, where to start here? First, while the biggest trial took place in Salem Town, hearings on witchcraft occurred in many villages in the area of Salem from February, 1692 to May, 1693. In the big trial at Salem, twenty people died of hanging, and five more in prison, but no one was burned. And finally, there were no witches! I guess that should go without saying.


    We're not sure exactly what happened, but it seems like a big case of mass hysteria, perhaps sparked by general feelings of fear and dread — life back then was pretty rough, and there were attacks by Native American tribes happening as well — or a mold that grew on rye bread that caused LSD-like hallucinations. Other historians think it was purely a cultural phenomenon, with people acting out to get attention. It's one of history's great mysteries.

     

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • MYTH: Longfellow’s "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" 4 of 8
    Paul Revere

    In the middle of the night from April 18 to 19, 1775, Paul Revere made history by riding through the Massachusetts countryside shouting "The British are coming! The British are coming!", a ride immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." Thing is, Longfellow played loose with the facts.

     

    Revere did indeed ride to warn the colonists that the Redcoats were moving on rebel forces in Lexington, Massacusetts, but he didn't ride alone. A man named William Dawes went by a different route, meeting Revere later in the night, along with Dr. Samuel Prescott. As they rode, other riders set off with the news, so there may have been up to forty men going through the countryside on horseback by the night's end.

     

    Revere didn't shout "The British are coming!" British patrols were about, and many of the colonists still identified as British; secrecy was necessary. Instead, Revere and the other riders went door to door, saying "The Regulars are coming out."

     

    While Longfellow immortalized one character as saving the day, Revere actually was part of an old system of alerts that New Englanders had been using for years called "alarm and muster." It meant news spread quickly by word of mouth, and also by drumbeat and horn-blat and bell ringing. When families heard the alarm, they knew to arm and gather, something they did whenever there was an emergency. Of course, that doesn't make for a dramatic story like "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," which has since gone on to become an American legend.

     

    Image of Paul Revere via Wikimedia Commons

  • MYTH: Americans Took Up Arms Against Great Britain Because of Patriotism 5 of 8
    continental army

    In 1775, American patriots gathered to fight against the British redcoats out of revolutionary zeal. After news spread of the British troops marching out of Boston, thousands of militiamen met the Brits at Concord, where the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired in the first battle of the Revolutionary War. Militias across New England swelled with volunteer recruits, and in June this force became the Continental Army, under leadership of General George Washington.

     

    However, as the war dragged on and became bloody, enthusiasm waned. Even in late 1776, Colonies began offering cash, clothes, blankets, and extended furloughs to entice troops. By 1777, when Congress mandated that men enlist for three years or until the conflict ended, offers of cash and land became necessary to lure men into the ranks, many of which came via recruiters hired to drum up soldiers. The colonies even conscripted men into the army!

     

    By the end of the war, the majority of the troops were single, poor men who did not own property in other words, the unemployed. And African Americans composed 5% of the army, though in the beginning, Congress forbade blacks from enlisting.

     

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • MYTH: George Washington Chopped Down a Cherry Tree 6 of 8
    Parson Weems' Fable

    When Parson Weems wrote A History of the Life and Death, Virtue and Exploits of General George Washington in 1800, shortly after Washington's death, he set out not to remember the first President of the United States but to lionize him. This was a common sentiment at the time — most people who knew Washington admired him. But Weems, instead of relying on fact, used his imagination to create anecdotes that illustrated some of Washington's best qualities. To demonstrate Washington's honesty, Weems told the story of little boy Washington chopping down his father's favorite cherry tree, and then coming clean about it when confronted by his father. "I can't tell a lie, Pa," he says. It's a nice little tale, but is itself a total lie! (Weems claimed only that he heard it from "an old person.") In part, the story persisted because it was included in early American textbooks. A good lesson not to believe everything that you read.

     

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • MYTH: Ben Franklin Discovered Electricity 7 of 8
    franklin

    Like Columbus, Franklin gets all the credit for making a discovery when, in fact, many people were aware of electricity. What Franklin did was, through a series of experiments, refine and expand the knowledge of electricity, and come up with highly suggestive proof that lightning is electrical.

     

    In a thunderstorm, he flew a kite with a silk string that had an iron key hanging near the end. He noticed that the silk fibers were standing up as the storm gathered, and when he placed his hand near the key, felt the charge of electricity. This was electricity from the air, which implied the storm's electrical nature; it wasn't lightning itself. Franklin knew about the dangers of electricity, and used a grounded line. If he had been struck by lightning, he likely would've been killed! Which is what happened to a professor in Richmond, Virginia, who replicated Franklin's experiment some months later, but with less luck, or caution.

     

    To give credit where credit's due, Franklin did greatly advance the study of electricity, being the first to coin the phrase positive and negative when discussing electrical current, and inventing the lightning rod.

     

    Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • MYTH: The Emancipation Proclamation Freed American Slaves 8 of 8
    emancipation_proclamatino

    Actually, the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865, officially abolished slavery in The United States. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1863 as an Executive Order by President Abraham Lincoln, freed the enslaved peoples in the 10 rebelling states of the Confederacy and ordered the army of the Union to treat all the slaves they encountered as freed peoples (not U.S. citizens, mind you). Enslaved people in the five allied states of the Union that practiced slavery were not affected.

     

    This seems funny, right? The President freeing people he technically had no authority over? In part, it encouraged enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy to join the Union forces, especially once the Union army occupied their territory. The immediate impacts of the Proclamation are unclear — some slaves rejoiced, some Union soldiers deserted in protest, but for most people the war marched on with no change. Its importance is actually symbolic: the Emancipation Proclamation meant that Lincoln did not just want to end the war and reunite the nation, he wanted the nation to emerge from the conflict without slavery.

     

     

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

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