Myths and Misconceptions

views updated

Myths and Misconceptions

MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS. The historical record does not always supply sufficient evidence from which to build unassailable conclusions about what happened in the past. Even when the evidence is abundant, different people may, in good faith, interpret it in different ways. Because all historical scholarship is a form of argument in which the interpreter emphasizes certain facts and points of view to build a case for his or her particular conclusions, it is easy to see how the history of so complex an event as the American Revolution offers a fertile field for nearly endless revision.

In the decades since the end of the war, historians have combed through the evidence and examined again and again what we think we know about people and events, and in the process they have corrected many misconceptions and altered many interpretations. Sometimes a closer look was all that was needed. Examples abound. The noble titles "Lord Stirling" (William Alexander), "Baron von" Steuben, and "Baron de" Kalb were all bestowed by those individuals on themselves. Early commentators elevated the resolves adopted by a committee at Charlotte, North Carolina, in May 1775 into a "Mecklenburg [County] Declaration of Independence." Americans celebrate the 4th of July as Independence Day, even though the Declaration of Independence was adopted, not signed, on the 4th.

Other misconceptions arise out of undocumented assertions that we, after all, cannot say definitively are not true. It just sounds better if Ethan Allen demanded the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga with the ringing phrase "in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress," or if John Parker declared on Lexington green that "if they [the British] want war, let it begin here!" Some stories are so appealing that we want them to be true, like the heroism of Molly Pitcher, the devotion of Betsy Ross, or the intrigue of the silver bullets of Ticonderoga. Other stories fit our preconceptions, like Washington's alleged temper tantrums at Kips Bay and Monmouth or the idea that he almost won at Germantown. Many misconceptions arise from the opinions some contemporaries used to smear the reputations of particular individuals. Both Walter Butler and Simon Girty were accused of atrocities at places where they were not present. William Howe was allegedly a libertine whose indiscretions caused him to lose the war (the Murray Hill Myth). Benedict Arnold was clearly a black-hearted traitor (the Arnold Legend). His treason, for Americans the most discordant note in the entire symphony of the founding of the Republic, has led to questions about whether Arnold or Gates deserves credit for the victory over Burgoyne at the Second Battle of Saratoga and over the role played by Peggy Shippen Arnold in her husband's defection.

It is worthwhile to distinguish misconceptions from myths. Myths may or may not have a firmer grounding in the evidence than misconceptions, but they almost always gain a wider currency because they reflect or support some idea that is fundamental to how a society views, understands, and even defines itself. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon in the Revolution is the myth of the militia. Americans wanted to believe that they were virtuous men fighting in the righteous cause of resisting British tyranny. Rather than relying on an odious standing army like their oppressors, Americans were free men who turned out to protect their rights. No matter that they might lack formal military training, Americans believed that, as citizen-soldiers, they had had the determination and ingenuity to win through to victory, a point of view that minimized the crucial contributions made by both the Continental army and their French allies.

The nineteenth century saw the apogee of this attitude. On 4 July 1837 the people of Concord dedicated a memorial obelisk on the site where their ancestors had stood against the British on 19 April 1775. Ralph Waldo Emerson solemnized the occasion with his "Concord Hymn," in words that entered our language and still fill Americans with pride and awe:

   By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
   Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
   Here once the embattled farmers stood
   And fired the shot heard round the world.

Thirty-eight years later, on the centennial of the fight at Concord Bridge, the townspeople unveiled the great visual symbol of how Americans remembered their Revolution. The bronze statue, the Minuteman, was the first landmark in the distinguished career of the then twenty-five-year-old sculptor Daniel Chester French. (His final contribution to the American pantheon would be the statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting as the centerpiece of the Lincoln Memorial.). The Minuteman immediately took its place alongside the Liberty Bell among the icons of the Revolution. Dressed in civilian clothes, the handsome young farmer stands forthrightly in his field, one hand on his plow, the other clutching the musket he is about to use to defend his land and his liberty. So powerful was the moment captured by French that the Minuteman came in the twentieth century to embody all the virtues of American citizen-soldiers in the fights against fascism and communism. So powerful, too, was the legacy of French's evocation that historians have been working to place it in its proper context ever since.

SEE ALSO Militia in the North; Propaganda in the American Revolution; Riflemen.

                          revised by Harold E. Selesky