Four Great Myths of American History
Napoleon once said that history is a fabled agreed upon. As children we all loved that cute story about George Washington and the cherry tree, didn’t we? It was sweet and simple, it sounded nice and best of all it made kids feel guilty. Check, check, and check – perfect fable. All that’s missing is the animals, come to think of it.
Apologies to Aesop, but fables aren’t truth. They do sound nice, though. Perhaps that’s the point of making history into fable – it sounds nice. Reality is so distasteful sometimes, isn’t it? It doesn’t always come off the way we want to.
And so much of history has been given a facelift. What’s so wrong with the edited version? Maybe nothing. Go ahead and tell your kids about George Washington and the cherry tree if you want to teach them not to lie. In fact, here are some other myths you might be interested in. (The history of the world is so rife with inaccuracies, I’ve decided to narrow this topic to my top 4 favorite American ones).
Christopher Columbus Discovered America
This is a perennial favorite. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…okay, that part’s true. (Look at me, rhyming away). But what isn’t true is that he discovered…well, anything, let alone a “new world.”
First of all, there was a thriving civilization already established in the west when Chris stomped off the Santa Maria. There is scholarly dissent on the actual population number, but conservative estimates say around 10 million native people lived on the continent.
What Columbus encountered was the present-day Bahamas (which island exactly it is remains unknown). He wrote in his diary that the natives there (thought to be of the Taino tribe) would make very useful servants. Charming. Maybe this remark was unprecedented, but knowledge of the existence of land in this part of the globe was not.
Several hundred years earlier Norwegian explorer Bjarni Herjolffson was blown off course on an expedition to Greenland when he spotted land to the west that was definitely not Greenland, as it was covered in forests and low-lying hills. Soon afterward Leif Ericson traveled to present-day Newfoundland and established a Viking settlement, known in modern times as L’Anse aux Meadows.
Sorry, Chris. Or, in your native Italian, mi dispiace.
George Washington Died of Syphilis
I first heard this one from my sophomore-year biology teacher. “Unfortunately,” he told the class with great authority, “he was cheating on Martha. All those war camps, you know? Got it from a prostitute. They don’t tell you that in school, kids.”
No, they don’t, because what “they” teach in school usually is supported by historical data. There is literally no medical evidence to suggest that George Washington died of the effects of a venereal disease. Eyewitnesses report that he came down with a cold at Mount Vernon after riding in inclement weather on December 13, 1799. The cold rapidly became an infection of the epiglottis, which is attached to the larynx.
Washington’s last hours were exhaustively documented by his attendants, among them his step-grandson George Washington Custis and Dr. James Craik, first Surgeon General of the United States. The symptoms of fatal syphilis are not unlike those of epiglottitis, but the consensus (at the time and presently) of medical professionals is that he slowly asphyxiated due to the inflammation of his larynx.
But maybe it’s more fun to giggle about the Father of our Nation having VD.
Slavery Started the Civil War
Abraham Lincoln wrote in an 1862 letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Lincoln concludes the letter by stating that this is his official duty as the executor of the Constitution, and that his personal feelings are against slavery in any form.
The Civil War began not because of slavery and not because of Southern secession, but because Confederate troops fired on For Sumter, a US military fortress, on April 9, 1861. If you shoot at American soldiers, you will have a war – especially if you’re telling everyone you’re not American anymore.
Slavery is not the reason the troops fired on Fort Sumter, and it is not the reason the Southern states seceded. The South felt betrayed by the federal government after the 1860 election. The South didn’t want a war (read Gone With the Wind – Rhett Butler’s “there’s not a cannon factory in all the South” speech explains it perfectly). The South wanted to go quietly. But the Union wouldn’t sign the divorce papers.
Pocahontas and John Smith Were In Love
Ah, young love. So beautiful, isn’t it? But young love when one of the partners is 13 – that’s creepy, and it doesn’t matter if it’s 1607.
Good thing it didn’t happen. Nowhere is there any record of a relationship between the daughter of the chief Powhatan and the English explorer John Smith. Most historians agree that Pocahontas was around 12 or 13 in 1607 when she convinced her father not to kill his prisoner John Smith. In return for his life, Smith reports, he agreed to make Pocahontas “bells, beads, and copper” (The Generall Historie of Virginia by John Smith, published in 1624). Sounds like a fair trade.
There are records that Pocahontas was her father’s favorite child, indulged from birth, and that she was fascinated by the strange and alien English culture. Perhaps this was why she saved Smith’s life. There are records of Pocahontas warning Smith of upcoming Powhatan attacks (a leak that got her exiled from her father’s tribe) several times, indicating that she felt affection for him. There are records of John Smith’s arrogance in writing – the man once claimed to have had a love affair with a Turkish queen (haven’t we all?) If he’d gotten busy with the daughter of the “Emperor of Virginia” (as Powhatan was known) I’m sure we would have heard about it.
But don’t let me rain on your parade. Pop in that DVD of Disney’s Pocahontas and fire up the popcorn, because I love 90’s soft-rock as much as the next gal. Just take it with a grain of salt.