Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly said, "History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon." As the past recedes further behind us, that observation only grows more accurate.
Yet, recent history can be equally vague. Students in the US can attest that important figures are often left out of their textbooks. The lies taught in American history are rarely out of spite but a common myth agreed upon. Part of our cultural foundation, these history myths can be difficult to dispel.
With that in mind, let's get down to the myth-busting. The following "facts" are among the biggest lies in history - untrue, but repeated so often even history buffs believe them. Vote up the ones that truly surprise you.
- 1798 VOTES
Myth: Modern Humans Live Twice As Long As They Did In The Past
The Lie: Centuries ago, humans were lucky to live past the age of 30.
Its Origin: Math is hard.
Why It's Wrong: The average human lifespan hasn't changed that much in the last few thousand years. There are records from cultures across the globe of men and women living well into their 70s, 80s, 90s, and even past 100. Life expectancy, however, is a different story.
The rates of infant mortality in the ancient world were incredibly high. By one estimate, "26.9% of newborns died in their first year of life and 46.2% died before they reached adulthood." This lowered the overall average mortality rate, which is why you often hear that average life expectancy was about 30 years old.
This doesn't mean that life was so hard that people were old and gray by 30. Those who managed to survive childhood illnesses and infections, and reached the age of 21, were likely to live into their sixties or seventies.
- 2826 VOTES
Myth: Black Slaves Only Counted As Three-Fifths Of A Person In Early America
The Lie: While drafting the US Constitution, the Founding Fathers decreed that slaves would only be counted as three-fifths of a person when calculating a state's population.
Its Origin: This is one of those tricky historical facts that seems despicable on the surface level, but when you dig deep down, it's actually even worse than you thought.
As Britannica points out, the words "slave" and "slavery" appear nowhere in the "unamended" Constitution. The actual "three-fifths compromise" reads as such:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons
There's something else going on here, but for the sake of historical shorthand, we say slaves only counted as three-fifths of a human being.
Why It's Wrong: The truth is so much more depressing.
When the Founding Fathers were deciding how many representatives each state should get, the South came up short. Enslaved people - who had no rights and thus couldn't vote - made up 40% of the South's population, which would give Northern politicians the edge in elections. Southern delegates wanted slaves to count towards their total states' populations, but Northerners said they didn't count at all because they were property - not people.
So here's the compromise: when a slaveholding state took its census, it got to add another figure to its total population - three-fifths of "all other Persons" that didn't get counted the first time. In other words, a slave wasn't three-fifths of a person; they were a component of a mathematical formula created for the sake of political expediency. The Constitution actually acknowledges their personhood while denying them any rights.
The Lie: In his youth, Albert Einstein was a poor student with mediocre to failing grades.
Its Origin: A handful of articles suggest the myth was spread by teachers hoping to inspire students whose promise outshines their grades. "You may not understand math today, little Johnny, but neither did Einstein. And he went on to do great things!"
Why It’s Wrong: Einstein was a smart adult, and he was also a smart kid. As the New York Times states, a collection of Einstein's student papers reveal him to be:
remarkably gifted in mathematics, algebra and physics... [He was] conversant in college physics before he was 11 years old, a "brilliant" violin player who got high marks in Latin and Greek. But his inability to master French was the bane of his school days, and may have been chiefly responsible for his failing college entrance examinations.
According to Dr. John Stachel, an editor of Einstein's records, the idea that Einstein was a poor student may be due to a misreading of his grades. Einstein's school in Aargau, Switzerland, reversed its grading system while he was a student there. As the New York Times explains:
when Einstein was 16, his mark in arithmetic and algebra was 1 on a scale of 6, in which 1 was the highest grade. For the next term his mark was 6, which would have been the lowest grade, except that the grading scale had been reversed by school officials.
The Lie: In 1789, French Queen Marie Antoinette was told her subjects were starving and had no bread to eat. She callously replied, "Qu’ils mangent de la brioche," or "Let them eat cake."
The Origin: During the tumultuous French Revolution, antipathy for nobles - and especially those of royal blood - reached its lethal limit. The above quote is often cited to show how out of touch the French nobility was with the harsh lives of the common people.
Why It's Wrong: One biographer, Antonia Fraser, considers the quote "highly uncharacteristic of Marie-Antoinette, an intelligent woman who donated generously to charitable causes and, despite her own undeniably lavish lifestyle, displayed sensitivity towards the poor population of France."
Furthermore, this quote predates Marie Antoinette. As History explains,
It was first told in a slightly different form about Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish princess who married King Louis XIV in 1660. She allegedly suggested that the French people eat “la croûte de pâté” (or the crust of the pâté). Over the next century, several other 18th-century royals were also blamed for the remark, including two aunts of Louis XVI.
The quote was also attributed to "a great princess" (likely Marie-Thérèse) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his “Confessions,” which was published in 1766 - when Marie Antoinette was only 10 years old.