In the United States, American schoolchildren grow up learning all about their Founding Fathers, their Revolutionary ancestors, and some unfortunate realities of American history like slavery and indentured servitude. To a large extent, however, they learn myths about the founding of America, and those myths get recycled and amplified with each generation. Moreover, the recitation of those myths isn't just limited to the United States; lies about the founding of America have gone global.
One would think that this worldwide gaze on American history would mean that everyone has a solid grasp on it, but that’s not the case. For a variety of reasons, the general understanding of America’s past is rife with misconception, mystery, and outright myth. In some cases, this misapplication of facts is innocent and simply a result of the sands of time. In other, more troubling instances, however, American history has been purposely distorted in order to present a certain perspective or message that isn’t based in truth.
The Myth: The Founding Fathers are the singular centerpiece of American history. This small group of bright-minded, forward-thinking individuals came together to forge a prosperous future for their newborn nation. Representing a single, unified vision, the Founding Fathers guided America through the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional crafting that was to follow, working together every step of the way.
The Reality: The Founding Fathers were every bit as politically divided as modern-day Americans are. Not only did several Founding Fathers hate each other on a personal level, like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, but they were also already split into two warring parties by the end of the Revolutionary War. The central argument was on how strong or weak the new federal government should be. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored a weak federal government and greater states’ rights, whereas Hamilton and the Federalists sought a strong central democracy that would guide the entire country moving forward. Debates were often heated, and slander was thrown around on both sides, with the Republicans being compared to the Jacobins of the French Revolution and the Federalists being likened to the British monarchy. It was only through compromise between these distinct ideals that the United States was able come to fruition.
The Myth: America is a land of self-made millionaires and geniuses. No country has a greater history of individualistic accomplishment than the USA. Paul Revere bravely and single-handedly warned everyone that the British were coming. George Washington - not the Continental Army - won the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by himself. Alexander Hamilton crafted and defended the Constitution.
The Reality: Like most things in history, the truth is infinitely more complicated. Few celebrated individuals in American history actually accomplished anything strictly by themselves. Paul Revere was not only one of many riders who warned of the British coming. Jefferson wrote the Declaration in a collaborative effort with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and others, and several of his most important contributions were cut. He wasn't "recognized" as its principal author until the 1790s. Hamilton was only one small part of the large and lengthy Constitutional debate, and though he is credited with defining the Federalist ideal through the Federalist Papers, he was only one of three writers.
The Myth: The earliest Americans were a group of Puritan pilgrims, who escaped religious persecution in Europe so that they could live their way of life in a new land. These colonizing pioneers brought their Puritan values with them, including hard work, strong morals, clean living, and a dedication to religion above all things. These would eventually define the attributes of the entire country moving forward.
The Reality: First and foremost, the Puritans and the Pilgrims were two completely separate groups that both happened to come to Massachusetts at approximately the same time. The Pilgrims were small group of English Protestants who wanted to separate from the Church of England, while the Puritans arrived 10 years after, seeking to reform the church but still remain in it. The Pilgrims eventually absorbed into the Puritans who were establishing larger societies through Massachusetts.
Many other English colonies in the Americas were established not for religious purposes but for economic and commercial reasons. The Puritans represented a religious minority who did not share the same values as other early American colonies. Puritans weren’t the definitive picture of early colonization; they were just one incredibly well-documented group.
The Myth: The legend of Pocahontas is well known, thanks in large part to Disney. There are several variations to the tale, but the central themes include a Native American princess falling in love with an English colonist, John Smith, and saving him from an execution at the hands of her father. Pocahontas’s romance with – and eventual marriage to – Smith helped pave the way for collaboration between the two groups they represented, which was a necessary component for European survival in North America.
The Reality: There is no evidence that John Smith ever actually met Pocahontas except for personal account he wrote after she was toured around England. Pocahontas did exist, and she did marry an Englishman, but his name was John Rolfe. Pocahontas was kidnaped and held for ransom by the English at the age of 12, but she eventually decided to stay with them and marry Rolfe. Pocahontas was brought back to England and toured as a curiosity in an attempt to raise interest in the Jamestown colony. She bore one son, Thomas, and then died of disease before ever returning home.