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.
Racial Slavery Was Always Present In The American Colonies
The Myth: Slavery was a part of life in America from the very beginning, and that slavery was always based on race. From the start, Africans were the sole source of slaves coming to America, and that was their only role in the New World.
The Reality: In the earliest days of colonization, some Africans were enslaved and brought over to work on plantations but most laborers came as European indentured servants. Indentured servitude differed from slavery as indentured servants were still given rights and civil liberties not given to slaves. Furthermore, indentured servitude was a contractual obligation which guaranteed freedom after their service was over.
Some historians believe the systematic enslavement of Africans, however, really came into full force after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. A wealthy plantation owner, Nathaniel Bacon, was able to unite slaves and indentured servants of all races to rise up against the elite, only to be harshly put down. Seeking a way to prevent this from happening again, the colonial leadership stopped seeking out indentured servants and began importing more African slaves, reasoning that this would make the minority population easier to control. The focus was specifically on Black slaves, since they were thought the least likely to band together with poor whites for future rebellions.
America Won The Revolutionary War Single-Handedly
The Myth: The founding of America is the ultimate underdog story, with the brave and plucky colony rising up against the evil British Empire and throwing off their shackles in violent revolution. It’s called the American Revolution, after all, and it’s one of the greatest David and Goliath stories known to history.
The Reality: America definitely didn’t win the Revolutionary War single-handedly. They had a lot of help from the second-largest European power at the time: France. England’s traditional enemy was already embroiled in conflict with the British, which made convincing them to join the cause fairly easy. France provided the Colonies with funds, guns, and ships, without which the Revolutionaries wouldn’t have stood a chance against the Empire. Not only did France supply the tools of war, but they also supplied some key individuals that would aid in the planning and fighting, including Marquis de Lafayette.
George Washington Was Universally Loved And Respected
The Myth: George Washington, the venerated Virginia veteran, was the first and most respected of the American Presidents. He won the Revolutionary War and then the White House, and he did so on a wave of unanimous support and universal respect. He was considered the “indispensable man.”
The Reality: George Washington was well loved, but that love was not universal. Many in Congress were unhappy with his performance during the Revolutionary War, especially during the Valley Forge period, and several attempts were made to remove him or usurp his power. After the war was won, Washington was still not met with acceptance by all. His critics accused him of trying to establish a monarchy in America by taking on the presidency, calling him "King George," and that notion wouldn’t disappear until Washington eventually retired. He even had to put down an uprising, the Whiskey Rebellion, not long into his presidency.
The Founding Fathers Were All Christian
The Myth: The United States of America is a Christian nation, and it has been from the very beginning. The first colonists got by on their religious values, and the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with those values in mind. America may support religious freedom, but its founders fully intended to found a nation for Christians.
The Reality: Many of the Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, were considered Deists, and George Washington himself was pretty close to Pantheistic, representing a belief in the holiness of nature. In fact, the Deist belief system, which includes an overarching deity but no interaction between that deity and human beings and values human experience and rationality, had a greater influence on America’s political philosophy than Christianity.