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. These foundational myths affect not just America’s ability to understand its own past, but also its ability to handle its problems moving forward. These are the lies you were taught in high school history.
The Myth: The Founding Fathers are the 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. A compromise was finally hammered out that nobody was really happy with, and thus, America was born.
Why Does It Endure?: The myth that the Founding Fathers were a unified force helps to perpetuate a further myth that there exists one single, definitive vision for what America is supposed to represent. Modern politicians love to invoke the intentions of the Founding Fathers to back up their own decisions, which conveniently ignores the greatly differing opinions that they each held.
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. Mega-genius Thomas Edison seemed to invent just about everything all while sitting solo in his workshop.
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, but was also probably the one who did the least work. 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. Finally, Edison was an idea-thieving entrepreneur who didn’t invent half of the stuff he’s credited with, including the lightbulb.
Why Does It Endure?: The myth of American individualism helps feed the greater myth of American exceptionalism. Americans love to feel as though they’re a special people, and nothing says special like believing that certain individuals are just plain better than everyone else. No other country has this many heroes, so obviously, Americans must be of a higher quality than other nationalities.
The Myth: The conflict between American colonists and the many groups of Native Americans that populated the continent began soon after colonization started, and it continued right through to the near-extermination of America’s Native peoples. The two forces were always in conflict, and the end result was a foregone conclusion.
The Reality: It was only later political forces in America that decided that forced relocation and genocide were the best way to deal with Native populations. The earliest political leaders, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, believed in the “civilization” of Native cultures. While still deeply flawed, oftentimes violent, and racist in its assumptions, the belief that Native Americans could be assimilated into American culture over time was certainly better than the idea that they needed to be exterminated, which developed later. In fact, many Americans supported the idea of an independent Native American state, called Cherokee, being formed, and several proposals were put forth stating just that.
It wasn’t until Andrew Jackson, America’s 7th President, took office that the genocide really began. Jackson did not believe in assimilation and sought to solve the “native problem” by forcing them from their lands and using military force against those that refused. This led to the infamous “Trail of Tears” and several subsequent generations of abuse.
Why Does It Endure?: This is a classic example of whitewashing history. Portraying Americans as the victorious side in a cultural conflict is infinitely more complimentary than portraying them as simply choosing genocide because it was an easier and more direct option. Like many historical inaccuracies, this is meant to paint a rosier picture of the past, but it also raises roadblocks in dealing with the modern-day consequences of those past actions.
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 North America at the same time. The Puritans just happened to be much better at recording their own history, which has led to most of early American history coming from their perspective. To the eyes of most others on the continent at the time, the Puritans were a religious fringe group that did not share the same values as everyone else. It’s probably not even true that all North American Puritans followed their strict moral codes, as much of that notion comes from future Puritan historians trying to advance their own narrative, but it’s definitely not true that everyone in the Colonies followed it. Puritans weren’t the definitive picture of early colonization; they were just one incredibly well-documented group.
Why Does It Endure?: There are several components to this myth. For Puritan historians, there was an obvious draw to making the history of your country synonymous with the history of your religion, which gave the Puritans more “ownership” of America and its narrative. The myth endures among non-Puritans, however, because it manages to reinforce any and all appeals to the "freedom of religion" upon which the nation was founded and reinforces the religious roots of America that are so often cited when making decisions on current moral standards.