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 Founding Fathers Were A Single Force
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.
Individuals Did Everything With Willpower And Bootstraps
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.
All Early American Colonists Had Puritan Values
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.
John Smith Had A Romantic Relationship With Pocahontas
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.
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.
The Native Americans Just Disappeared, Leaving An Open Continental Invitation
The Myth: The Native population of the Americas was far smaller than the populations of most European nations, which meant there was plenty of space to go around when colonization began. It also meant that the Native Americans were hopelessly outnumbered, making it all the easier for incoming Europeans to further displace and isolate them.
The Reality: Before European contact, the Native population on both American continents was actually quite robust. Some North, Central, and South American communities had cities larger than their European counterparts. Unfortunately, the diseases that Europeans brought with them when they made contact soon proved destructive. Shortly after Columbus’s voyage in 1492, fishing expeditions to the New World began, and those fishermen brought some nasty pathogens with them. Exact demographics aren’t available, but most estimate that approximately 90% of the Native population in both North and South America was wiped out over the course of the 16th century by disease alone. The results were devastating for the Native Americans, and mighty convenient for the invading Europeans.