A distinguished historian revisits the American legends he effectively debunked 10 years ago and discovers that they die hard.
Over two centuries after the nation’s founding, does the narrative change when we understand that Paul Revere didn’t really ride alone, that Sam Adams wasn’t a “one-man revolution,” that the Declaration didn’t spring full-blown from the mind of Thomas Jefferson, that Patrick Henry likely never said, “give me liberty or give me death,” or that Molly Pitcher never existed at all? Raphael (Senior Research Fellow/Humboldt State Univ.; Constitutional Myths: What We Get Wrong and How to Get It Right, 2013, etc.) takes on a number of myths and legends that have crept unquestioned into our textbooks and popular histories, and he explains their persistence and the damage done if they remain uncorrected. He also highlights some stories we have failed to tell. How is our understanding changed if we discover that the tale of the cruel winter and patient suffering at Valley Forge has an unacknowledged twin, two years later, at the Morristown encampment, where the weather was colder and the soldiers mutinied? What if we learn that the American struggle for independence, itself only a small part of a worldwide conflict, was also a war of conquest in the West and featured a brutal civil war in the South? By slapping tidy beginnings and endings on stories, we distort a deeper, more complex history. By fashioning them into stick figures, we turn the Founders into an assembly of demigods. Worst of all, Raphael argues, we understate the central theme of the American Revolution—popular sovereignty—and marginalize the contributions made by millions of common citizens. Overlooking this genuine heritage, he insists, takes the Revolution out of the hands of the people, without whom the entire enterprise would surely have failed.
A persuasive argument in favor of evidence-based history, even if it means surrendering some of our cherished fabrications.