3. Benjamin Franklin, the bald eagle, and the turkey
This one is a myth which carries at least a modicum of fact. The story goes that Franklin proposed the native wild turkey, a bird which was prevalent throughout the new nation, rather than the bald eagle as the symbol to appear on the Great Seal of the United States. He did not. He did, however, in a letter to his daughter, compare the wild turkey favorably to the bald eagle, demonstrating dissatisfaction with the predatory habits of the latter. Franklin also noted in his letter that even a small sparrow could chase off a bald eagle, and expressed the belief that the honest turkey was more of an example of the desired American character.
Many myths exist about Franklin, some of them deliberately formed to besmirch his character during his lifetime. He was said to have fathered several children while serving as Minister Plenipotentiary to France during the Revolutionary War, though he was already well into his seventies and plagued with gout. He did not discover electricity, as is often claimed, rather he discovered that lightning was a form of electrical discharge. His experiment with kite and key during a thunderstorm was real, he proposed the idea which was conducted in France by Thomas-Francois Dalibard in 1752. Whether Franklin also conducted the experiment is uncertain, his description of the procedure contains no reference to him performing the test.
The legend of Molly Pitcher is that of a wife of a Continental artilleryman carrying water to troops engaged at the Battle of Monmouth Court House on a blisteringly hot June day. Named Molly Hays, troops called to her for water with the words, “Molly, Pitcher”. When her husband fell wounded, Molly manned his gun, keeping up a steady fire on the British and Hessian troops. According to one source, General Washington saw Molly serving the gun during the battle and promoted her to non-commissioned officer status in the aftermath of the fighting. What should be remembered is that women were a common sight on Revolutionary battlefields.
Women camp followers, some wives to the men and others claiming to be, remained with the Continental Army throughout the war, washing and repairing clothes, cooking, and providing “companionship”. Following the war, the tale of Molly Pitcher grew, said to have occurred on different battlefields. Another woman named Margaret Corbin was said to have performed in much the same manner during the attack on Fort Washington, years before the Battle of Monmouth. Molly Pitcher appears to be a composite of several people and legends, some based in fact and some embellished by folklore, but an enduring symbol of the American Revolution.
A story which is readily found tells of a squad of Revolutionary soldiers digging up large stones to erect a wall known as a breastwork. When an elegantly attired but unrecognized officer appeared on horseback, he directed one of the men to place the largest of the stones in the center of the wall. The soldier protested that he was a corporal, leading the officer to apologize, dismount, place the stone in the wall, and then telling the corporal that if a similar situation arose to send for him again at headquarters, as he was the Commander in Chief of the army, George Washington. The tale is often told as an example of leadership. Unfortunately, it is entirely fiction.
The story, or one which contains all of the elements of the Washington tale, first appeared in a pension application from a veteran of the Revolution in 1832. The pensioner claimed to have been the corporal in the story, and the general who placed the stone was Israel Putnam. Seven years later, in 1839, the story began to appear in New England periodicals with Washington replacing Putnam. The Putnam version was likely fiction as well, created by a would-be pensioner to demonstrate his detailed knowledge of events during his service, which supported his application for compensation. Neither Putnam nor Washington ever mentioned the event in their personal papers.
6. The Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence, as written by Thomas Jefferson, was subjected to lengthy and to Jefferson’s personally difficult debate in the Continental Congress. Congress had already approved the Virginia resolution of Independence, it was the wording of the document which caused so many issues with the representatives of the different states. Independence was approved on July 2, 1776, and a revision to the wording of the document was approved on the fourth, mostly in the areas of the list of grievances against King George III. The final version was not publicly read until July 8, and it was weeks before all of the signers affixed their names to the fair copy prepared.
John Adams, who like Jefferson would die on the Fourth of July fifty years later, believed that Independence Day in the United States should be July 2, the date on which the motion was approved by Congress. He suggested the means of celebration, including, “Pomp and Parade with shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations”, though the nation as a whole selected July 4 – the date on the revised copy – rather than July 2 as Independence Day. By the way, another Founder and former President, James Monroe, also died on the Fourth of July, five years after Adams and Jefferson succumbed on that date.
7. The United States was born as a Christian nation
The widespread belief that the Founders were Christians to a man is a false one, and the arguments often presented to support the belief are specious. Some cite Washington’s membership in the Episcopal Church in Alexandria as evidence, forgetting that in the Virginia colonial-era church membership and attendance were mandatory, as was tithing. When Washington died in 1799 he did not ask for a minister to come to his bedside, nor for even a Bible, and Washington throughout his life referred to Providence. Jefferson was a Deist, as was Franklin and several others of the Founders, who did not believe in Divine Intervention in human affairs.
John Adams was a member of the Unitarian Church, which did not have a hierarchical clergy, and in some congregations no clergy at all. Some sites quote John Adams as writing, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion“. Adams did not write that, it is a clause in the first treaty with Morocco, though he did fully ratify the treaty and sent it to the Senate for their “advice and consent”. The debate over America being founded as a Christian nation goes all the way back to the first settlers, many of whom came to the New World to establish religious persecutions of their own, leading to the several colonies of New England forming to flee the Puritans.
8. Thomas Jefferson negotiated the greatest real estate deal in history, the Louisiana Purchase
To Thomas Jefferson, history has assigned the credit for the purchase of Louisiana, more than doubling the territory controlled by the United States. Jefferson certainly deserves the credit for overcoming the objections of the Federalists in Congress, but it was not he who negotiated the agreement. Jefferson dispatched Robert Livingston and James Monroe to France to attempt to purchase New Orleans, giving the young nation which was expanding to the west a port on the Mississippi River and limiting French influence in the American west (Spain having transferred New Orleans to France in 1800).
When Napoleon, through his ministers, offered to sell the whole of Louisiana to the United States, the Americans were stunned. Eager to remove Napoleonic ambitions from the American west, they accepted. The treaty arrived in the United States in July 1803, to raucous debate in Congress, where the Federalists believed it exceeded the President’s authority to acquire territory. Jefferson shepherded the treaty through the Senate and the House approved the funding. The United States acquired lands from the Mississippi to the Rockies, and the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, for roughly three cents per acre, including some of the finest farmlands in the world, underneath which were gold, silver, oil, copper, iron, and coal, among other wealth.
9. The War of 1812 was entirely about British aggression
During the period of tension which led to the War of 1812, the United States protested British intercession with Native Americans on the western and northern frontiers, as well as British transgressions against American shipping and sailors. But there was another significant factor which led to war, the War Hawks in the American press and Congress. A significant contingent of American leaders wanted to invade and conquer British Canada, adding the Canadian territories to the United States. As in the Revolutionary War, these Americans believed that the Canadians would join them in removing their British oppressors, and the Native American tribes would collapse without British support.
During the War of 1812 American invasions of Canada received little support from Canadians, most of whom sided with the British, though by the war’s end the Indians of the Tecumseh Confederation were largely defeated. The United States did not win the War of 1812, nor did it lose it, and the treaty which ended it found both sides agreeing to the status quo ante bellum, meaning that nothing had changed in terms of territorial boundaries. Further border disputes with Great Britain continued until the Polk Administration, including at times the very real threat of yet another war along the Canadian border. After 1812, American expansion focused on the westward movement, rather than casting covetous eyes to the north.
10. Americans were the innovators of early railroad technology
When railroads first appeared in the United States they were tracked wagonways, with the wagons pulled by horses, mules, or oxen. Americans were at the time following the example and using the technology developed by their British cousins. In 1830, again following the British lead, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began passenger service in the United States, using horse-drawn cars. It was in the American South, too often wrongly referred to as being less technologically advanced than the North, where the first steam-powered locomotive in the United States entered regular service, in December 1830. The South Carolina Canal and Steamboat Company operated over six miles of track, by 1833 expanding to 136 miles, connecting Charleston to Hamburg.
During the 1830s American companies developed steam locomotives and American railroads experimented with them, but the most powerful and more importantly reliable engines still came from Great Britain. By the late 1830s American manufacturers caught up with the British builders, and engines such as the DeWitt Clinton, ironically named for the man who championed canals which the railroads rendered obsolete, allowed American railroads to purchase locomotives made in the USA. Railroads then expanded rapidly, with the Baltimore and Ohio’s mainline reaching the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia, in 1852.
11. Secession and the Confederacy were not about slavery
During the period which began during Reconstruction and has continued since under the auspices of the Lost Cause, the factors which led to the American Civil War have been claimed by apologists as being individual freedom, state’s rights, and federal tyranny. These apologists deny that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. They argue that the majority of southerners who fought in the war did not own slaves, ignoring the issue of slavery being an accepted way of life in their communities. To believe that slavery was not a cause of the Civil War – indeed its main cause – is to believe in a myth which emerged long after the combat ended and the Lost Cause and the romance of the antebellum South became prevalent.
On March 21, 1861, then Vice-President of the Confederate States Andrew Stephens acknowledged that the Confederacy was based on slavery and that “its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – submission to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition”. Legendary Confederate cavalryman John Singleton Mosby put it bluntly after the war saying, “The South went to war on account of slavery”. Mosby was also dismissive of attempts to rewrite the causes of the war, pointing out that South Carolina had cited defense of slavery in its secession, and added, “South Carolina ought to know what was the cause of her seceding”.
During the American Civil War and the emergence of the Lost Cause in its wake the contending commanding generals, Lee and Grant, found themselves with reputations neither wholly deserved. Grant is often presented as a butcher, indifferent to casualty lists, who ground down the gallant Lee, the Confederate general being much more solicitous of his troops. The numbers do not bear this out. Throughout the war, Lee’s armies inflicted casualties (killed and wounded, disregarding captured or deserted) of 15.4% on his enemies, while the troops under his command suffered 20.2% casualties. Lee’s casualty rate not only exceeded Grant’s, but all of the other major commanders of the Confederacy as well.
By the end of the war, Lee’s armies suffered casualties which exceeded those of Grant by over 55,000 men – again considering only killed and wounded, desertions increase the number significantly. And while it is true that during the bloody march down the peninsula in the spring of 1864 the Army of the Potomac suffered horrendous casualties, as a percentage of his fighting strength Lee’s were worse. The Confederate Army bled itself out before withdrawing into the trenches at Petersburg and Richmond, from which Lee surely knew there would be no escape. The casualties were grisly for both sides of the American Civil War, but that Grant was a butcher in comparison to Lee is a myth according to the numbers.
13. The Civil War ended when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House
When Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, receiving generous terms for the treatment of his men from the Union commander, major combat operations of the Civil War were at an end. At least in the Eastern Theater of the war, fighting continued in several regions. General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to William T. Sherman at the end of April, with Sherman following Grant’s lead and offering generous terms to his beaten enemies. Across the South, resistance continued for a few weeks, as one Southern department after another conceded defeat. The last land battle of the Civil War, other than some guerrilla raids, occurred at Palmito Ranch in Texas, a two-day engagement in which John J. Williams, the last combat fatality of the war, was killed.
On May 10, 1865, Andrew Johnson declared the armed rebellion to be at an end, and Jefferson Davis was taken into Union custody the same day. Still, the war was not declared to be over. The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah was still at large at sea, where the vessel had captured or sunk 38 Union ships in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Shenandoah continued to raid Union ships until the end of June 1865, when it learned of Lee’s surrender while cruising in the Pacific. Shenandoah then embarked on a three-month cruise from the Pacific to Liverpool, England, where it surrendered to the Royal Navy on November 6, striking for the last time the flag of the Confederate Navy. The following August Andrew Johnson declared the war was officially over.
14. Horace Greeley and “Go west young man, go west and grow up with the country”
Following the American Civil War and the passage of the Homestead Act the American Western Plains were open for expansion. There is no disputing that Horace Greeley was a proponent of western expansion, and that he wrote editorials, articles, and speeches recommending the veterans of the war make a new life to the west. But the famous quotation attributed to him, today usually shortened to simply “Go West, young man”, has never been found in any of the documents cited as containing it. Some scholars attribute the quote to Greeley more than thirty years earlier, but they too have not been able to locate its source. In short, unless it was uttered in private conversation, Greeley never said it.
Greeley denied using the phrase, let alone coining it, and it has been attributed to other, lesser-known writers, but a copy of the newspaper or other periodical in which it first appeared has never been found. Many of the editions of newspapers cited as containing the phrase have been scoured by scholars with no trace of the comment. When and how it appeared is a mystery, but there is no evidence Greeley ever uttered the phrase, and there is also his denial of being its author to consider. Horace Greeley counseling the young of America to “Go West” is an American myth, at least as far as his use of the full quotation so often attributed to him is concerned.
15. Western wear was usually not the famous Stetson hat
The great Stetson hat featured in film and television as the favored headwear of western settlers was not as common as believed. Especially among the men who made their living either through gambling or enforcing their will through the use of their guns, hats more often associated with the cities of the east were far more common. Bowlers and top hats were the preferred covers for gunslingers, who weren’t called gunslingers at the time. They were commonly referred to as shootists. Nor did the majority of them wear their guns in holsters slung low about their hips. Most carried their weapons in their belts or in shoulder holsters.
The Stetson hat didn’t become popular until near the end of the 19th century, and the headwear known to modernity as the cowboy hat wasn’t worn by most of the men in the cattle drives across the plains before that time. Slouch hats, kepis left over from wartime service, and even sombreros were what was worn by most. Another myth of the west was that men walked about town wearing their firearms. In reality, most towns quickly established areas in which firearms were off-limits, and visitors were required to check their weapons at the so-called gun line before conducting their business in town. Unable to carry openly, many fearing trouble carried smaller weapons concealed somewhere on their persons.
16. Abner Doubleday and the birth of American baseball
Baseball was a highly popular game in the 19th century, including among the troops of both sides during the Civil War, and shortly after the war ended professional baseball clubs emerged, starting with the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869. Numerous scholars and writers covering the growing popularity of the game speculated that the sport was derived from an old English bat and ball game called rounders. As the rounders theory gained support, Albert Spalding was aghast at the idea of an American sport being in fact the distant cousin of a British game. He organized the Mills Commission, on which he served, to determine the true origins of the American game.
Abner Doubleday was a Union officer during the American Civil War whose men, mostly from New York, played the game of baseball extensively in their encampments. Doubleday may or may not have provided written rules for the games played by his men during the war, depending on the source one chooses to believe, but the Mills Commission decided that based on his alleged actions he was the father and inventor of the game of baseball, which thus was relieved of the taint of British parentage. Doubleday was surprised to find himself described as the inventor of the game, which was still played according to largely local ground rules when he was elevated to his new status. The invention of baseball by Abner Doubleday is an American myth.
It is considered a gospel of American history that Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb after years of studying the subject. In fact, the light bulb had existed for some time, and Edison was just one of several others trying to find a way to make the existing lightbulb a practical source for illumination. His patent was for an improved electric light bulb, using materials for filaments which allowed the bulb to burn for several hours, and it was achieved almost simultaneously with another inventor, Joseph Swan of England. To avoid a lengthy and expensive patent litigation, Edison and Swan joined forces to marketing light bulbs in Great Britain.
One of the first facilities to be wired for and equipped with Edison’s new lighting systems was a ship, the steamer Columbia, which had the electric lighting installed in 1880. By then Edison was already awash in litigation over patent infringements, and his patent was ruled invalid in 1883, and later found to be valid after six more years of court fights. Swan held a patent which was issued over a year earlier than Edison’s, which led to the two reached an agreement to create a company they named Ediswan to market the lighting systems in Great Britain. More than two dozen light bulbs were invented prior to Edison’s, who created the first viable electric lighting system based on the work of predecessors which he improved and marketed to the public.
18 Mass defenestration following the stock market crash
In October 1929 the decade known as the Roaring Twenties came to an abrupt end, or at least that is how the history books tell it, with the stock market crashing, ushering in the Great Depression. In truth, the American economy had been exhibiting signs of problems throughout that spring and summer, and the collapse was foretold by the collapse of British markets a month earlier. The collapse of the New York Stock Exchange began on Thursday, October 24, was widely covered in the newspapers that weekend and nose-dived on Monday and Tuesday of the following week. Almost immediately sensationalist news reports told of mass panic in New York, with financiers, brokers, and bankers, leaping to their deaths from office windows as their fortunes were wiped out.
The tales of a dramatic increase of suicides during the collapse of the markets in 1929 were untrue, for the most part, and are part of the myth of the Great Depression today. Many brokers actually made money as the rich and large banks increased stock holdings to both boost public confidence in the markets and expand their shares. In fact, the reported suicide rate in New York decreased during the crash and for weeks following the financial disaster. Despite the florid accounts of people leaping from windows to the streets below, there were but two suicides by defenestration in New York between October 24 and the end of the year 1929, and one of those was challenged as being more likely a homicide.
19. Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds broadcast induced widespread panic in 1938
According to a popular story, when Orson Welles broadcast an episode of The Mercury Theatre of the Air based on H.G. Wells popular science fiction story The War of the Worlds, the live presentation caused a nationwide panic, as listeners were unable to ascertain that the broadcast was entertainment and not a live news broadcast. No doubt some listeners were fooled, and since commercial breaks were infrequent (that the story was fiction was aired during the first break, about thirty minutes into the broadcast) the tale presented as evolving news of a Martian invasion was frightening. The broadcast creating a widespread panic is a myth, however. For one thing, there just weren’t that many people tuned in. Four different times during the broadcast listeners were reminded that the show was a play.
The newspapers of the time exaggerated the level of the panic, far beyond the phone calls into CBS stations of listeners demanding more information. Radio was an emerging competitor for newspaper advertising markets, and the papers stressed first the irresponsibility of the airwaves inducing panic among the people for commercial gain. According to polls taken at the time, only about 2% of the radio audience listened to the CBS broadcast, and in many markets, CBS affiliates substituted local programming that Halloween night. The War of the Worlds broadcast did happen, and it did frighten some listeners, but the extent of the panic it created was wildly exaggerated, to the point it became another American myth, one which Orson Welles exploited for years.
20. Dwight David Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System
One of the myths of the American Interstate Highway System is that Dwight Eisenhower, impressed with Hitler’s autobahn, wanted a similar system for the United States. Except that it wasn’t Hitler’s autobahn at all, it was largely in existence in 1931, two years before the Fuhrer became Chancellor of Germany and the Nazi party assumed control of the German government. Hitler did expand the project upon assuming power, under the leadership of Fritz Todt. The autobahns were not built to facilitate the movement of troops, as most of Germany’s war machines moved long distances by train or air. They were built as a public works project. Eisenhower, who had traveled across the United States by car and truck in the 1920s, was well aware of the need for a better road system there.
In the 1930s the US government began extensive studies of what eventually became the Interstate Highway System, as well as improvements to the existing US Highway System. As President, Eisenhower, no doubt recalling the months-long cross-country trip of the 1920s became a champion of the project, influenced by both General Motors and Standard Oil, both of which saw the benefits to their business models. Construction began in 1956. The original system was declared complete in 1992, after 35 years of work and more than $500 billion dollars spent. As the interstates grew America’s passenger and interurban rail systems faded. Large sections of the interstate system are functionally obsolete today, carrying traffic well beyond their design loads, especially on bridges across the country.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources: