Introduction: Inventing a Past
When settlers from across the Atlantic arrived on the east coast of North America, they felt they were on uncharted territory. From the Old World they imported the traditions that defined them as a people, since the New World, a blank slate, appeared to have no history of its own.
Slowly, over more than a century-and-a-half, colonists developed local, homegrown histories. These remained separate and distinct until suddenly, with one cataclysmic event, they merged. The Revolutionary War provided Americans with shared stories of a common past. This past, ever since, has served the interest of nation building. For more than two centuries, the oft-repeated story of how the United States achieved its independence has bound Americans together.
All nations like to celebrate their origins, but the birth of our nation makes a particularly compelling story. The United States has a clearly defined “founding,” the work of a single generation. Most nations are not so fortunate. The story of Britain’s founding would have to cover centuries and include the Norman invasion (1066), the Magna Charta (1215), the Glorious Revolution (1688), and the Act of Union (1707). China’s founding would include the rise of ancient dynasties, the nationalist Revolution in 1911, and the Communist Revolution in 1949 — too much to tell in a simple story. Mexico has only two founding moments, independence in 1821 and the Revolution in the early twentieth century, but these were separated by ninety years. Canada eased into nationhood so gracefully that it hardly has a story to tell.
Our story, by contrast, is simple yet grand. Its plot line is easy to follow: American colonists resisted British oppression, fought a war, achieved independence, and established their own government. Within this straightforward structure we can embellish as we please, but the story line itself is clean and efficient. It gets the job done. It establishes a separate identity for the American people.
How we choose to tell this story helps define our nation. Daily, politicians invoke “our Founders” in support of some cause totally foreign to the American experience of the late 18th century. They place the past — more precisely, a past they imagine — in service of a political present.
Stories of the American Revolution were first communicated by word of mouth, and these folkloric renditions, infinitely malleable, provided fertile grounds for the invention of history. Before the Revolution, angry and animated colonists gathered in taverns and meeting houses to rail against acts of Parliament; after the fighting was done, this same crew downed pint after pint of hard cider while exchanging old war stories. For decades, men and women of the Early Republic told and retold what had happened, augmenting and enriching their skeletal memories of actual events, removing what was too painful to recall (no shortage there) while embellishing what could be seen as heroic (no shortage there either). At funerals or Fourth of July celebrations, orators used tales of the Revolution as grist for their rhetoric. While audiences applauded and critics ranked their performances, these civic preachers competed in the art and sport of patriotic expression. This vibrant oral tradition helped produce a history that was detailed but unfettered. Divested of any need for documentation, it went freely wherever it wanted.
The visual arts, like the oral tradition, gave the past a place in the present. Both during and after the Revolution, engravings and lithographs depicted the major events to popular audiences. More pliable than photography, these artistic forms allowed for leeway in interpretation. In the early nineteenth century, grandiose Romantic paintings offered indelible images of battles and key political proceedings. Subsequent generations, viewing reproductions in popular histories and textbooks, used these images to help shape a collective “memory” of the Revolution. Set to canvas long after the war had ended, they became national icons. Today, the two most dominant visual reflections of the American Revolution are John Trumbull’s 1818 painting, The Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776, and Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 masterpiece, Washington Crossing the Delaware — even though there was no ceremonial signing of the Declaration on July 4, and the flag displayed prominently in Washington’s boat had not yet been created.
Oral tradition and artistic imagination filled in the blanks left by incomplete and selective documentation. Although a handful of exceptionally literate men bequeathed volume after volume of declarations, letters, diaries, and memoirs, these writings emanated from a very small segment of the population, unrepresentative of the whole. Many of these first-person accounts were set to paper decades after-the-fact. Because of skewed sampling, personal bias, and the effects of time on memory, they cannot always be accepted at face value.
Selective written sources, rich but loose oral and visual traditions, and the intrusion of politics and ideology — these have presented open invitations to the historical imagination. Creatively, if not accurately, we have fashioned a past we would like to have had.
Fiction parted from fact at the very beginning. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, embarked on writing a history of the conflict. Privy to insider information, Thomson had much to reveal — but then, surprisingly, he gave the history up. “I shall not undeceive future generations,” he later explained. “I could not tell the truth without giving great offense. Let the world admire our patriots and heroes.”
Since people like Mr. Thomson chose not to tell the truth, what might they tell instead? In 1790 Noah Webster provided an answer: “Every child in America,” said the dean of the Anglo-American language, “as soon as he opens his lips, … should rehearse the history of his country; he should lisp the praise of Liberty and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen who have wrought a revolution in his favor.”
So the romance began. Starting in the decades following the Revolution and continuing through much of the nineteenth century, writers and orators concealed the naked truth of a bloody civil war behind glamorous tales conjured from mere shreds of evidence. We still tell these classics today — Paul Revere’s ride, “give me liberty or give me death,” the shot heard round the world at Lexington and Concord — and we assume they are true representations of actual occurrences. Mere frequency of repetition appears to confirm their authenticity.
Our confidence is misplaced. In fact, most were created up to one hundred years after the events they supposedly depict. Paul Revere was known only in local circles until 1861, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made him immortal by distorting every detail of his now-famous ride. Patrick Henry’s “liberty or death” speech first appeared in print, under mysterious circumstances, in 1817, forty-two years after he supposedly uttered those words. The “shot heard round the world” did not become known by that name until 1836, sixty-one years after it was fired.
The list goes on. Samual Adams, our most beloved rabble-rouser, languished in obscurity through the first half of the nineteenth century, only to be resurrected as the mastermind of the Revolution three-quarters of a century after-the-fact. Thomas Jefferson was not seen as the architect of American “equality” until Abraham Lincoln assigned him that role, four score and seven years later. The winter at Valley Forge remained uncelebrated for the first thirty years. Textbooks did not begin featuring “do not fire till you see the whites of their eyes” until after the Civil War. Molly Pitcher, the Revolutionary heroine whose picture adorns most elementary and middle-school textbooks today, is a complete fabrication. Molly did not acquire her legendary name until seventy years after the war, and her story was not associated with a real-life person until thirty years after that, during the centennial celebration in 1876.
These stories, invented long ago, persist in our textbooks and popular histories despite advances in recent scholarship that disprove their authenticity. One popular schoolbook includes all but two of the tales exposed in this book, and several of the stories, still taken as gospel, are featured in all modern texts.
Why do we continue to believe these yarns? There are three reasons, thoroughly intertwined: they give us a collective identity, they make good stories, and we think they are patriotic.
We Americans like to hear stories of our nation’s beginnings. They help define us as a people. This “we” is a manufactured construct, created in part by the stories we share. This use of the first-person plural is more than just a linguistic convenience — it pinpoints the way we really think. We are history’s protagonists. Few Americans read about the Revolutionary War or World War II without identifying with our side. George Washington, we are told in a myriad of ways, is the father of our country, whether our forebears came from England, Poland, or Vietnam.
Like rumors, the tales are too good not to be told. They are carefully crafted to fit a time-tested mold. Successful stories feature heroes or heroines, clear plot lines, and happy endings. Good does battle against evil, David beats Goliath, and wise men prevail over fools. Stories of our nation’s founding mesh well with these narrative forms. American revolutionaries, they say, were better and wiser than decadent Europeans. Outnumbered colonists overcame a Goliath, the mightiest empire on earth. Good prevailed over evil, and the war ended happily with the birth of the United States. Even if they don’t tell true history, these imaginings work as stories. Much of what we think of as “history” is driven not by facts but by these narrative demands.
This invented past, anointed as “patriotic,” paints a flattering self-portrait of our nation. We pose before the mirror in our finest attire. By gazing upon the Revolution’s gallant heroes, we celebrate what we think it means to be an American. We make our country perfect — if not now, at least in the mythic past — and through the comforting thought of an ideal America, we fix our bearings. We feel more secure in the confused and changing world of today if we can draw upon an honored tradition.
But is this really “patriotism”? Only from a narrow and outdated perspective can we see it that way. While espousing good citizenship, our invented past leads in quite the opposite direction. Nominally, it encourages us to act heroically; in fact, it takes away our power. It belittles popular sovereignty, the revolutionary spirit that propelled Americans to independence. It leaves us in awe of superhuman stars. It encourages us to follow leaders who ostensibly know more than we do. It discourages ordinary citizens from acting in their own behalf. It promotes a passive nostalgia for an irretrievable past. It touts militarism and glorifies war.
Perhaps, if we examine more closely who we were, who we are, and who we want to be, we can do better than this. We do not have to be confined to such a limiting self-portrait. Our nation was a collaborative creation, the work of hundreds of thousands of dedicated patriots — yet we exclude most of these people from history by repeating the traditional tales. Worse yet, we distort the very nature of their monumental project. The United States was founded not by isolate acts of individual heroism but by the concerted revolutionary activities of people who had learned the power of working together. This rich and very democratic heritage remains untapped precisely because its story is too big, not too small. It transcends the artificial constraints of traditional story-telling. Its heroes are too many to contain, and its patriotism is too strong, too real, to be reduced to simple morality tales. This sprawling story needs to be told — but our invented past, neat and tidy, has hidden it from view.
Our stories of national creation reflect the romantic individualism of the nineteenth century, and they sell our country short. They are strangely out-of-sync with both the communitarian ideals of Revolutionary America and the democratic values of today. The image of a perfect America in a mythic past hides our Revolutionary roots, and this we do not need. The notion of popular sovereignty, by contrast, is more appropriate for the twenty-first century. People can seize control of their own political destinies — the American Revolution serves as a case in point, a model for all time. “Government has now devolved upon the people,” wrote one disgruntled Tory in 1774, “and they seem to be for using it.” That’s a story we do not have to conjure, and what an epic it is.