I hope you all are having a great Fourth of July weekend. I know I am, which is why I’ve made this column a little more…streamlines than normal. I’m going to take a look at a few things in American history that even our teachers have gotten wrong due to the folklore and legends replacing the reality of what happened, and try and give you a factual account of certain things rather than the erroneous tidbits you picke dup in the slag heap that is our United States Educational System.
First, let’s cover the Fourth of July itself. Ever wonder why we chose 07-04-1776 for the birthday of the country? After all, New Englanders had been fighting the British for over a year at this point, April 1775 to be precise. The first Continental Congress of what would become the United States and made its first motion for independence on June 8th of that same year. Close to the July 4th date is July SECOND, 1776 when the Congress voted 12-0 (Unanimous!) to secede from England and form its independence.
So where does the Fourth of July come from? Well, it is because even though we voted on July 2nd, 1776, Congress still had to rewrite and approve the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. This important document was finished at 11am, July 4th, 1776, and then the Congress voted to adopt the document in the form that we now know it in.
HOWEVER, this approved version was the unsigned document, and the true Declaration of Independence complete with all its signatures, would not be finished until August 8th of that same year.
So truly, the 4th of July is one of many dates that could have been chosen for this event. In fact, Thomas Jefferson assumed America’s “birthday” would be celebrated on July SECOND, when the actual vote for independence occurred. But because July 4th is the actual date on the Declaration itself, that is the date we have since chosen to celebrate the holiday on.
Other little known facts and debunkings about the Fourth you might enjoy:
-The tradition of celebrating the birthday of America on July 5th when the 4th fell on a Sunday began all the way back in 1779.
-in 1781, Massachusetts became the first state whose legislature recognized Independence Day as a holiday.
-In 1870 Congress, voted for July 4th to become an unpaid Holiday for Federal employees.
– Other myths surrounding July 4th include John Trumbull’s famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which you can see here. This famous, historical meeting of all the founding fathers and signers of the document…never actually happened. Nope. Sorry. It’s all a tall tale whose legend sprang from this once fictionalized painting. The Declaration was not signed en masse. Yet our History teachers in the United States teach this painting as if it was done from life.
-Benjamin Franklin never said “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately”. Although ol’ Ben has a great deal of sayings he is famous for, this is one that was made up (although by who has been lost to time forever) and quoted to him, and it has stuck around ever since.
-The Liberty Bell was not rung on July 4th to symbolize independence, but was in fact wrung to tell those in Philadelphia on JULY 8TH, to gather the citizen to hear the reading of the document. As well, the Liberty Bell did not gain its crack this day as many believe, but it in fact cracked in March 1753, 24 years before the Declaration of Independence. This was also the very first day it was rung.
-As long as we’re on the Liberty Bell, the crack, which was in fact quite small at the time, was repaired in 1841 in honour of George Washington’s Birthday. However, when rung, it again cracked, this time however cracking from the top of the repaired crack all the way down to the crown of the bell, the disfigurement we all know and remember today.
Now that we’ve covered just a little bit of history about this date and why it is actually today that we Americans celebrate our country’s birth, let’s move on to other examples of US historical fallacies that we’ve been led to believe since childhood due to the mistake of fiction for fact.
I decided to focus on my own home state of Pennsylvania (mainly because I didn’t expect the stories I have chosen to write about to be so long…). As PA is the heart and soul of America history, it’s no surprise that a lot of false information and erroneous stories are about this city, as well as get their start here. A lot of this happens because Philadelphia, and other cities’ national treasures do not have plaques or historical markers. Instead the National Park Service relies on their staff to tell what makes these buildings and objects and piece of parchment so important. And because the guides often don’t know the history or facts of what they are speaking on, they accidentally (I hope!) give off false information about American history that is then taken away by tourists and related and regaled over and over again, until the falsity becomes more known that the truth.
One of these examples involves Valley Forge National park. Valley Forge is of course where the American Continental Army camped during the winter of 1777-78 during the Revolutionary War. This is one of the most myth filled places in American.
One of the first myths comes from how the National Park Service will tell guests and tourists about the horrid squalid conditions the men who encamped here had to suffer through. In fact here’s a clipping from the NPS brochure they hand out to visitors,
“Valley Forge is the story of an army’s epic struggle to survive against terrible odds, against hunger, disease, and the unrelenting forces of Nature.”
The truth is that the real struggle was between Washington’s Army and the Continental Congress mismanaging funds and complete apathy towards the army and the conditions they would be in. It’s also because many Pennsylvanian farmers at the time supported the British and not the Revolutionaries and thus sold their foodstuffs to the British who happily paid in cash.
So where did the shifting of the suffering shift from the real cause or the ineptitude of America’s Founding Fathers to blaming poor old Mother Nature? Well, in fact it was George Washington himself who caused this erroneous belief.
On February 16th, 1776, Washington wrote to the Continental Congress saying, “Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiers.”
Now, notice the date of this letter. It was written 18 MONTHS before Washington was even in Valley Forge. So why is this letter attributed to Valley Forge? We don’t know, however if you go to the National Park today, that very letter, complete with date is reproduced thanks to the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum. And you can even buy copies of it!
My personal theory, is this myth has been perpetrated, like so many others, because we Americans don’t want to admit we royally bungled constantly during the Revolutionary War and won by luck, not skill. Thus we want our people to grow up believing the Founding Fathers was moral, epic heroes, rather than humans complete with frailties like ourselves.
What’s really great is that if you watch the introductory film the park shows you, the narrator himself will state that the winter of 1777-78 was moderate and not harsh at all, and that the log huts were warm and well kept, not squalid and falling apart as the NPS would have you believe.
As well, the winter of 1779-80, if you check historical records was actually the worst in 100 years in New England, and when Washington and his troops spent that winter in what is now the Morristown, New Jersey National Historic Park, that was when they truly suffered. Yet, people equate Valley Forge with suffering, and Morristown with well…nothing at all.
I figure as long as we’re on Valley Forge we might as well cover another great myth about American folklore, and the reality is no doubt going to piss some people off, especially if they are religious.
One of America’s great legends about Valley Forge is about George Washington’s religious faith and the claim that he prayed to God for victory at Valley Forge. There has even been a Valley Forge Memorial Chapel built on the National Park grounds, in 1903, depicting George Washington and Jesus Christ in stained glass. It shows Washington kneeling in prayer to God and seeking his assistance.
The story and the image itself which was turned into stained glass (the original painting of which is in the Valley Forge Historical Museum) was started by an Episcopal Minister names Parson Weems, who wrote the first biography about Washington, which might as well have been placed on the fiction shelf the second the first book was published.
Weems was the creator of many outright falsehoods about Washington, from the famous Cherry Tree incident, to this prayer one. In fact, let me give you the text Weems wrote in 1804.
“In the winter of 1777, while Washington, with the American army, lay encamped at Valley Forge, a certain good old friend, of the respectable family of Potts, if I mistake not, has occasion to pass through the woods near headquarters. Treading his way along the venerable grove, suddenly, he heard the sound of a human voice, which, as he advanced, increased upon his ear; and at length became like the voice of one speaking in much earnest. As he approached the spot with a cautious step, whom should he behold, in a dark natural power of ancient oaks, but the commander in chief of the American armies on his knees in prayer! Motionless in surprise, friend Potts continued on the place till the general, having ended his devotion, arose; and with countenance of angelic serenity, retired to headquarters.”
Weems then added that Potts went home and told his wife about the entire encounter.
“Thee knows that I always thought that the sword and gospel were utterly inconsistent; and that no man could be a solider and a Christian at the same time. But George Washington has this day convinced me of my mistake. If George Washington be not a man of God, I am greatly deceived—and still more shall I be deceived, if God do not, through him, work out a great salvation for America.”
And of course, this story has been passed around for two hundred years becoming more and more embellished and even let set in reality. And practically every historian on the planet, from James Lowen to Paul Boller Jr, and give you a massive stream of documents to show you that in fact, this never happened.
These documents range from the fact Potts’ wife name keeps changing from Better to Martha to Sarah, to Potts even becoming a preacher sometime in the story. As well, Issac Potts, who was a Quaker Farmer during the Revolutionary War, and who ended up owning a home in Valley Forge was nowhere in the area in the winter of 1777. Texts and letters show Potts wasn’t even in the same bloody state!
But truth has never been able to stand up to a good emotionally rousing story, and so like Weem’s story about a cherry tree, so too has the myth of the Washington Prayer stood the test of time.
Besides the church they created in honour of this story in 1903 that I mentioned earlier, they also commissioned a postal stamp bearing this scene back in 1928.
This brings us to truly one of the biggest falsehoods of America history: The belief that all of our Founding Fathers were pious Christians. You see hardcore zealot Christians and extreme social conservatives trying to push this absolute myth as truth, and sadly many have taken it as fact. You’ll see it especially happen over things like school prayer or the recent Ten Commandments debacle the Supreme Court ruled on last week.
The truth is, and I’m sorry if this offends you, a good deal of the Founding Fathers, especially the more famous ones, were not Christians at all.
George Washington, for example, like most of the leaders of the American Revolution, was in fact, a Deist. For those of you unaware of what a Deist is, their belief system is amazingly simple. It is simply, the belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.
Washington was a firm believer than religion was an indispensable basis of morality, but he felt this was true of all religions, from his own Deism, to Christianity to Judaism. Historical records, including Washington’s own letters show that Washington did not believe in Christianity, did not pray, nor did he ever use the name of Jesus in public or in private settings. Washington did not take communion and in fact felt it was a silly concept. Historian Gordon Wood even points out in his book, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” that Washington believed in Freemasonry far more than any religion. This could be said about almost all the Founding Fathers as well, for to them, Freemasonry was akin to a surrogate religion.
Almost every historian who specializes in American history and especially Washington will tell you that the painting of George as a Christian is an out and out falsehood perpetrated by a man who wrote many tall tales about our First President in an attempt to turn him into a National Icon.
Washington was not the only Deist amongst the Founding Fathers. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were not Christian either and proudly counted Deism as their faith. Ben Franklin actually was a well known ANTI-Christian. He even wrote the following in regards to his feelings on Christianity,
“I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life I absented myself from Christian assemblies.”
Now the purpose of all this is not to bash Christians or Christianity. It’s to stop the falsehood we see painted by the uber fanatics who give this religion a bad name. To point out that in fact a portion of those that founded America were in no way shape or form Christian, even though almost all of us have heard the lie that it is in fact so, even though it is amazingly easy to find documents showing the large amount of atheists and Deists in the Founding fathers.
The reason Fundamentalists spread these outright lies is because they WANT to misrepresent Washington and the Founders as devout Christians so they can blame concepts like Activist Judges, the Supreme Court, Arab fanatics, and political leaders as proof America has “fallen from grace” and their “Christian roots.” It is true America’s first European settlers were the Pilgrims, who were religious Prudes, but it is not true in any way shape or form that America was founded by Christians to be a Christian nation, and that in fact the use of God at all in early documents refers to Deism, not Jehovah.
This is what makes the Religious Right so creepy, in that they can espouse the founders of America with high praise, and then attack non-Christians and Agnostics in the same breath. Because these same religious fanatics who attempt to control their flocks through fear and subjugation KNOW America was steeped in just as much Deism and Freemansonry as it was Christianity, if not more. Thankfully there’s a lot of intelligent and rational thinking Christians who don’t fall for the lies and the fear. More power to them.
And of course, now I’ve gone off on a rant against the Religious Right and how they’re painted over history will the sole intent of falsifying this country’s history to promote their own social agenda. But hey, at least YOU the readers now know the truth and reality behind just 4 of the men who founded America, and hopefully that will inspire you to learn more about just what principles and beliefs America was truly based on.
And I’m afraid I have no plugs or recipe this week, as I’d like to get back to the remaining time of my 4 day weekend, as I won’t be having one of those for quite some time. Yes people, this is me slacking: 6 pages of American Folklore. I’ll see you next week with something decidedly darker and spookier to make you all happy happy again.