Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Use of Myth in History

 Several days ago when I was looking through an old issue of the Colonial Williamsburg magazine I came across an article entitled The Use of Myth in History: Many Myths Are Designed To Explain Us As We Wish To See Ourselves. I was very intrigued so I read on. The article, written by journalist Gil Klein, and was all about the myths created about American history that have become widely accepted and just as good as truth. This was the most interesting article I have read in a long time. Indeed, I had no idea that Patrick Henry's famous line "Give me liberty or give me death!" is only something written by a 19th century orator and attributed to Henry, or that there is no written record that tells the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, or that Pocahontas did not definitely save John Smith from death, although she did have a part in the settling of Jamestown.
   I am infatuated with history in general and so this article fascinated me. Most of these myths are based on truth, but they have been embellished to make them more exciting and romantic, mostly by historians in the early 1800s. Author and historian Ray Raphael said:
  "About twenty years had to go by before people could forget how ugly the Revolutionary War was. As pressure built toward the War of 1812, people saw a need to develop in the younger generation a pride in their revolutionary heritage. They knew this experiment in republican government needed people who believe in it and are willing to defend it."
  In 1790, Noah Webster wrote that "every child in America, 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."


   (Excerpts taken from the article)
"Henry's "Liberty or Death" became a slogan useful in situations where action is summoned to defeat perceived tyranny. But the historical fact is that though Henry did speak forcefully on that March day to spur the convention to action, we have no reliable record of what exactly he said.
 The speech children have memorized for almost two centuries was committed to paper in 1817 by William Wirt, forty-two years after the event, in his biography of Henry. It was based on the recollection- not notes- of someone who had been there, Williamsburg's St. George Tucker. Wirt, who became attorney general of the United States, was himself and orator, but his best-known speech he took from Tucker and put in Henry's mouth.
 Indeed, around the time Wirt wrote about Henry, amateur historians were crafting tales of the American Revolution as well as of the colonial era that were designed less to capture the facts than to create a founding myth for the young republic.
  In view of professional historians, these myths should be punctured. But historians do so at their peril. The myths are more beloved than the cold facts, and they are hard to kill. Many of them are designed to explain us as we wish to see ourselves. They establish the national character and set the standard for coming generations...."

 "Most American myths are based on historical fact. Patrick Henry did give a rousing speech to inspire the Virginia Convention to create a militia. The Pilgrims did settle Plymouth. An Indian girl by the name of Pocahontas was a figure in the settling of Jamestown. Paul Revere did ride into the Massachusetts countryside to warn that British soldiers were coming. Washington did try to live a virtuous life, though, cherry tree or not, he probably told a few lies.
  The writers of these tales took kernels of truth and embellished them, made them sound more romantic and uplifting than perhaps they were, and drove home a moral message designed to educate and inspire a new generation."

  I found it extremely interesting, I hope you do too! The article was in the Summer 2012 issue of Colonial Williamsburg magazine, if you're interested in reading the entire thing.

What do you think of the use of myth in history?

1 comment:

  1. Intriguing! My parents get that magazine, and I've read a few issues -- always very interesting reading.


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