Historian's new TV series tears apart America's revered founding myths
Lucy Worsley presents American History’s Biggest Fibs, starting on BBC4 tonight at 9pm
“History,” said Winston Churchill, “is written by the victors.” The trouble is, victors have a tendency to embellish, exaggerate, distort and, if all else fails, make things up.
There are lots of distortions — and one glaring example of complete fiction being accepted as hard fact — in Lucy Worsley’s engaging new three-part series American History’s Biggest Fibs, which entertainingly pulls asunder the beliefs many Americans fondly hold about their history.
It’s a timely series, arriving as it does halfway through the term of a US president, who lies more often than he draws breath.
In tonight’s first episode, Worsley aims her myth-shattering musket at the American Revolution, which has been distilled over the centuries into “a David and Goliath story” full of “high ideals and heroism”.
David is plucky America, rising up in revolt against the tyrannical colonial Goliath of Britain. “How much of the founding story is actually founded on fact?” asks Worsley.
Put it this way: the accepted account of the country’s successful fight for independence — swallowed unquestioningly by generations of Americans and celebrated every 4th of July — isn’t so much a tissue of lies, as a thick, woolly comfort blanket embroidered with the stars and stripes.
“History supersizes the truth,” says Worsley, “and sometimes comes with a side order of fibs.”
That’s lies to you and me.
One of the biggest porkies is that the patriots leading the long fight against Britain’s oppression and punitive taxes were the ordinary farmers, who formed themselves into militias. But the really heavy lifting was done by the Continental Army, a proper, organised military force, led by General George Washington.
As soon as the war was over, the army was disbanded, since the authorities feared a military coup. An unfortunate legacy, however, was that the infamous “right to bear arms” became enshrined in the US Constitution.
Oh, and let’s not forget that the French helped too, even if most Americans seem to have forgotten (or didn’t know to begin with).
The “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, as some Americans love to call them (the line comes from an episode of The Simpsons), smuggled arms into America and became its official ally. They wanted revenge on Britain for taking away their colonies.
A lot of this, says Worsley, was conveniently pushed into the background of official American history, as was the fact that, up to mid-1775, the year the war began, the majority of Americans were actually opposed to independence.
The myth-making really began in the 19th century, when fact, half-truths and fiction began to be woven together. Eighty-five years after the War of Independence ended, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Paul Revere’s Ride, celebrating craftsman Paul Revere, who’s, well, revered, as the lone rider who galloped through the night to Lexington and Concord to warn the militia British troops were coming.
Unfortunately, it’s a little short on truth. Revere did undertake a ride, but he was accompanied by a second rider, a Mr Dawes. He never made it to Concord (he was captured by the British), so it was a third rider, setting out from Lexington, who raised the alarm.
Still, at least it’s rooted in reality. The story of the heroic Molly Pitcher, on the other, hand is codswallop.
Molly was supposedly carrying water to the soldiers on the battlefield when she witnessed her husband’s death. She immediately took control of his cannon and bravely began firing at the British.
Molly never existed. She was made up by novelist George Lippard, who normally wrote garish Gothic novels full of debauchery, but decided to give historical fiction a go. And yet, to this day, her “true” story is still featured in school history books in the US.
Henry Ford surely had a point when he said “most history is bunk”.
AMERICAN HISTORY’S BIGGEST FIBS STARTS ON BBC4 TONIGHT AT 9PM XXXX