American history myths: 7 things people get wrong

From the Salem witches who were burnt at the stake to the Declaration of Independence signed on the ‘Fourth of July’, American history is full of misconceptions and mistakes. Here, author Jem Duducu busts some of the biggest myths and separates fact from fiction…

A painting depicting George Washington with British soldiers at Yorktown. In the final battle of the war at the siege of Yorktown, writes Jem Duducu, there were nearlyas many French soldiers and sailors as American rebels fighting for colonial independence. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
1

Witches were burnt in the Salem witch trials

The Salem witch trials, which took place in Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, saw more than 200 people accused of practicing witchcraft and 20 executed. More than 300 years later, Salem remains one of the most fascinating and best-known witch trials in history.

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Yet in reality, the witch trials in Salem were neither uniquely American nor involved great numbers. For real paranoia about witches, we need to look to Europe in the 1600s, when thousands of people were accused of black magic, witchcraft and cavorting with Satan, and hundreds were executed.

A depiction of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776, from a painting by John Trumbull. The men standing are (l to r) John Adams, Roger Sherman Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

The numbers involved in the Salem trials were tiny compared to those in Europe. Furthermore, the guilty weren’t burnt at the stake. In fact, nobody was burnt at the stake (this was a form of religious execution reserved for heretics). The official death count for the Salem witch trials is 20: some 19 were hanged, and one person was tortured to death. Four other people died in prison from abuse and poor conditions while awaiting trial. Also, contrary to popular belief, those accused of witchcraft were not exclusively female. More than 200 people were accused, and while the vast majority were women, some men were executed too.

So, the only safe conclusion to this whole sorry episode is that virtually everything that is generally accepted about the Salem witch trials is factually wrong.

A depiction of the trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
A depiction of the trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
2

The USA was founded on the Fourth of July 1776

The choice of 4 July 1776 as the official date for the founding of America is completely random. Even a cursory glance at the evidence suggests any one of a number of dates could have been chosen – and for better reasons.

Firstly, 4 July 1776 was not the start of the War of Independence, as fighting between the colonial rebels and British forces had already been underway for about a year. Secondly, the idea that the colonies could be independent predated 1776 by decades, and the Declaration of Independence wasn’t even the first declaration to be passed that month – that was the Lee Resolution for Independence, unanimously passed by committee on 2 July 1776.

Early American patriotic flag. (Visions of America/UIG via Getty images)

Thirdly, the signing of the Declaration of Independence was, of course, the key event, but it didn’t happen in the way that most people imagine. The final version of the Declaration was committed to paper, adopted by the Continental Congress and signed by John Hancock, president of the Congress, on 4 July 1776; however, it took months to get the remaining 56 of the required signatures. While there is much debate over who was where on ‘the Fourth’, historians agree that there is no way all 56 members of the congress were in the same room at the same time, ready to sign on the same day (despite what John Trumbull’s 1818 painting of the event purports to show).

Finally, the Declaration changed nothing on the ground. The war raged until 1781, with the first few years after 1776 going very badly for the rebels. Peace wasn’t finally agreed (with Britain recognising America as an independent country) until 1783.

A depiction of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776, from a painting by John Trumbull. The men standing are (l to r) John Adams, Roger Sherman Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
A depiction of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776, from a painting by John Trumbull. The men standing are (l to r) John Adams, Roger Sherman Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
3

Brave rebels fought the cruel British in the War of Independence

The American Revolutionary War (1775–83) began when representatives from 13 North American colonies of the kingdom of Great Britain sought more autonomy within the British Empire. The rhetoric of the revolution presents the Americans as staunch defenders of liberty and the British as a threat to that liberty – according to accusations made in the Declaration of Independence, George III was determined to create an authoritarian system in the colonies.

In reality, however, many of the battles fought during the War of Independence involved colonists fighting on both sides; it was not an American-versus-British affair exclusively. Indeed, some 100,000 colonists left America for British-ruled Canada at the end of the war because they felt more of an affinity for the old country than the new one.

The British, then under the Germanic Georgian dynasty, used Hessian (German) mercenaries, who were feared and loathed much more than British soldiers. The famous horror story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) by the American author Washington Irving features a headless horseman said to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannon ball during theWar of Independence.

Then there were the French. In the final battle of the war at the siege of Yorktown [aka the battle of Yorktown, a decisive Franco-American victory ending on 19 October 1781], there were nearly as many French soldiers and sailors as American rebels fighting for colonial independence. Quite simply, the rebels could not have won either the battle or the war without French money, ships, weapons and troops.

A portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1806. (Photo by IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo)

It’s also worth clearing up another pervading myth about the War of Independence: according to legend, one night in 1775 Paul Revere, an American silversmith and patriot in the American Revolution, set out on horseback to spread the word that the British were approaching. According to the poem ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’, published in 1861 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Revere rode from town to town across Boston declaring, rather dramatically, “The British are coming!”

In reality, however, because he was travelling undercover, Revere wouldn’t have been shouting anything. And we know he wouldn’t have said “The British are coming” because in the 1770s most people in the colonies felt closely connected to Britain, so it was not yet an ‘us or them’ situation.

4

Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered as America’s third president

Author of the Declaration of Independence; a founding father of the United States; and the country’s third president, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), was good at many things. He mastered a number of disciplines including philosophy, mathematics, horticulture and architecture. He spent 40 years erecting, destroying and redesigning the rooms of his Monticello estate – some of its rooms are octagonal because he found the shape pleasing.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
A portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Jefferson was also a voracious reader and collector of books. Back in the early 19th century, a collection of 100 books would have been seen as quite an expansive (and expensive) library. In 1815, Jefferson sold his collection of a whopping 6,487 books to the Library of Congress for $23,950.

Despite his anti-slavery credentials, Jefferson was, like most of the landed gentry of his day, a slave owner. Historians have traditionally portrayed him as a benevolent master, but that legacy has come under scrutiny and remains controversial.

Jefferson was a true overachiever and left instructions that his tombstone should read as follows: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.”

Jefferson was justifiably proud of his many accomplishments, but what’s not on there is ‘third president of the United States of America’.

US president Barack Obama waves as he walks towards the Marine One prior to his departure from the White House. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
5

John Quincy Adams was a serious and sensible president

It’s easy to look at the serious face of John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), sixth president of the United States (from 1825 to 1829) and assume from the portraits that he was humourless. However, despite his often-dour demeanour, Adams was in fact a colourful character who did some pretty unusual things.

For example, he got up every morning at 5am to swim the Potomac River, naked. He once charged the government $61 for a pool table at the White House, which was so mocked as a sign of his aristocratic tastes that he had to reimburse the treasury. He also kept a ‘pet’ alligator in a bath in the East Wing of the White House and enjoyed scaring guests when showing them around. You could say he had a pretty snappy sense of humour (sorry).

An official portrait of US president John Quincy Adams by George PA Healy. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
An official portrait of US president John Quincy Adams by George PA Healy. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

As strange as all this sounds, there is an even more unusual story associated with John Quincy Adams: in 1818, Adams became excited about an idea put forward by American officer Captain John Cleves Symmes that “the earth is hollow, and habitable within”. Symmes published articles and went on speaking tours, building on his original idea to later include “mole people” who supposedly inhabited the interior of the earth.

Unbelievably, John Quincy Adams put together the funding for an expedition to the Arctic Circle where it was proposed that a hole be drilled that would lead to the earth’s interior. There, Adams thought, they would find these “mole people”. Thankfully for Adams’s reputation, the expedition never went ahead.

Despite the entertaining anecdotes, it should be pointedout that John Quincy Adams was one of the presidents who was staunchly anti-slavery (many of the previous presidents had owned slaves and James Monroe even brought some to the White House). It is not a misconception to say that Adams fought tirelessly to end the scourge of slavery – a most serious and sensible legacy.

President Richard M Nixon. (Photo by Getty Images)
6

The Gettysburg Address was an instant classic

The Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia was just under 100 miles from the US capital of Washington DC, and both cities would see numerous bloody battles during the American Civil War. Tens of thousands on both sides were killed or wounded at the battle of Gettysburg (1–3 July, 1863), but the battle stopped Confederate attempts to invade the north. It was seen as the beginning of the end of both the war and the Confederate war machine, but it had been achieved at a terrible price.

On 19 November 1863, a crowd gathered to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Everyone had come to see Edward Everett, one of the great public speakers of the age, give an appropriately dramatic speech. They weren’t disappointed; it was a two-hour tour de force.

A portrait of Abraham Lincoln

When President Lincoln got up to make “a few appropriate remarks” he spoke for only a few minutes, and the significance of what he said was largely lost on the crowd in front of him. However, once his words had been printed and distributed, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was destined to become one of the greatest speeches in history. Here it is in all its simple glory:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

“We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

A photo of Abraham Lincoln (centre, bareheaded) giving the Gettysburg Address in 1863. (Picture by Bettmann/Getty Images)
A photo of Abraham Lincoln (centre, bareheaded) giving the Gettysburg Address in 1863. (Picture by Bettmann/Getty Images)

“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather tobe dedicated here to the unfinished work which theywho fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Everett’s speech is now forgotten, but what Lincoln did in around 250 words explained the stakes of a civil war, honoured the war dead and stiffened the resolve of the people who were living through what was arguably the bloodiest period in American history.

The White House, Washington DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

7

President Grover Cleveland never told a lie

Grover Cleveland, America’s 22nd and 24th president (1885–89 and 1893–97), was regarded as a very honest man and a president who never knowingly told a lie. But he began his second term of office by concealing important personal information from the nation. As lies go, it was a whopper.

What started as a bump on the roof of his mouth grew larger, andthe president was diagnosed with cancer. Cleveland feared that if it became common knowledge that he had a tumour in his head, it could cause political and financial chaos in the country, so he did what many politicians would do: he covered it up. It is, however, the scale of his deception that was downright ingenious. He told a few people but excluded his own vice president, Adlai Stevenson.

Cleveland’s cover story for the tumour’s removal was a four-day ‘fishing trip’, but ‘the crew’ actually consisted of six of the best surgeons in America. They wanted Cleveland to shave off his moustache so they could go in just below the nose, but Cleveland feared that if his signature moustache was defaced people would realise something was wrong, so the operation (which really did take place on a yacht) was conducted through the roof of his mouth. Four days was the minimum time to convalesce.

Incredibly, the operation was a complete success. Today’s oral surgeons have pronounced the surgery to be nothing short of miraculous. Cleveland made a full recovery, the general population was none the wiser, and perhaps most importantly (for Cleveland), the moustache remained luxurious and intact.

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Jem Duducu is the author of The American Presidents in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2016) and the host of NEON podcasts.