11 Biggest Myths About American History

11 Biggest Myths About American History

In 2012 the American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned a study on historical literacy among college graduates, and the results were not encouraging. Americans have scarcely improved since a frightening 1999 poll that prompted a congressional resolution to overhaul higher education history requirements. (In 2012 almost two-thirds couldn't say how long a senator's term is.)

Basically, we're not getting better. And while debunking individual myths can't solve the problem, it's not a bad appetizer for anyone curious about our compelling (and often stymieing) history. Steering clear of petty trivialities like Washington's wooden teeth or Ben Franklin's sex life, here's a list of the 11 biggest myths in American history:

1. America Was Settled For Religious Freedom

Puritan reformers in England.

The grade-school textbook version of early New Englanders nearly always mentions religious freedom as their impetus to seek new lands. But while Puritans sought refuge from the Church of England’s oppression, they in turn oppressed all non-Protestants in the New World, including Puritans advocating separation of church and state, such as Rhode Island founder Roger Willams.

2. The American Revolution Pitted David Against Goliath

George Washington crossing the Delaware.

The American fight for independence seems to fit flawlessly into the “oppressed people shrugging off a tyrant” narrative. But while indictments like taxation without representation were unequivocally justified, the American colonies in 1776 were by no means weak.

Britain had administered America loosely — and with poor Parliamentary oversight —and such self-sufficiency had created both a strong colonial economy and a predilection for independence long before the war. As historian Theodore Draper pointed out in “A Struggle For Power,” the colonies had initially been populated by private trading companies, setting a firm foundation of self-interest above the crown. 

3. America's Founders Were Big Believers in People Power

James Madison, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. 

Just like us, the drafters of the Constitution feared special interest groups and factions. Hence James Madison’s famous line, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire.”

But the Founders were equally concerned about giving the vote directly to the individual. Responding to this fear, Article Three of the Constitution reserved the power to elect Senators (the higher house of Congress) for state legislators, taking it out of the hands of the general public.

Senators were not elected by voters until passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913. This may seem odd to readers who are pretty sure they’ve filled in the little circle next to their Senator’s name on the ballot before. People like us weren't always allowed to do it!

4. The Gilded Age in the Late 19th Century Was America’s Dark Age

Grover Cleveland, president from 1885-1889 and 1893-1897.

We all remember jokes from high school history (or is it just me?) about lazy, fat mustachioed Presidents after the Civil War who did nothing of consequence politically. The problem with this caricature is that it makes the entire period seem like a fuzzy, comical dead zone in which nothing much piled up besides economic inequality.

In reality, it saw steel’s mass manufacture, an explosion of technological innovation and the first evidence of America’s global economic power. 

5. Rural America Couldn't Keep Up With Its Urban Neighbors

The Populist Party in Lincoln, Nebraska, 1890.

Urban migration was all the rage in the late 19th century, but does that mean rural America couldn’t adapt to new economic realities? Not so — agricultural producers in the 1880s and ‘90s championed technological innovation and business-savvy organization to form one of the most successful non-mainstream political movements in American history.

The Farmer’s Alliance and other populist groups integrated new technology into harvesting, formed cooperatives to defend against crop price fluctuations and paved the way for progressive politicians like William Jennings Bryan, above. (If you dig this time period, check out Charles Postel’s Populist Vision.)

6. The Civil War Was a Moral Fight Over Slavery

A last attempt in the Senate to avert the Civil War.

We’re getting into murky waters here, so I’ll be brief.

It is a gross oversimplification to say the Civil War was the result of a moral imperative to end slavery. What else was going on? The South’s economy was inextricably tied to free labor, the Compromise of 1850 had promised that new states could decide on slavery, a population imbalance favored the North, and, to boot, Lincoln was elected without being on the ballot in many southern states. You do the math.

7. The Middle Class Was Born in the 1950s

Estey, founded in the late 19th century, became the largest manufacturer of organs in the United States.

It’s hard to deny the blossoming of America’s economy after WWII. But the creation of a middle class had begun three generations prior, in the late 19th century, as post-bellum industry carried the U.S. into a new level of international economic prowess. During the Second Industrial Revolution (loosely, 1870-1914) the price of consumer goods fell, overall wealth increased and access to education skyrocketed.

Recognizable middle class social indicators — an organ in the parlor, for example — became chic and expected for families that had escaped poverty.

8. America Was Isolationist Between the World Wars

U.S. Marine Corps in Nicaragua, in 1932, holding Sandino's flag.

In the 1920s and ‘30s America pat itself on the back for staying out of international conflict — and for the most part, the world bought it. But while we were abstaining from European squabbling, Latin America got the full brunt of our “Big Stick.”

Here’s the list of American military occupations during that time: Nicaragua, from 1912-33; Dominican Republic from 1916-24; Haiti, from 1915-1934. (And the runner-up goes to questionable involvement in the Mexican Revolution.)

9. Richard Nixon Was a Bit of an Environmentalist

Twenty thousand people gather in Philadelphia on the eve of Earth Day in 1970. 

Yes, Earth Day kicked off in 1970 under Nixon and, yes, he did establish the EPA that same year. But, he also sought political gains from these moves that never materialised and generally isn't considered much of an environmentalist. 

The modern environmentalist movement owes its origins to the conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and the Sierra Club’s John Muir. Furthermore — and eerily — the flower power Earth Day participants (20 million-large across the country) themselves were inheritors of the Earth-conscious existential panic that followed the atomic bomb in 1945.

10. The Gay Rights Movement Is Relatively New

Stonewall Riots.

With President Obama “evolving” on gay marriage, a handful of states legalizing the unions and the Defense of Marriage Act nearly kicked, the current perception is that gay rights is the contemporary civil rights movement.  

In a lot of ways, that’s true. But it’s also true that the modern gay rights movement was born in the 1950s alongside the modern civil rights fight. The Mattachine Society formed in 1950, advocating early on for equal rights, and in 1969 the movement gained national traction — and would never fade — after the bloody Stonewall Riots in New York City.

11. America Has Always Been "Exceptional"

An inescapable feature of American political jargon is the word “exceptional.” It’s a stump speech favorite, reflecting our constant need to reaffirm our greatness, because, you know, USA! USA!

But between 1980-2000, the term exceptional was used fewer than 500 times in national publications. By 2012 it had spiked to over 4,000, a spike largely pushed by the advent of Tea Partiers to the scene. Ironically, the term was coined by Joseph Stalin in reference to America’s proletariat being largely unwilling to join the communist movement sweeping Europe at the time.