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Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past

Ray Raphael

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September, 2004.

The book Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past represents an attempt to contextualize many of the revolutionary stories that have been told in honor of the American tradition. It covers many of the tales that have now been considered factual and traces their lineage back to their true birth and significance at the time of their occurrence. Though these tales have proven to be important in fostering the American patriotic spirit, Raphael emphasizes that they might have had different effects in the past or may even have been embellished throughout the years since the actual occurrence of the events. Using a mixture of topical and narrative forms, Raphael has written a book that has the potential to revolutionize the way informed Americans view the traditional stories of the United States. It offers a new and more accurate perspective from which to view these stories, and ultimately highlights the importance of culture in the American society.

Raphael separates his stories under the thematic topics “Heroes and Heroines,” “David and Goliath,” Wise Men,” Doing Battle,” “Good and Evil,” and “Happy Endings.” Then by way of narrative, he uncovers the truth about stories that concern the heroes and heroines of the United States, such as Paul Revere, Molly Pitcher, and Sam Adams. These persons are shown to have lived different lives in actuality and played roles in history different from the ones that have been passed down in the historical volumes. Paul Revere is shown to have played only a minor role in history, being only one of many who were heralding the coming of the British. In fact, according to Raphael, Revere’s role would have continued to be minor had not Henry Wadsworth Longfellow popularized him in his famous poem. In addition, Molly Pitcher is shown to have been a fictional character altogether, despite the detail with which she is described in history. Raphael asserts that it was several decades after the war that the idea of Pitcher was even conceived and even then, she was not given a real place in history for thirty more years. Raphael notes that she might represent an “everywoman” made from bits and pieces of several women who helped during the American Revolutionary War.

“David and Goliath,” “Doing Battle” and “Wise Men” stories like those of the Declaration of Independence, “the shot heard round the world” and the winter spent at Valley Forge are also revealed to contain a certain amount of mythology and invention. That famous Winter was not even recognized during the first thirty years after the “event” took place, and it took over six decades for the famous Shot (heard round the world) to begin resounding by that particular name. Raphael also dispels myths concerning the stories of the Founding Fathers of America and the Declaration of Independence. He explains that several other declarations were penned before Jefferson sat down to write his famous one. Raphael even gives evidence that shows that the American Revolution began in 1774.

Raphael emphasizes that because many of the stories that are now known in history were actually written down many decades after the occurrence of the events, oral history and tradition has had time to embellish and adjust them to make them more dramatic and memorable. In fact, in “Good and Evil” and “Happy Endings” Raphael highlights that some stories that portrayed the honor of Americans were falsified. Americans did display ruthlessness in their dealings with the British and the Native Americans during the Revolutionary War, and the slaves were often promised freedom if they aided the Americans against the British. Yet these promises were usually broken. Furthermore, Raphael explains that such stories as the Battle at Yorktown and the March of the American People were given more favorable endings in historical records than were actually the case.

The scope of Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past is immense because it deals in so much detail with such a large number of the most celebrated stories in American History. The vast amount of research that went into the writing of this book is evident in the details that Raphael provides concerning the reasons for certain historical actions. For example, Raphael cites Congress’s funding problems as the real reason behind the difficulty of the winter spent at Valley Forge. The accuracy with which Raphael rummages through history and correlates the dates and reasons behind certain occurrences also adds credibility to his text. He searches out adjacent occurrences and makes connections that previous historians had either overlooked or purposefully ignored. Further aiding his credibility as a historian is his references to primary sources or to other respected works that parallel his or from which he gained information to support his own findings.

Another aspect of the text that gives it authenticity, makes it interesting, and widens its scope is Raphael’s explanations for the formation and endurance of these stories in history. They constitute an anthropological discussion of the culture of the American people. He deals with oral traditions—how people in taverns and social gatherings spoke first of their grievances and encouraged each other to take action. He then writes of how these same persons, after the battles, congregated again at taverns to tell and retell stories. Raphael explains that it was in this manner that history was written for many generations, and his explanation makes it more understandable how history might have been distorted for a particular (usually patriotic) effect. He mentions the omission of unfavorable details and the inclusion and embellishment of the favorable and heroic ones. This account of people displaying the traits of human nature resonates with the reader and makes it convincing (and understandable) that some of these stories might well have been fabricated. Yet this book by Raphael also serves to highlight the importance of these oral traditions that seem to exist within all human cultures.

Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past was written for the average informed American who had been exposed to these stories in history or social studies classes while growing up. Though some might consider the text to be biased, evidence does exist that a large amount of research went into it. The sources used by the author appear to be at least as credible as those used by other historians. Furthermore, considering that Raphael attempts a removal of his work from the normal patriotic biases and emotions usually associated with these stories, this work might be considered even more credible and unbiased than other historical works. Another aspect that adds to the relative credibility of this text is the fact that Raphael tries as much as possible to base his work on primary evidence rather than secondary. Yet, the fact that much of the evidence that was available to him (or any other historian) happened to be secondary stood in favor of his theory that a lot of what are considered historical American stories are in fact likely to contain many mythical elements.

In writing Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past, Raphael’s aim was to expose the areas in which many of the upheld American stories contained fabricated material. In demonstrating the incongruity of certain aspects of these stories, Raphael has been able to offer a cogent argument for the mythology of many of these stories. Though the evidence for some of his points proved to be elusive, enough existed to demonstrate that questions do exist about the details and significance of the actual events. It is clear through the evidence Raphael gives that Americans have reason to doubt the truth or actuality of some of the stories that have been passed down through generations. Yet, Raphael did not set out to reduce the importance of these myths, and he succeeded in increasing regard for the oral traditions that most likely resulted in the formulation of these stories. He points out that these traditions that have contributed to the American spirit, though not strictly scientific, do have merit.

Work Cited

Raphael, Ray. Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past. New York: The New Press,           2004.

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