Founding Myths

Founding Myths


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Americans, from the beginning, were both democrats and bullies. Despite the hesitancy of elites, most patriots

at the time of our nation’s birth believed people should govern themselves, and that is why they threw

off British rule. They also believed they had the right, even the obligation, to impose their will on people they

deemed inferior. These two core beliefs are key to understanding American history and the American character



Books by Ray Raphael


Founding Myths / A People’s History of the American Revolution  / Cash Crop: An American Dream  /


Little White Father: Redick McKee on the California Frontier / An Everyday History of Somewhere / Edges:  Back Country Lives


The Men from the Boys: Rites of Passage in Male America / More Tree Talk


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Founding Myths

Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past

By Ray Raphael


Question. One of the American Revolution’s most cherished myths is that of the patriotic slave. I suppose we have the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot to thank for perpetuating that myth, particularly the scene when someone reads a fictional order from George Washington that “All bound slaves who give minimum one year service in the Continental Army will be granted freedom and be paid a bounty of five shillings for each month of service.” Your comment is, “The document . . . which is seen on screen and appears visually authentic, contains more historical errors in a single sentence that at first seems possible.” Could you briefly enumerate them for us?

Answer: First, George Washington regarded the presence of slaves in the Continental Army as a total embarrassment, and he did everything in his power to keep them out. One week after assuming command, he ordered that no “stroller, negro, or vagabond” be allowed to enlist.

The British Army was much more welcoming. Four months after Washington’s decree, the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to all slaves who left their masters and fought against the patriots. Over the course of the war, tens of thousands of slaves fled to the British in search of their freedom, including at least 20 men and women enslaved to George Washington.

Next, even if Washington had wanted to enlist slaves, he never would have offered them freedom for only one year of service. He insisted on longer enlistments, three years or the duration of the war. Had he promised freedom in return for such a short term, his recruiting officers would have been instantly overwhelmed, and the Continental Army would have become predominantly black.

Further, who would have compensated the masters? To seize “property” from patriotic slave owners without compensation was unthinkable—but how could Congress afford to pay for slaves when it couldn’t even afford enough food to sustain the soldiers it had?

Plus, Washington was simply not the one to do the recruiting. That was left to the individual states. Later in the war some states did permit slaves to serve as substitutes for whites who had been drafted, but even so, not all of these were granted freedom in the end. In South Carolina, the setting for The Patriot, John Laurens, the son of the president of Congress, proposed arming some slaves to fight alongside the patriots, but Washington opposed the idea, and the South Carolina government rejected it outright.

This is not to say South Carolina did not make use of slaves to bolster the army. To induce whites to enlist, Southern states offered special bounties—not to slaves, but of slaves. Near the end of the war, when manpower was scarce, any white who signed on would receive a special bonus of one slave.

The worst myth propagated in The Patriot is that slaves were so devoted to their masters that they would risk their lives on the battlefield. The truth is, slaves tried to use the Revolutionary War in whatever way they could to gain their own freedom. A few enslaved African-Americans in the North managed to bargain for their freedom by fighting for the patriots; a vastly greater number in the South thought their prospects were better with the British. In either case, slaves struggled to achieve freedom from a tyranny far more acute than “taxation without representation.”

Question: In your chapter “March of the American People,” you write, “The Revolutionary War looks very different if we stand on Indian lands and look back east.” This is a particularly interesting point since most Americans seem to feel that the Indian Wars really took place on the Western plains. You remind us that “the American Revolution was by far the largest Indian war in our nation’s history.” Why do you feel this very important point has been all but forgotten by writers of American history textbooks?

Answer: While other conflicts between Native Americans and Euro-Americans involved only one or two Indian nations at a time, all Native peoples east of the Mississippi became directly involved in the Revolutionary War, most fighting with the British, a few with the Americans. For a decade after the Revolution, various pan-Indian confederations continued to pursue their own wars of independence. Finally, after two decades of fighting, Euro-Americans managed to expand their effective domain from east of the Appalachian Divide clear to the Mississippi. Previously, it had taken a century and a half to conquer an equivalent amount of territory along the Eastern seaboard.

The American Revolution, in short, was at least in part a war of conquest, but we don’t like to view it that way. In our texts we learn about white-Indian conflict during the early settlements in the seventeenth century, and we pick up the story again with the struggles for the West in the nineteenth century, but we ignore the critical moment at the time of our nation’s founding, when the groundwork for westward expansion was established. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, for instance, is always portrayed as the crowning achievement of the Articles of Confederation, because it paved the way to the West.

Rarely during our discussions of the founding era do we treat the impact on Native populations, because it’s simply too embarrassing. If we view the American Revolution as a simple conflict between the United States and its former rulers from across the seas, it’s easy to see who stands on the moral high ground. If, on the other hand, we acknowledge the persistence of white-Indian struggles, that moral high ground is quickly surrendered. We—the American nation that was created in the late eighteenth century—lose our definition, our purity. Our core national narrative can admit that “we” were not always the good guys, but please, not at the time of our birth. That remains sacred, and so we continue to push the agonizing aspects of the American saga forward or backward in time.

This is a shame. Americans, from the beginning, were both democrats and bullies. Despite the hesitancy of elites, most patriots at the time of our nation’s birth believed people should govern themselves, and that is why they threw off British rule. They also believed they had the right, even the obligation, to impose their will on people they deemed inferior. These two core beliefs are key to understanding American history and the American character, and we do an injustice to ourselves and to our nation when we pretend otherwise.—Allen Barra. American Mythbuster: A July 4 Interview with Ray Raphael


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Patrick Henry never said, “Give me liberty or give me death!” In fact, no record exists of what he said in his powerful call to arms of March 23, 1775. And Molly Pitcher never took her husband’s place at a cannon after he fell at the Battle of Monmouth. Historian Raphael dissects these and 11 other myths of the American Revolution to uncover the truth of these famous events and the significance of their conversion into myth. These tales, argues Raphael, represent 19th-century ideals of “romantic individualism” more than the communitarian ideals of the revolutionary era.


Raphael (A People’s History of the American Revolution) continues in his populist vein by arguing that these myths, rather than encouraging patriotism and heroism, actually “take away our power,” leaving us “in awe of superhuman stars” like Washington or Jefferson and “discouraging ordinary citizens from acting on their own behalf.” This is arguable, but advocates of history as seen from below will find the author’s point of view appealing. And all students of American history will find Raphael’s correction of the historical record instructive and enjoyable. Illus.—Publishers Weekly Adult/High School – If a high school history teacher were to ask his class when the Declaration of Independence was signed, he undoubtedly would hear a chorus call out, “July 4, 1776.” But what percentage of students, or teachers for that matter, would know that as of August 1, only John Hancock had actually signed the document? And how many would know that at least 14 men who were not even in Philadelphia on July 4 are recorded in the Congressional Journal as signing it on that well-remembered date? But sign it they did, and what does it matter what the actual date was? Raphael thoroughly delineates the creation of the fictive July 4 signing, including intentional lies and omissions in the “official” Congressional Journal.


The chief impetus behind this doctoring of history was simply to have a neat, unmistakable date for national celebration. The author goes on to expose numerous myths before, during, and after the Revolution revolving around Paul Revere’s ride, Valley Forge, Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, the Battle of Yorktown, and several others. In each case, Raphael outlines the myth, reveals what really happened, and, most importantly, argues why we must move past historical nonsense so that a truer, more democratic national record can emerge. Academic historians have long known these truths. Raphael deserves praise for his efforts to have that knowledge trickle down to the rest of us. Toward that end, he offers a “Note to Teachers,” including a site with grade-appropriate lesson plans.—School Library Journal


posted 6 July 2007

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Ancient African Nations

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update 19 December 2011




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