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.
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. Here’s a list of the 10 biggest myths in American history.
1. America Was Settled For Religious Freedom
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
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
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
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.