If you hang around Fort Mifflin very long you will, no doubt, be regaled with stories of the supernatural and the pseudoscience that supports its existence. These are all good fun but let’s be clear, SOME people actually believe these things and even though the scientifically minded dismiss THESE beliefs, they are quick to then recount other mythical and nonsensical stories with no more passivity or validity than a poltergeist. The truth of the matter is that people like mythical stories and they DO serve a purpose.
The ghost stories of Fort Mifflin remind us that this is hallowed ground. Men fought over this small bit of mud and many died. Later, prisoners were held here and as often happens with POW’s many died of neglect or worse. These men aren’t part of a heroic battle (the siege of Fort Mifflin ended in retreat) the died in relative obscurity and that elicits sympathy. Counterpoise that with Valley Forge where lots more men died but the end was a huge success in Philadelphia and Monmouth where we really don’t hear ghost stories.
Ghost stories and myths are tales we know are not true but cause us to deeply consider certain realities. At our most basic nature, we are social creatures who love to tell stories. These tales help us understand reality. They are the dreams about things we worry about or do not fully understand. Story telling goes beyond science and history. It strikes at the unexplained or unexplainable, those things that leave us with a sense of astonishment and makes us want to know more. Storytelling has four basic functions: The mystical, the cosmological, the sociological, and the psychological.
The mystical function is about experiencing the awe of the universe. It’s telling stories that touch the cornerstone of what it means to be human and grapple with things we don’t fully understand. From ghost stories, to alien abductions, to confrontations with angels, and even scientific parables like Schrodinger’s cat and the multiverse theory of reality, the mystical function is important for relating the mind to the mystery that something exists rather than nothing.
“Each piece, or part, of the whole of nature is always merely an approximation to the complete truth, or the complete truth so far as we know it. In fact, everything we know is only some kind of approximation, because we know that we do not know all the laws as yet. Therefore, things must be learned only to be unlearned again or, more likely, to be corrected.”~ Richard Feynman
The cosmological function is about rendering a mental image of the universe. The universe we live in is unfathomably huge, inexplicably scary, and we only understand that part of the universe that we can directly “see” (including through scientific instruments) but there are many facets of the universe that remain unexplored. Before science we lied upon religion to explain how the forces in our world interacted. We created stories of gods in the heavens and magic to explain what we knew was there but could not sense with our five senses.
Sociologically, storytelling functions to support and validate the ties that bind people to a certain groups or tribes. These are the myths that support our codes of moral conduct and give us a sense of belonging. These stories reinforce what we believe is the “right thing to do.”
“What we observe is not Nature itself but Nature exposed to our method of questioning.”~ Werner Heisenberg
The last function of storytelling and perhaps the most important is psychological. These stories tell us more about the teller than the subject discussed and help us look for the truth from people from the past who have gone through similar trials and tribulations. Stories and parables about Muhammad, Buddha, Christ, and Confucius are examples of collective wisdom for how to live a sensible and meaningful life in the face of absurdity and meaninglessness. In our telling of the stories of the American Revolution, we encounter many examples of these sorts of stories. So, let’s examine some Myths of American Revolutionary History:
Paul Revere and the Midnight Ride to Lexington
It is one of the most iconic scenes of the Revolutionary War. The image of Paul Revere on horseback, shouting “The British are coming!” and its absolute fiction.
The valiant Paul Revere on horseback can only be found in a famous poem titled “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which appeared 85 years after the ride itself. Obviously, since he was a poet and not a historian, Wadsworth took significant liberties in order to portray Revere as heroically as possible. Truth be told, Revere’s ride wasn’t seen as a big deal in his own time. It wasn’t even mentioned in his obituary, he didn’t do it alone (the most significant riders were actually Samuel Prescott and William Dawes) and he most definitely would not have shouted “The British are coming” for two reasons. One, this was a secret mission where he had to evade British patrols. And two, most people living in Massachusetts at the time were ethnically English and considered themselves British. If anything, he would have warned that the Regulars are coming.
Betsy Ross and the American Flag
The legend of Betsy Ross designing the first American flag is very pervasive today, mostly due to a story told 35 years after her death by her grandson, William Canby. He had quite a great story to tell that was supposedly passed down through the family. Canby’s story was all about how George Washington came into Ross’ store one day and she impressed him by showing how easily a five-pointed star could be made, so he commissioned Betsy Ross to create the entire flag. It was a very appealing story, but Canby didn’t have any evidence to support it. The story came out, however, during the Centennial Celebrations (1876) so people when people were eager to hear stories about our county’s founding (true or not) so the story gained a lot of publicity.
The best evidence for the origin of our national standard points to Many historians believe that Francis Hopkinson, a delegate to the Continental Congress from New Jersey who created a flag with thirteen red and white stripes and a canton of thirteen stars. Other early flags include the flag that flies over forts Mifflin and Stanwix (thirteen stripes of alternating red, white, and blue) and the Grand Union Flag (popular at Williamsburg, VA) which has the familiar thirteen red and white stripes but a Union Jack as its canton.
On June 14, 1777, to establish an official flag for the new nation, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” This Flag Act is very vague and allowed for many variations of the American Flag. In fact, until June 24, 1912, neither the order of the stars nor the proportions of the flag was prescribed. Consequently, flags dating before this date sometimes show unusual arrangements of the stars and odd proportions, these features being left to the discretion of the flag maker.
Benjamin Franklin Proposed the Turkey as our National Bird
The Great Seal of America was chosen in 1782, with the bald eagle front and center. An example of this original great seal can be seen in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia. Since its adoption, however, a rumor has persisted that Benjamin Franklin actually wanted the wild turkey to become the national bird but again, this is not true.
This false story began as a result of a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter, Sarah Bache criticizing the original eagle design for the Great Seal, saying that it looked more like a turkey. In the letter, Franklin wrote that the “Bald Eagle…is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.” About the turkey, Franklin wrote that in comparison to the bald eagle, the turkey is “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.”
Declaring Independence on July 4th
Yes, we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, the day John Dunlop PUBLISHED the Declaration of Independence. But Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed independence for the American colonies by introducing this resolution in the Second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776. On June 11, the Congress selects Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston to draft a declaration of independence. On July 2, 1776, Congress passed the Lee Resolution, formally declaring themselves “Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved…” On July 8th, the citizens of Philadelphia were summoned to the State House Yard by the bells of the city. At noon, Colonel John Nixon publicly read the Declaration of Independence for the first time. George Washington read the Declaration of Independence to the Army on July 9th and by end of August, it had been published in many newspapers up and down the eastern seaboard. This document will not be signed, however until August 2nd.
“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival…with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations…”— John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail
America Was Settled for Religious Freedom
This is a myth that has become a “dog whistle” among the far right in America and once again it’s really not true. Yes, there were a few religious separatists who sought refuge from the orthodoxy of England’s state church but the vast majority of people who came to the Americas came in search of economic opportunity not freedom from the Church of England. Colonies like Jamestown were founded by people who were willing to put themselves into debt (often as indentured servants) for the chance to own land and engage in trade that the aristocracy and trade guilds of Europe had locked them out of.
Sadly, those who did come to America to practice their own religion didn’t want freedom from religious persecution, they simply wanted to change the power dynamic. Puritans settling in New England that they fled (mandatory attendance, tithes, ecclesiastical courts, etc.) that they fled only now these institutions were Calvinist rather than Anglican. Even in colonies where “religious tolerance” as professed, like Pennsylvania, that tolerance was only for Protestant Christians. Catholics, Jews, Muslims, American Indians, and many others were still considered heretics and not permitted to certain rights like the opportunity to hold public office or own certain businesses. Even more sadly, remnants of this behavior persist even into the 21st Century within certain political factions.
America’s Founders Were Believers in Individual People’s Freedom
“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire.”James Madison
I’ll spare you the three-fifths clause diatribe but suffice it to say that the drafters of the Constitution focus was not on individual citizens. In fact, most feared special interest groups and factions. The original Constitution doesn’t even give the right to vote directly to the individual instead, Article Three reserved the power to elect Senators for state legislators, and then the Senate elected the President, effectively taking elections out of the hands of the general public.
The fear is that people will always act in their own self-interest if not prevented from doing so through mechanisms like culture, ethics, morals, and law. A free-market ensures businesses endeavor to destroy competition, a purely democratic (mob rule_ government of laws and taxes promotes cronyism as the of the law often have “special interests” that aren’t purely the public interest. Power ensures a corruption of power, etc.
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.”–Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824
There are, of course, many other myths and as interpreters of history, it is our responsibility to walk that fine line between supporting and debunking these myths. If we simply crash through and tear them all down – Thomas Jefferson couldn’t believe in liberty for all men and still own slaves – we dissolve the glue that ties our country together. If we believe in them without qualification (aside from being stupid), we paint a picture of our nation as an ideal and fail to see the opportunities to correct the injustices that these myths seek to hide. Ours challenge is INTERPRET these stories in way that teaches the lesson but is current to the morals and ideals of OUR time.
I like the ghosts of Fort Mifflin; they aren’t real but they offer us some comfort and connection to an event long past.