Are U.S. History Textbooks Still Full of Lies and Half-Truths?





Mr. Raphael is the author of PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, THE FIRST AMERICAN REVOLUTION, and FOUNDING MYTHS, which was just published.

It’s been a quarter century since Frances Fitzgerald in America Revised critiqued our history texts, and a decade since Jim Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me revealed many of the biases that lingered on. Where are we now? Have we gotten any better?

Textbooks in recent years have certainly become more inclusive, but giving the nod to multiculturalism is not synonymous with getting the story right. We’ve come a long way, baby — but we have a long way to go.

In conjunction with my latest book, Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past, I have reviewed twenty-two current elementary, middle school, and high school texts. Fourteen were displayed at a recent National Council for the Social Studies convention, while eight are approved for use in California, which has among the strictest criteria in the nation. I compared the mythologies of the American Revolution discussed in my book with those perpetuated in these texts, and the results are startling. Although some texts fare better than others, all are culpable of some serious lapses.

Most texts do mention African American participation in the war, but they focus primarily on those who sided with the Americans. In fact, those who sided with the British were far more numerous, but you’d never guess it from reading the texts. When they offer numbers, they typically compare the estimated number of black patriot soldiers during the course of the entire war (5,000) with the number of slaves who sought freedom with the British in a single week (generally cited as 300).

Likewise, current texts include some mention of the Native American presence in the Revolutionary War, but their narratives display a serious bias. In chapters on the post-war period — right at the moment of the greatest white incursion onto Native lands in United States history— the Indian presence mysteriously disappears. Discussions of white conquest appear earlier and later in these texts, but not at the critical point of our nation’s founding, when it is most relevant but also most embarrassing. The pan-Indian resistance movements of the 1780s — again, the largest coalitions of Native Americans in our history — are entirely neglected. With nary a nod to the impact on indigenous people, the texts celebrate the ordinances of 1785 and 1787 — blueprints for westward expansion and death knells for Indian sovereignty.

In their eagerness to find female heroines of the Revolutionary War, eighteen of the twenty-two texts feature the story of Molly Pitcher. They reify this folkloric legend into a real person, pronouncing unabashedly that she was Mary Hayes. (The legend did not settle on a flesh-and-blood woman until the 1876 Centennial, based only on the word of a local promoter from Carlisle, Pennsylvania.) Most texts display one of the nineteenth century romantic paintings of Molly firing her cannon. These pictures appear old and suitably historic — no matter that these fantasies were painted in the following century. One text shows a picture of two women soldiers, the first wearing a long dress and the second clad in modern military fatigue. The captions read, “Past: Molly Pitcher” and “Present: Women marines served in the Gulf War.”

More than we would like, our texts are based on warmed-over tales of the nineteenth century such as Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech (written by William Wirt in 1817, forty-two years after the fact) and Paul Revere’s Ride (popularized in 1861 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who distorted every detail of the event to make his story better). Although many historians know better, these stories work so well that they must still be included, regardless of authenticity or merit.

More of the myths are perpetuated in elementary and middle school texts than in AP high school texts, but this raises a troubling question: why are we telling children stories that we know to be false? Worse yet: why do we give these tales our stamp of approval and call them “history”? Of all the texts, the one that perpetuates the most untruths about the American Revolution— I found a whopping seventeen — is Joy Hakim’s immensely popular, A History of US. This is no accident. Hakim is a masterful storyteller, and she has based her account on how stories play to young readers, not on whether they are true.

How do textbook writers deal with advances in modern scholarship that disprove, or at least deconstruct, the myths?

In 1996, David Hackett Fischer published his remarkable deconstruction and reconstruction of Paul Revere’s Ride. Fischer showed that Revere was not such a solitary hero. Instead, he was part of an intricate web of patriots who rode horses, rang bells, and shot guns to sound the warning. Fischer’s book was so popular that textbook writers had to deal with this new information: Revere was not alone, they now admit — William Dawes (and sometimes Samuel Prescott) rode as well. They water down the legend, but they do not embrace the real impact of Fischer’s findings: the mobilization of April 18-19, 1775, was a truly collaborative effort involving an entire population.

In 1997, Pauline Maier published a book of equal import, American Scripture. Maier uncovered ninety state and local “declarations of independence” that preceded the congressional document. The consequence of this historical tidbit is profound: Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nation-wide conversation. Again, textbook writers have watered down the legend while missing the main point. While many textbooks now state that Jefferson was part of a five-man congressional committee, but do not mention a word of those ninety documents produced in less famous chambers.

Some say these myths are harmless — what damage can stories do? Plenty. They change our view of historical and political processes. Myths that celebrate individual achievement mask fundamental truths of great import. The United States was founded not by isolated acts of heroism but by the concerted revolutionary activities of people who had learned the power of collaborative effort. “Government has now devolved upon the people,” wrote one disgruntled Tory in 1774, “and they seem to be for using it.” That’s the story the myths cover up.

Consider: In 1774 common farmers and artisans from throughout Massachusetts rose up by the thousands and overthrew all British authority. In the small town of Worcester (only 300 voters), 4,622 militiamen from 37 surrounding communities lined both sides of Main Street and forced the British-appointed officials to walk the gauntlet, hats in hand, reciting their recantations thirty times each so everyone could hear. There were no famous “leaders” for this event — the people elected representatives who served for one day only, the ultimate in term limits. All final decisions were made by “the body of the people,” and the people decided that the old regime must fall.

Similar transfers of power were repeated in every county seat outside Boston. By early fall — half a year before Lexington and Concord — British rule had come to an end, both politically and militarily, for 95 percent of the inhabitants of Massachusetts. On October 4, 1774 — twenty-one months before Congress would approve the Declaration of Independence, the people of Worcester proclaimed that the old constitution was dissolved and they should begin to form a new one, “as from the ashes of the Phenix.”

Why is this momentous story not part of the core narrative of the Revolution? It used to be. Mercy Otis Warren, a patriot who wrote one of the early histories, called the 1774 rebellion “one of the most extraordinary eras in the history of man.” Other early historians covered the events in some detail. But then came the myths. “The shot heard round the world” (Emerson, 1836) told us the Revolution started at Lexington and Concord, effectively muzzling the one that came before it. The Sam Adams myth (first perpetuated by his Tory opponents, and not adopted by most Americans until the mid-nineteenth century) said that all revolutionary actions in Massachusetts emanated from a single mastermind; since Adams was not present at the rural rebellions, nothing possibly could have happened. Paul Revere’s Ride (Longfellow, 1861) said that farmers had to be awakened from their slumbers by a man from Boston, even though the farmers themselves had already staged a revolution and spent six months arming themselves to defend it. The myth that Jefferson was responsible for the ideas in the Declaration of Independence (started by his political supporters) hid the fact that people from the hinterlands of Massachusetts were ready to go that route long before. The end result: not one current textbook chronicles the first overthrow of British rule. How strange that the story of any revolution can be told without at least a mention of the initial overthrow of political and military authority.

In short, real history gets lost, much of it very important:

  • The Valley Forge story, developed during the prelude to the war of 1812, effectively conceals the harder times soldiers had to face two years later at Morristown — the coldest winter in 400 years — and the mutinies that ensued. That story receives no mention at all in twenty-one of the twenty-two texts.
  • “Do not fire till you see the whites of their eyes” insinuates that Revolutionary warfare was all close combat; in fact, most killing then, as now, was done from afar.
  • “The final battle at Yorktown” masks the war that continued after (there were more American deaths after Yorktown than in the first year of the war) and the global nature of the conflict (later, the British finally conceded defeat because they were also fighting France, Spain, and Holland in the West Indies, the North Sea, the English Channel, Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea, the Cape of Good Hope, India, and the East Indies). None of this appears in any of our current texts.

The reasons that nineteenth century mythologies are still perpetuated in twenty-first century texts are deeply rooted in both narrative structures and American nationalism. I discuss these at greater length in Founding Myths. There too, I undertake a more thorough deconstruction of the particular stories: how, when, and why each was created, and how each masks real history.

On my website, rayraphael.com, I give a page-by-page critique of the founding mythologies in each text. Click on “rate your textbook,” which is also HNN’s “website of month.”


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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


I support the above call for statistics, and on the text texts specifically.

I checked the oldest (1924) U.S. history textbook, on my shelf - a volume designed for 8th graders. Written during World War I, it is full of patriotic fervor: stanzas from Oliver Wendell Holmes on the Boston Tea Party, Emerson on Lexington, eight lines from Longfellow beneath a painting of a galloping Paul Revere, etc. And yet: There are five distinct mentions of Patrick Henry, from his 1765 anti-stamp tax speech to his opposition to the constitution in 1787, in this 500 plus page book, but the "Liberty or death" speech appears nowhere.

Maybe our problem is that we need to rely MORE on the (better quality) standard textbooks and less on teachers' faulty memories or expensive gimmicks such as computer graphics.


Richard Newby - 12/23/2006

Ray Raphael mentions Professor Loewen's book "Lies My Teacher Told Me" in his first paragraph on history textbooks and the American Revolutionary War (Are History Textbooks Still Full of Lies . . . ? Let me quote from page 232 in Loewen: "It is even possible that the FBI or the CIA was involved in the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. "Raoul' in Montreal, who supplied King's convicted killer, James Earl Ray, with the alias "Eric Gault," was apparently a CIA agent. Certainly Ray, a country boy with no income, could never have traveled to Montreal, arranged a false identity, and flown to London without help. Despite or because of threse incongruities, the FBI has never shown any interest in uncovering the conspiracy that killed King." In July 2002 I emailed my criticism of this passage to Professor Loewen. My e-mail of July 16 was answered by Professor Loewen on July 18. Professor Loewen's response is far off the mark. Professor Loewen twice acknowledged to me that he has not read Gerald Posner's book "Killing the Dream." Loewen's analysis of King's assassination on page 232 is a dandy topic for research. I had 16-year-old students in the 60s who would have pounced on this topic. With zest!


Mark A Montgomery - 9/26/2006

I enjoyed this article very much. I learned a lot about some of my own blind spots in US history.

I am equally concerned about the content and structure of textbooks in our public schools. We don't pay enough attention to their instuctional design, either.

Mark Montgomery
http://www.textbookevaluator.com
EdVantage Consulting


John Edward Philips - 2/15/2006

You can't trash the textbook too often without the students wondering what it was assigned for. Yes, you have to correct for biases, omissions and distortions, and god forbid you should just go over the text in class the way some students want you to, but the better the textbook the better the overall experience. Text and lecture should be complimentary, not competing with each other.


John Guy Fought - 6/4/2005

Although the proportion of rifles to (smoothbore) muskets in the hands of militiamen seems to have varied regionally, I think you are both underestimating the number and distance of hits and misses by omitting this factor. Also, 45 seconds seems a bit slow unless you are speaking of volley fire. Civil War reenactors manage three aimed shots per minute. As for bayonets, I suggest that their main use in combat in those days was in fending off or discouraging cavalry attacks on infantry.


chad faulkner ryan - 12/6/2004

All text books are written by a variation of one to a dozen different authors. Many of which happen to be self involved know it alls that beleive they have the only correct information. Not all, just a select few. A great deal of these texts make a valiant effort to convey the most reliable and proven information, and they usually do a decent job. The fact is that with the availability of information on the internet it is easy to see how small facts or folk tales can be misinterpreted. When every author of a new history text book wants to put his special mark in he may jazz up a story or elaborate on a statistic. The human error will always come into play when texts are involved. Authors always include their opinons in what they write. Whether it is intentional or not, the authors beleifs are always between the lines. This bias can greatly alter the composition of the text. When it comes to an American history book, the author could be extremely patriotic and portray the past the way he sees it. He could see westward expansion as the great manifest destiny, while someone else may see it as the murder of the indian nation. Human error and opinon cannot be avoided in texts.


Val Jobson - 9/29/2004

The rugged individualist myth works better in the movies, whether he's the good guy or the bad guy. Remember the ads for the movie "The Untouchables" which depicted Al Capone as one man who terrorized an entire city?

I did a small amount of research after seeing the movie [no Internet then] and learned two facts; 1. Frank Nitty, the hit man who gets thrown off the roof in the movie, was in fact one of two men who took over leadership of the mob when Capone was jailed. 2. In the movie Capone smashes a man with a baseball bat and everyone else sits there in shock and fear; in reality, he led a group of men who all beat two men to death.

The point is that the mob had continuity and it acted as a group. Demonizing and removing the leader does not mean you have cleaned up the whole mob.


Andrew D. Todd - 9/25/2004

A fair amount can be discovered about ancient climates. It works out to measuring tree rings, digging up and analyzing pond sediments, stuff like that. In the case of human bones, starvation episodes during childhood leave a kind of "tree-ring," the Harris Line of Growth Arrest.


Stephen M Garcia - 9/25/2004

There is much in this article to give one pause.
- The 90 earlier Declarations of Independence
- The five man team to write the DOI
- The 1774 defacto overthrow of the British rule in Massachusetts
- The network of now-unknown people who contributed efforts, far beyond what I had known

I AM impressed with all this. It is, I agree with the author, important to know that it was NOT the lone small broup or even individual. The myth of the rugged individualist as archetype or resident genius turns instead into an anarchism of whole communities. A conpiracy theorist might say, "THAT might just be the lesson someone might not be too crazy about the kids learning about". That is a book I would love to read through. . . and to have my kids and grandkids read as well.


Stephen M Garcia - 9/25/2004

Having been adept at mathematics, I agree, you cannot start with the calculus (Newton's fluxions). But history is quite a bit different. Was there any single point in what the author wrote in this article that a typical 5th-grader (maybe even a 4th-grader) could not understand? Math may at times be rocket science, but history - to understand what this author is talking about - certainly is not. Nothing he has stated are confusing to non-advanced students.
Are you, sir, advocating that the schools start out teaching that 2+2 does not equal 4, as preparation to the day when they can handle the complexities of the true history? In what manner do untruths lead the young mind to higher truths?
Color me perplexed why it would be disadvantageous to teach what really happened - especially when the facts in themsleves in many cases are as fascinating as the myths?


Vernon Clayson - 9/25/2004

Speaking of lies and half-truths, why should history texts be any different than today's media reports and the everyday statements by politicians?? (I also take exception to the mention of the coldest winter in 400 years at Morristown in 1814, who kept the records in the area that became Morristown in 1414?) Mr. Raphael's version of history is fine for advanced students but the "myths" he mentions are at best an introduction to beginning students, one has to start somewhere and these young people will grow in the subject. They don't start mathematics with methods of the calculus or the sciences with DNA research.


William R. Clay - 9/21/2004

Mr. Lederer’s analyst of combat closeness during this time period is well done. It took an extremely well trained army of riflemen (an admittedly incorrect term for the revolutionary period) to concentrate fire and maintain it in any volume or accuracy while under return fire. Over the intervening years the distances in which death could be dealt has indeed increased. In fact, one could say now that a killing blow could be administered from the other side of the globe with the mid-20th century development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. That being said the actual range of combat for a rifle platoon today is still far closer than what you might expect. Let me put it this way, the bayonet is still a valid military tool in the 21st century. If one is in doubt about the range of combat today, read into the urban firefights in Iraq during the so-called active part of the invasion. It doesn’t get more up close and personal than that.


Ben H. Severance - 9/21/2004

While I agree that textbooks often oversimplify or even overlook some important issues, the textbook should not be the central learning device in the classroom. The instructor's lectures should be the principal means of imparting knowledge. If a textbook provides only cursory coverage of a topic that the instructor considers crucial, then let the instructor address that in class. Ray Raphael seeks a perfect textbook. What then is the need for a teacher? Besides, the author is overly harsh. There are many fine U.S. textbooks that competently cover the main people and events and themes of American history.

Regarding the comment about combat from afar or up close, I echo the complaints of John Lederer.


John H. Lederer - 9/20/2004

“Do not fire till you see the whites of their eyes” insinuates that Revolutionary warfare was all close combat; in fact, most killing then, as now, was done from afar.
===================

I am curious whether there is support for this? In general military history shows a long term trend for combatants killing range to increase with time.
Artillery, the great killer of today (possibly about to be supplanted by air) is generally thought to have first become significant in the Napoleonic wars, small arms fire in the American Civil War (rifling and the minie ball were the two critical technologies).

The effective range in combat of smoothbore muskets is generally thought to be under 100 yds. My own experiments suggest that this is optimistic for other than expereinced ,trained troops. Flintlocks require substantial discipline and training for accuracy as there is a substantial period of time between trigger pull and actual exit of the projectile during which the shooter must remain on target.

There are a number of accounts of numbers of troops volley firing in combat at individuals at quite close range and missing.

The following are approximate rates of advance for troops:

walk (slow with time to dress ranks) = ~ 12 seconds for ten yards
walk (quick march) =~ 6 seconds for ten yards
run (charge) = ~ 2-3 seconds for ten yards

The effective rate of aimed volley fire for a flintlock musket is about 45 seconds. As one can see, there are attractions to one short range unhurried volley rather than one long range and one hurried short range.

The military literature of the era is replete with admonitions to hold fire till short range. The worst situation is to shoot at too long a range and then not be able to get off a second shot. Some attribute accounts of troops fleeing before contact to a number of individual calculations by soldiers that would not be reloaded in time.

Diminution of fire is a second problem. Mechanical failure (the flint is a notriously weak element of a flintlock) and operator error are quite common. One observer in the Civil War describes a second volley at Bull Run as looking like archery fire at Agincourt for the number of ramrods sailing across the battlefield from the fire of inexperienced troops (General Bee was killed by one of these ramrods). The "raggedness" so frequently described for a second volley may weel be caused by the inability of many to successfully reload and refire.

Are there any statistical accounts of wound types in the American Revolution?




John H. Lederer - 9/20/2004

“Do not fire till you see the whites of their eyes” insinuates that Revolutionary warfare was all close combat; in fact, most killing then, as now, was done from afar.
===================

I am curious whether there is support for this? In general military history shows a long term trend for combatants killing range to increase with time.
Artillery, the great killer of today (possibly about to be supplanted by air) is generally thought to have first become significant in the Napoleonic wars, small arms fire in the American Civil War (rifling and the minie ball were the two critical technologies).

The effective range in combat of smoothbore muskets is generally thought to be under 100 yds. My own experiments suggest that this is optimistic for other than expereinced ,trained troops. Flintlocks require substantial discipline and training for accuracy as there is a substantial period of time between trigger pull and actual exit of the projectile during which the shooter must remain on target.

There are a number of accounts of numbers of troops volley firing in combat at individuals at quite close range and missing.

The following are approximate rates of advance for troops:

walk (slow with time to dress ranks) = ~ 12 seconds for ten yards
walk (quick march) =~ 6 seconds for ten yards
run (charge) = ~ 2-3 seconds for ten yards

The effective rate of aimed volley fire for a flintlock musket is about 45 seconds. As one can see, there are attractions to one short range unhurried volley rather than one long range and one hurried short range.

The military literature of the era is replete with admonitions to hold fire till short range. The worst situation is to shoot at too long a range and then not be able to get off a second shot. Some attribute accounts of troops fleeing before contact to a number of individual calculations by soldiers that would not be reloaded in time.

Diminution of fire is a second problem. Mechanical failure (the flint is a notriously weak element of a flintlock) and operator error are quite common. One observer in the Civil War describes a second volley at Bull Run as looking like archery fire at Agincourt for the number of ramrods sailing across the battlefield from the fire of inexperienced troops (General Bee was killed by one of these ramrods). The "raggedness" so frequently described for a second volley may weel be caused by the inability of many to successfully reload and refire.

Are there any statistical accounts of wound types in the American Revolution?




Oscar Chamberlain - 9/20/2004

I nearly responded with a flip "so what else is new" sort of comment. Happily I read on. Your examples concerning the American revolution and the "traditional" narrative are excellent precisely because they can transform the older narratives in ways that do justice to the idealism of Americans in that era.

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