Making Up History after the Fact
By Tom Lloyd
Nothing changes faster than the past. It gets rewritten every day. It’s also chock-full of mistakes.
We can blame many of these mistakes on an ancient Greek historian named Herodotus. Back in the fifth century B.C., Herodotos wrote that, “Very few things happen at the right time and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.”
Historians have been “correcting defects” or just plain “making stuff up” ever since.
So how do you get yourself written into history books?
Start with a good public relations team. It worked for Paul Revere and Betsy Ross. It might work for you!
For example, there’s not a single thread of evidence that Betsy Ross had anything to do with creating the first American flag. In fact, it wasn’t until 93 years after that first flag flew that a gentleman named William Canby first spun the tale of Betsy Ross for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
According to Canby, a delegation from the Continental Congress, headed by General George Washington, came to Ross and asked her to design a flag for the new nation.
Nice story. Bad facts. First, Canby just happened to be Ross’s grandson. Secondly, he was unable produce any evidence beyond the “recollections” of his own family members. Finally, since Washington was not a member of Congress, he couldn’t have led any Congressional delegation.
However, 20 years later, the Ross story got an incredible shot in arm when a Philadelphia artist named Charles M. Weisgerber got involved.
In 1893, he painted “The Birth of Our Nation’s Flag” with Ross, bathed in sunlight, showing her flag to Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross. The image struck a chord with the public. Weisgerber made a small fortune selling copies and Canby’s tall tale about his grandmother became a textbook staple for the next hundred years.
(A better bet for the creator of the first American flag would be Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey. Hopkinson had already designed the Great Seal of the United States and he did submit a bill to Congress for flag design. He did not, however, get paid.)
That brings us to Paul Revere. Whatever else Revere did in his life, he did not gallop from Boston to Concord yelling “the British are coming” at the top of his lungs.
For starters, most Colonists considered themselves to be British. Yelling that the British were coming wouldn’t have made any sense to anyone. Moreover, Revere got stopped and detained by British troops outside Lexington and his horse was confiscated. The Boston silversmith ended his “midnight ride” by walking all the way back to Boston..
Enter Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 85 years after the fact. Seeking to galvanize his fellow Unionists about what he saw as the inevitable coming of Civil War, Longfellow’s 1860 poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” played fast and loose with the truth. But in the process, it made Revere far more famous than any of his silver spoons and teapots ever had.
(For the record, Dr. Samuel Prescott and William Dawes did a far better job at warning the local militias about the advance of British regulars seeking to seize their powder and shot, but Longfellow chose to write about Revere.)
So, if you really want to make yourself a place in history, forget Carnegie Hall. Instead, get yourself a good public relations team.