The Awakening of American History Compared to American Mythology

Base of Frederick Douglass statue torn down July 4, 2020

Opinion:  Our nation has uplifted men from the founding fathers, to military leaders, to poets and politicians. We are only now admitting they are not as perfect as American Mythology would have you believe.  Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Madison, Jackson, Crockett, Bowie, Lee, Grant, Douglass, and so many other men and women make up the core of “American Mythology.”  Myths and stories have grown up around these men and women.   Some myths rose in their lifetimes, and some long after the person died.  This mythology based on Americans has become a new world mythology where these men and women seem to rise above the rest of us, and they seem untouchable.   Webster’s accepted definition of the word Mythology is “a popular belief or assumption that has grown up around someone or something.”   When we consider that the various heroes from the founding of the nation through our modern times have elevated men and women and built up popular beliefs or assumptions, we can easily see that America has its own mythology.

If you studied the revolution, you will hear stories about how British bullets could not hit Washington. You understand how Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, and Hamilton did not shoot first but shot the tree instead of Burr.  If you grew up in the south, you hear about Lee, Jackson, Forrest, and many other heroes of the south.  They would have you believe that Lee was the most brilliant military mind to live by all accounts.  In the north, Grant, Sherman, and others would seem invincible in their starch defense of the Union.  Lincoln was elevated to the most celebrated abolitionist to live.  When you look to the west, we have stories of the shootout at the OK Corel, Custer’s last stand, Geronimo, and others.   Who can forget the 1950 and 1960s coonskin cap craze where David Crocket, already a mythical character during his lifetime, would be elevated to killing a bear when he was three years old and holding back the entire Mexican army at the Alamo.  In most of these stories, the focus has been the positive, right, and heroic aspects of the men and women.   

With the age of the Internet, various “history” experts, the broad study and examination of history, we have begun to see that these mythological figures from our American history are often anything except what we were taught or led to believe.  Gradually that acceptance has led first to reports, papers, and articles indicating that “nobody” is perfect.  Dale Carnegie published the famous book “Lincoln The Unknown.”  A careful study of the Emancipation Proclamation will find that it did not free slaves in the Union.  The American Mythology has always been careful to avoid the fact that Lincoln’s in-laws owned slaves, and that five slave states were fighting for the Union.  It has also been careful to ignore that those slave states in the Union held slavery long after the Emancipation Proclamation.  To this day, the Proclamation is debated whether it was  Constitutionally legal since Lincoln had no power to change laws.  The list goes own. James Bowie, a famous knife fighter and freedom fighter for Texas, was a slave trader.   George Washington had slaves working his plantation.  Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and fathered children with them.  Many Confederate states- eight to be exact – named slavery one of their main reasons for leaving the Union.   Once history began to catch up with the Internet age, we have found that nobody was perfect in our past.   

The trend has never changed.  Even today, we face characters that would become part of American Mythology, but they are not perfect.  Consider, in recent years, President Bill Clinton cut the deficient and helped move people off welfare, but he also was impeached, lied, and had an affair.  Kennedy is believed to have had multiple affairs, but he is elevated due to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the challenge of sending a man to the moon.    It is reported that as Eleanor Roosevelt arrived at the home where her husband, Franklin,  had died, she asked if that woman was still here in reference to the President’s mistress.  Even Martin Luther King is said to have had affairs and coached others in them.  Many of these mythological figures have fallen right before our eyes and in their own times.  Football legends, sports stars, heroes, police officers, business leaders, movie stars, and others have simply been shown to be far from perfect.  They have been shown to be human.   

Now we are coming to a turning point as a nation.  Young rioters rip down statues of history they believe were put up to false heroes.  Towns remove monuments from Columbus, to Washington, to the Confederacy at an alarming rate.  Excuses are given from slave owners to crooked business leaders, to mean or merely bad people.  American Mythology is felling in the minds of those telling the stories and in the minds of many Americans.

In 2004, The Alamo was released, and it attempted to humanize some of American’s Mythological heroes.  In it, Houston, Travis, Bowie, and Crockett, along with others, were all portrayed as flawed men, men seeking fame and fortune, and men to be honest, not exactly up to the Mythology that has grown in Texas and the nation around the Texas Revolution.  Houston was shown to be a drunk and dependent on drugs, and Bowie was shown to be a bully, a drunk, and a diehard slave owner.  Crocket was made to appear more for political gain in Texas than to support and fight in a revolution.   

Our leaders are undoubtedly brilliant, and our history is rich with stories of heroic deeds, final stands, and moments that changed the world.  In the 2004 movie, The Alamo, there is a scene where Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett is talking to James Bowie.  Crockett tells Bowie that if it was just “little old David Crockett, I might be tempted to go over that wall and take my chances out there.  But these men are looking to ‘Davy Crockett’.”  The point was made that Crockett was very much aware of his mythological status compared to that of the real man.  He knew the two were entirely different and would be viewed differently depending on who was reviewing history.  He knew that had he gone over the wall and tried to get away, the Crockett Mythology would be forever put away in his lifetime.  

American Mythology is fascinating.  We are just now realizing as a nation that our mythology does not live up to the actual lives of the men and women that lived those moments.  This realization does not mean we can not be proud of their accomplishments, promote them as heroes, look to them for inspiration.  No, it merely means that we must admit they were human, they made mistakes, were not perfect, and often by our standards today, they were imperfect.   Perhaps we should rejoice during these times.  We may be one of the first generations of Americans to have the opportunity to accept the good and the bad of American Mythology and history.   We can understand the human, the flawed side of these men and women, while still seeing their value and deeds that helped shape American history. 

In his famous Fourth of July speech, Fredrick Douglass said, “I remember, also, that as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor.  This is esteemed by some as a national trait-perhaps a national weakness.”   Douglas has been proven to have had astonishing foresight with his statement.  We have remembered the facts in our favor and in favor of those American Mythological figures, and that has been a weakness.  Now we have the opportunity to overcome that weakness – not by destroying monuments, plaques, historical places, but by expanding our study and expanding our understanding and education.  We can learn from their excellent examples and bad examples.  If we take both, then we will become stronger.  Douglass stated that our views were likely a “national weakness.”  We need to turn that page and move forward with national pride that accepts the good and bad so that we can make a future that is better, brighter, and equal for all in our time and the times to come. 

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