Misunderstandings and Myths of History
TEN THINGS WE LEARNED ABOUT HISTORY
(THAT AREN’T TRUE)
1. Nero Fiddled as Rome Burned
It is generally accepted as fact that, as the great fires of Rome ravished the city in 64 AD, Emperor Nero played the fiddle. To this day, when someone is neglectful of their duty in the face of a crisis, they’re said to be “fiddling while Rome burns.” The truth is, the violin, or fiddle, had not yet been invented. Nero did consider himself a great artist, though, and so it is entirely possible that he was playing an instrument of some sort as the great city burned around him.
2. Benjamin Franklin Discovered Electricity
We all know that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity. The problem is, we're all wrong. Franklin did indeed devise and implement his famous kite experiment, but that was to prove the generally accepted hypothesis that lightning was electricity. Which is not to say that this wasn’t a huge achievement. Franklin was no mere dabbler in science, or “natural philosophy” as it was then called. He was very well respected by the scientific community of his day.
3. The American Revolution?
The American Revolution changed the world at the time, and its effects are changing the world still. The libertarian ideals codified in the documents of the revolution (and those of the government it would establish) continue to have a great influence on the entire world. Everyone is aware that there was an American Revolution. The thing is, technically, it wasn’t a revolution at all. The colonists had no interest in overthrowing and taking over the government of Great Britain. The American “Revolution” was, in fact, a secession--a War for Independence.
4. The Battle of Bunker Hill?
One of the great trick-questions of American History (Jeopardy! enthusiasts take note) has to do with the Battle of Bunker Hill. The fighting itself actually took place on nearby Breed’s Hill.
Oh, and the colonies lost. The ragtag colonial militia made a good showing against the regular British Army troops, though, which is why the battle is remembered (at least here in the States!)
5. Hannibal Surprised Ancient Rome by Crossing the Alps
Hannibal shocked Rome and the ancient world by leading his armies through the Northern Alps, and attacking Rome from the north. That’s what we’re taught in high school, right? Actually, what shocked the Romans wasn’t that Hannibal attacked via the Alps. In fact, numerous armies, including the Gauls, had done that prior to Hannibal. What so surprised the Romans was that Hannibal did it during the winter and with a number of elephants in tow.
6. The Declaration of Independence was Signed on July 4, 1776
It may surprise you to learn that nothing particularly important happened on the fourth of July, 1776. On July the second of that year, the committee tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin) presented their work to Congress. This is the scene captured by the famous Trumbull painting that hangs in the Capitol Rotunda. For the next two days, the draft was edited by Congress, both for style and content. John Adams predicted in a letter that July the second would be the day commemorated. As far as the actual signing of the Declaration, that task took months, as some delegates had to travel to their home state to get permission to do so.
7. The Boston Massacre?
The events that came to be known as the Boston “Massacre” were tragic and avoidable. To call what happened a massacre, though, is incorrect. A crowd of colonist closed in on a small contingent of British Troops. They harassed the soldiers verbally, then began throwing balls of ice and snow at them. One or two of the frightened troops fired into the crowd, killing three colonists and wounding several others (two of whom later died from their injuries.) So why the discrepancy between what happened, and how it’s remembered? In fact, we have none other than Paul Revere to thank for the gross over-exaggeration of events. In a popular etching, he depicted the British Soldiers lined up and firing at frightened colonists.
8. The American Revolution was Fought Entirely in North America
Most of us learned about John Paul Jones (the Admiral, not Led Zeppelin's Bassist) in high school. We learned that he led the American colonists’ excuse for a navy. What you may not know is that aside from defending the American coast, the Admiral of the High Seas actually took the fight home to the Seat of the British Empire, harassing a number of English shipping ports and even some coastal towns.
9. The American Revolution was Fought by “Minutemen”
In school, we’re taught that the American Revolution was fought and won by citizen soldiers--either members of the State Militia or of less formal groups of “minutemen.” A look at the historical record shows, however, that by and large, the militias proved unreliable and ineffective. It was the Colonial Army under Washington that won the war, largely by employing a strategy of retreat.
10. The Emancipation Proclamation Freed the Slaves
One of the seminal documents of American (indeed of World) History, The Emancipation Proclamation stands as a rebuke against slavery the world over. At the time, however, it was meant, at least in part, as a piece of political propaganda. The hope was that the promise of freedom would endear slaves to the Union cause. The slaves in the Northern States were already free though, and as Northern law was not recognized in the seceding Confederate States, the Proclamation actually freed no one. It might be remembered more accurately as a promissory note, a debt to be collected on in the future.