Tuesday, August 01, 2017

History or Mythstory? – Part II

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
This was the first stanza of a most influential poem written in 1836 by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was this work by Emerson that precipitated the signature phrase, “the shot heard round the world.” Ultimately this poem would be associated with the Battle of Lexington and the historic narrative that schoolbooks proclaimed (for over 100 years) as the beginning of the American Revolution. It is a poem similar to that described in last month’s issue of Viewpointe as “history rewritten by poets.”

There is a difference however. The Longfellow poem about Paul Revere’s ride was a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts in order to create a patriotic national myth that would advance Longfellow’s long understated agenda for the abolition of slavery. In fact, he wrote eight “Poems on Slavery,” which were published in a volume as long ago as 1842. While Longfellow’s poem meets the definition of “mythstory,” the Emerson poem deserves that appellation for another rather unique reason.

To this day textbooks consistently, confusingly, but accurately associate “the shot heard round the world” as described in Emerson’s poem as occurring at the town of Lexington. However, inexplicable is the fact that the title of the Emerson poem is the “Concord Hymn,” and the allusion in the first line to the “rude bridge” refers to the North Bridge in Concord. There is an implication that Emerson, who was considered as Concord’s most prominent citizen, attempted to promote his town as the place the “shot heard round the world” was first fired, and where the American Revolution started.

Here is the true story (as far as historic truth can be verified) described in Constitutional Facts.com.

“After the Continental Congress met in September 1774, the British soldiers were ready with their weapons in Massachusetts. Members of the Massachusetts militia had become Minutemen. They were men and boys who were ready to defend Massachusetts ‘in a minute.’ The colonists who were against the British began calling themselves ‘Patriots’. [Interestingly, here is where the two poems, Paul Revere’s Ride and The Shot Heard Round The World merge].

“In April 1775, British General Thomas Gage was the new Governor of Massachusetts. He had heard that the Patriots had secretly stored weapons in the town of Concord. He had also heard that John Hancock and Samuel Adams, two leaders of the Sons of Liberty, were in Lexington. General Gage sent 700 British soldiers to find the weapons and arrest the two Patriot leaders.

“Paul Revere and William Dawes were also members of the Sons of Liberty. On the night of April 18, Paul Revere and William Dawes started their rides to warn the colonists and John Hancock and Sam Adams that the British were on their way.

“On the morning of April 19, when the British arrived in Lexington, they found the Minutemen waiting on the Lexington Green with their muskets. The British major who led the British troops, rode to the front of his men and shouted to the Minute Men, ‘Lay down your arms, you damned rebels and disperse!’

“The Minutemen were badly outnumbered by the British. The American Captain ordered his men to march off the Green, but not to lay down their weapons. As the men began to leave the Green, a single shot (still unidentified today) was fired. Two volleys by the British troops followed and then the British charged the Patriots with their bayonets. Eight Minute Men were killed immediately. Ten more were wounded. The rest of the Minute Men escaped. [Note that the unknown shot was the first one fired that day and has to be considered as the shot heard round the world.]

“The British soldiers then marched on to Concord. The British had expected to find the Patriots’ weapons in Concord, but the Patriots had moved them. As the British soldiers marched back to Boston, they were shot at by Minutemen hiding in the woods and fields, and behind stone walls along the road. 73 British soldiers were killed and 174 were wounded. 23 were missing. Of the 4,000 Minutemen at Lexington and Concord, 49 were killed (including the 8 initially shot at Lexington), 39 were wounded, and five were declared missing. The total British casualties number 273 to the American’s 95.”

The Battles of Lexington and Concord were considered a major military victory and displayed to the British and King George III that unjust behavior would not be tolerated in America. Who actually fired the shot heard round the world? Here is what the Journal of the American Revolution writes: “The details of the skirmish have always been unclear. Who fired the first shot? No conclusive evidence exists, and each side blames the other. But there is both circumstantial and direct evidence, and it leads us to believe the Americans shot first!”

Here is another instance where the poets attempted to rewrite history, but in this case failed to do so.

But America’s early history has become a fertile ground for what I term mythstories. Tales that have become so engrained in the American psyche that they are fully accepted and promulgated as actual history. What follows in this series are several of these anecdotes that fall into what I categorize as “facts you think you know that really just ain’t so.”


The Journal of the American Revolution describes the legacy of Patrick Henry’s famous speech as follows: Patrick Henry’s “liberty or death” speech became an instant classic. Students are still asked to couple “liberty or death” with Patrick Henry on multiple choice tests.

That speech was delivered to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, and is credited with having swung the balance in convincing the convention to pass a resolution delivering Virginian troops for the Revolutionary War.

Among the delegates to the convention were future U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The speech was so powerful and so passionate that Thomas Marshall told his son John Marshall, who later became Chief Justice of the United States, that the speech was “one of the most bold, vehement, and animated pieces of eloquence that had ever been delivered.”

On a seemingly separate question, have you ever heard of a man named William Wirt? I thought not. To enlighten you, Mr. Wirt (1772-1834) was a lawyer, an American author and statesman who is credited with turning the position of United States Attorney General into one of influence. He was the longest serving Attorney General in U.S. history. (Ironically, as I am writing this, the current Attorney General might end up being the shortest serving in history.) In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson asked him to be the prosecutor in Aaron Burr's trial for treason, and in 1832 he was a candidate for the presidency.

Despite Mr. Wirt’s lifetime accomplishments, his greatest achievements that have long outlived him are twofold. First is his 1817 published biography of Patrick Henry titled “Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, a book amazingly still in print. The second is the speech we have believed for over 200 years to be the words delivered by Patrick Henry, are words actually written by William Wirt. I’m sorry to disillusion you, but it is most unlikely that Patrick Henry ever uttered the phrase “Give me liberty, or give me death.” How about that for a mythstory?


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