Myths of American History

Many of the students I teach have never studied any American history before. It’s not something that comes up regularly on the school curriculum. Some have studied a little slavery or done one module at GCSE on the American West, or perhaps even discussed Civil Rights, but most have little idea of the trajectory of American history.

So, the preconceptions that they bring to class come from a variety of sources, usually rooted in popular culture, especially the movies.

One of the ways that I like to challenge my students is to get them thinking about myths and myth-making in history. Why is that there are so many half-truths in the stories that Americans tell about their past? Are they different from other countries in that regard?

Here are just a few interesting ones that I like to use to challenge my students’ assumptions:

1. Columbus realised he had discovered America: wrong! He went to his grave believing that he had reached ‘the Indies’, i.e. Asia.

2. The Puritans wanted to establish religious freedom: wrong! They were intolerant of others’ religious ideas.

3. Everyone in the South wanted to leave the Union during the Civil War. Wrong!  There were many unionists in the South, especially in the upper south.

4. Franklin Roosevelt pulled the US out of depression with his New Deal initiatives whereas his predecessor Herbert Hoover had complacently done nothing. Wrong! There are many similarities between the approach of the two men, and depression was ended by World War Two anyway!

5. Older people in the US were for the Vietnam war, whereas younger ones were against it. Wrong! Younger people were more likely to be pro-war, probably because they didn’t have personal experience in World War Two or Korea.

These myths and others like them are a good place to start when debating different interpretations of history.

(Thanks to Erik Sass for these examples! See more of them here )

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About Catherine Armstrong

Dr Catherine Armstrong is a Senior Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University, specialising in North American History. She is a former teaching fellow in History at the University of Warwick and Oxford Brookes University. Catherine was also Director of Historical Studies in the Open Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her first book ‘Writing North America in the Seventeenth Century’ was published by Ashgate in June 2007. As a long-time jobseeker for an academic role herself, Catherine is in a unique position to understand and offer her knowledge and experience to those developing an academic career.

One Response to Myths of American History

  1. I highly recommend historian Ray Raphael’s book “Founding Myths” which just scratches the surface as to the stories that are continuing to be taught at all school levels and accepted as factual when indeed they are mostly all fabrications – the “bigger fish” story. Many of the myths that are taught were results of the immense feeling of national unity leading up to the centennial in 1876.

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