Abraham Lincoln said it best: “History is written by the victors.” Except that Lincoln never said that, unless he was quoting Napoleon, who also probably didn’t coin the adage—it’s been attributed to everyone from German philosopher Walter Benjamin to George Orwell to Winston Churchill.
You see, history isn’t as tidy as high school textbooks would like us to think. Here are a few of the biggest whoppers in history:
1. George Washington never cut down that cherry tree.
Actually, the historical record is silent on whether or not first U.S. president cut down a cherry tree; that might have happened. Who knows? Pliny the Elder might have done a handstand. Some facts are lost between the cracks in the record.
What we do know is that the story of Washington cutting down a tree and then telling his father, contrite, “I cannot tell a lie,” is an invention. We know that because we can name the inventor. Biographer Mason Locke Weems published The Life of Washington in 1809, and he didn’t have qualms about a little embellishment.
Weems’ little act of presidential fan fiction is worth quoting because it is hilarious:
“‘George,’ said his father, ‘Do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?'”
Here’s where the myth was born.
Young George, “with the sweet face of youth brightened with inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth…bravely called out, ‘I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.'”
Then check out Father Augustine’s fanciful reply.
“‘Run to my arms, you dearest boy,’ cried his father in transports, ‘Run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.'”
2. Rosa Parks was much more than a working Christian woman who was tired of giving up her seat.
In fact, Parks’ act of defiance in the courts was orchestrated by Civil Rights activists under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership. One of those activists—the most important one in this context—was Rosa Parks herself.
While history depicts Parks as a tired working woman—a diligent Christian just trying to rest her feet—in fact, Parks was already deeply involved in the Civil Rights struggle. She served as the secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama, chapter of the NAACP. Reverend Jesse Jackson later connected her refusal to give up her seat on that fateful day in 1955 with the murder of Emmett Till.
Jackson wrote a memorial essay in honor of Parks after her 2005 death.
“In her declining health, I would often visit Mrs. Parks, and once asked her the most basic question: Why did you do it?” Jackson wrote. “She said the inspiration for her Dignity Day in 1955 occurred three months prior, when African-American Emmett Till’s murdered and disfigured body was publicly displayed for the world to see. ‘When I thought about Emmett Till,’ she told me, ‘I could not go to the back of the bus.’ Her feet never ached.”
Parks was far from the first black woman to protest racist policies on public transportation in Montgomery. Four of these women were part of a 1956 lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, that ultimately led to the desegregation of the Alabama bus systems through the intervention of the Supreme Court.
Organizers at the NAACP chose Parks to spearhead a court challenge for the civil disobedience charge that rose out of her refusal to give up her seat for a white man. They were highly aware of public appearances, and the narrative of a tired Christian woman with aching feet suited their cause.
Even the pictures commonly associated with Parks’ historic protest were publicized in service to the Civil Rights movement. In your history textbook, you’ve probably seen the picture of Parks’ mugshot and images of police taking her fingerprints. Those photographs were actually taken months after that moment on the bus when she was arrested for defying the city’s ban on carpools, a crucial tool in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
There’s even a photograph of Parks sitting on a bus seat. That picture was staged. The man behind her in that photo was another journalist. None of these facts diminish Parks’ contribution to history and the struggle for equality. If anything, they prove that she was even more of a hero than our textbooks tell us—and that her job is far from over.
3. Saint Patrick never chased the snakes out of Ireland.
In fact, the historic Patrick wasn’t even Irish. As Philip Freeman explains in his excellent biography, St. Patrick of Ireland, Patrick was born as a British aristocrat. Villains abducted him and bound him in slavery in Ireland when he was just 16.
After six years of punishing work under the mantle of slavery, Patrick had a holy vision. He escaped captivity and returned to Britain. Then he felt called to evangelize to the very people who held him in bondage for so many years—he returned to Ireland to spread the word of God.
And no, nowhere in the biography does the man drive the snakes out of Ireland. File that one under “myth.”
4. Benjamin Franklin did not “discover” electricity with a kite, a key, and a lucky storm.
We seem to have some basic human need to boil all of our heroes’ exploits down into a single dramatic scene. For Newton, there’s the apple. We’ve already covered Washington and the cherry tree.
For Benjamin Franklin, who you can thank for the cultural primacy of an insane work ethic, that apocryphal adventure holds that he “discovered” electricity in a way that’s pretty much impossible in real life.
In the story, Franklin ties a lighting rod to a kite, runs that rod down to a metal key, and then flies the kite in a thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning strikes the kite, at which point Franklin gathers it in and touches the key. Behold! An electric spark! Flash forward to Edison and the light bulb or whatever.
Actually, there’s no record that Franklin ever performed such an experiment. He did write about a planned experiment involving a kite, but it was much less dramatic than the lightning story. He just planned to send a kite up into some clouds to collect ions.
Oh, then there’s this: If you were holding onto a kite that was struck by lightning, you’d probably be close enough to the electrical discharge to get fried. Franklin was not fried. Ergo, no experiment.
5. There were airplanes before the Wright brothers.
Yes, even the story of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk is a partial truth. It is totally true that Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully flew a powered aircraft in South Carolina in 1903. It is not true that this was the first successful powered flight in history.
Aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead beat the brothers to it by two years. Flying magazine tells us that Whitehead flew an experimental powered aircraft called the Condor in the summer of 1901. On its first flight, the Condor traveled 1.5 miles and reached a height of 50 feet, besting the Wright brothers’ attempts at Kitty Hawk.
Also, the Wright Brothers weren’t flying at Kitty Hawk. Their first successful flight was actually four miles south of Kitty Hawk, and it only went for 120 feet.
Is nothing sacred? The good news is that history continues its crooked march, and the teachers of tomorrow will have another chance to get it right. Here’s hoping they do better than our generation’s teachers did.