Folklore: Thanksgiving II, Founding Fathers

Several weeks ago, I promised that I would return to America's Founding myths around Thanksgiving time.

I chose four founding tales to tackle; two are based on real events, one is a song, and one is completely fabricated (and scholars know, more or less, who the fabricator is). I maintain that all four tales are folklore, however, because they have become "common knowledge," the stuff people more or less think they know about American history.

Before I continue, I should state that I am not APPALLED by the historical inaccuracies of these tales. I've never really understood why elementary and high school teachers should be blamed because (1) they don't teach the intricate minutiae of historical events to their students; (2) the students don't remember intricate minutiae about historical events. The fact is, most people remember history as a group of stories, and it makes a lot of sense to teach it that way. Second fact is, if you can get students to realize that the Civil War happened before WWI and that the Revolutionary War didn't involve Texas, you are doing a pretty good job.

Case in point: how many people know that the pyramids would have looked ancient to Moses? Not many. Egyptian history has been lumped into pyramids, King Tut, Cleopatra, Moses, Ramses, and Queen Hapshetsut even though most of those elements are completely unrelated in time and location. Still, anyone who is at least passingly familiar with all those elements is doing a pretty good job.

Story 1: The Boston Massacre

It depends on your definition of massacre. Out of a crowd harassing a group of British soldiers, five were shot and killed; six others were wounded. That doesn't seem like much but population-wise, it was probably a fairly high percentage. The part of the tale that is often skipped is that the British soldiers were defended by later American patriots, John Adams and Josiah Quincy. The leader of the Brits and six soldiers were acquitted; two soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter. (I believe it was at this trial that Adams or Quincy gave the famous "people are guided by self-interest and why shouldn't they be?" speech).

In any case, the perception that the Boston Massacre was YET ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF BRITISH ATROCITIES was evidently not shared by all the colonists. I've always found it interesting that the long-term relationship between America and Britain survived in a far more stable fashion that that between, say, America and France.

Story 2: Paul Revere's Ride

A few years back, it became popular to get all snotty about Paul Revere, specifically, Longfellow's poem about Paul Revere, and to point out that he didn't make the ride in 1775 alone; he didn't even make it to Concord!

The problem with this type of snotty cynicism is that it masks the fact that Paul Revere actually was involved in the ride that bears his name. Folklore should never be entirely ignored! Revere and William Dawes started out to warn Concord that the British were going to seize the military supplies there. They met up with Dr. Prescott. Revere was captured by the British (that makes him a bona fide hero in my book!), and Dr. Prescott made it to Concord. A map of the ride can be found here.

Story 3: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Reportedly, the British troops used the song to mock colonists. A "doodle" refers to a dumb person; a "Yankee"--at the time--referred to a bumpkin or redneck (no jokes about the New York Yankees, please) while "macaroni" referred to a "dandy." The idea is that Yankee Doodle is such a stupid oaf, he thinks a feather makes him fashionable.

The colonists reportedly took the song and made it their own. This is actually a classic strategic move in political game-planning. In one of his books, P.J. O'Rourke refers to one of Ted Kennedy's convention speeches: "Where was George?" (in reference, I think, to the Iran/Contra Affair; "George" was Bush Senior). The opposition's response was "At home in bed with his wife, Ted."

The folklore part of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is that the song has survived despite uncertainty about its origins and despite multiple variations (older versions have many more verses than the classic tune that is hummed around school yards).

Story 4: George Washington and the Cherry Tree

For those of you who have forgotten this story, George Washington as a child reportedly chopped down a cherry tree (because boys will do these sorts of things). When questioned by his father, he admitted that he was the culprit.

It never happened. It was completely made up, probably by Mason Locke Weems in the 19th century. In 19th century terms, the story makes sense.

First, it is typical for people to create "prequels" about national and religious heroes after those heroes have entered the sacred zone of communal memory (after they've been dead/gone for 30 to 50 years). Some of the gnostic texts--the ones intelligently thrown out by early Christian scholars--tell stories of Jesus's childhood where he heals birds and invites strangers to breakfast, etc. In England, at least when I was there at age fourteen, the tour guide at Glastonbury Abbey claimed that Joseph of Arimathea brought Jesus to England during his teen years. (I guess Walt Disney World was closed.) My mother, who is something of a Bible scholar, sat there with her lips tightly pressed together. She later told me that it was unlikely. But it makes a great story!

Second, during the 19th century many, many, many books were written about good little children who learned their lessons and proved their moral superiority (the brats!). They often pined away and died (think Little Nell). Twain writes a very funny parody of this in Huckleberry Finn: Read the part about Emmeline and her poetry.

As I mentioned earlier, I consider founding tales to be fairly innocuous. It is customary for people who have too many degrees and very little sense to be SHOCKED! SHOCKED! that people would actually invent and/or perpetuate stories in order to create/support an image of a nation or home or cause; it is also customary for said SHOCKED individuals to want the said perpetuation stopped RIGHT NOW (except, of course, for those stories that ought to be perpetuated for the good of our nation).

Welcome to human nature.

Not that I'm not a fan of "real" history (and yes, I think there is such a thing; it's like pornography: I know it when I see it). But I think getting after people for perpetuating exciting stories--like the Halloween scares--or identity stories--like alien abductions--is kind of like getting after companies for trying to make their products look good so people will buy them (horrible capitalists!): a total waste of time.

Whatever my personal feelings, I would ask my students these questions: What is the function of founding tales? What do they tell us about being American? Is it wrong for kids to be taught these stories? Is there a place for folklore in history?

Yes, I know, I know, it's kind of like asking them, "Is there a place for Walmart in history?" Maybe not, but it's kind of there, so live with it. But they are young, and I can't do their thinking for them.

Literary/Popular Culture Occurrences: Longfellow's "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" naturally (although this may be an occurrence of literature creating folklore rather than the other way around); a character makes a reference to the "real" story of the Boston Massacre in Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. I actually watched Johnny Tremain to see if it got me anywhere; it didn't much except for the rather cute and orderly colonists-dressed-as-Indians. Booth does make a very funny reference to the Boston Tea Party in Season 3 of Bones: "I love this country. You know, I'll tell you something, if I was working law enforcement back in the day when they threw all that tea in the harbor - I'm good, I'm good. I would have rounded everybody up and we'd still be English."


Joe said...

My favorite myth of America's founding is Betsy Ross and the flag. What makes this myth so perverse is we know who designed America's first flag--Francis Hopkinson. Like Thanksgiving, the Ross story didn't even arise for 94 years, around the time of the Civil War!

mike c said...

I'm confused about how Dickens wrote something in Huckleberry Finn.......

Kate Woodbury said...

I corrected it! Good catch :)

Dan said...

More Thanskgiving related folklore

"According to researchers, the name 'Black Friday' dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that’s played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city’s streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as 'Black Friday' to reflect how irritating it was.

Apparently storeowners didn’t love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day."

Dan: Since anyone can pull up the financial reports for any large retailer why does the media today willingly repeat the folklore that Black Friday marks the day retailers turn profitable for the year? It is almost as if the media is reading from a script...

Dan said...


This article addresses both mythbuilding and mythbusting of the Thanksgiving story. When you do teach this course it might be a nice inclusion.

November 26, 2008, 7:00 a.m.

My Plymouth Pilgrimage
It was a worthwhile visit, despite the best efforts of the guardians of political correctness.

By John G. West