7 Things People Get Wrong About American History

11 minute read

Whether or not American students know enough about their nation’s history — and what exactly should be included in any assessment of that question — has become a perennial school-year subject of debate. After all, in the most recent U.S. History installment of the so-called “nation’s report card” from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 18% of eighth graders surveyed scored a “proficient” or “advanced” score on the test.

But middle- and high-school students aren’t the only ones who sometimes slip up when it comes to American history. Ask historians about the matter and you’ll probably find that each has an experience with the persistent misconceptions that can dog any subject of study. The reasons are many: Some schools don’t have time to leave every student with an in-depth knowledge of the subject; the growth of the Internet has meant there are more ways to learn, but also more ways for errors to spread; and some errors are the result of new discoveries. And the errors are many, too.

With that in mind, TIME asked seven historians about the myths they often find themselves debunking — and where Americans’ understanding of their country’s history tends to be incomplete.

Compiled by Olivia B. Waxman

Slavery wasn’t confined to the South

By Michael L. Blakey

Slavery existed in all 13 British Colonies (later to become U.S. states) by the end of the 17th century. Slavery, tobacco, sugar and rum were the major industries of the Atlantic World and the North was fully engaged in the first two of these, and grew corps to provision the Caribbean where sugar and rum comprised the largest profit-making businesses of the colonial world. Slavery did not end in New York until 1827, where, according to Ira Berlin, slaves were at least 50% of those who built and maintained the City and 20% of its total population. Many people continued to be enslaved there by travelers from the slave-holding South until nearly the time of the Civil War. Connecticut ended slavery later still.

Blakey is the National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary and founding Director of its Institute for Historical Biology. He has also served on the scholarly advisory committee for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Women’s Lib was not hostile to men

By Linda Gordon

No social movement, arguably, has been so misrepresented as the 1960s-’70s women’s movement. In these myths, feminists were single, middle class and white; mainly concerned with “sex issues,” such as pornography, abortion rights, sexual harassment and rape; and hostile to men. Each is wrong.

The feminism of that period was diverse in class and race from its beginnings. Working-class, labor-union women — black, white, and Latina — were leaders in the 1960s revival of feminism. Feminists did focus campaigns on the sex issues but they often prioritized economic goals: better pay, especially in low-wage women’s jobs; equal access to higher-salary jobs and traditionally male jobs; medical care and sick leave. In writings and speeches they called for honoring and valuing women’s unpaid family labor. Experiencing the stress of combining unpaid and paid work, feminists campaigned for policies aimed to reducing that stress, such as paid parental leave, flexible schedules, and quality, affordable child care. Imagine if they had won and all workers had more time to enjoy — and nurture — their families. Men who agreed to share child-care reported that they loved being more involved with their children. (Cleaning, not so much.) Feminists had some successes and some losses. But their greatest achievement was creating a sea-change in public opinion: despite constant attacks on feminism, so harsh and fearful that it became a stigmatized “f” word, in 2016 60% of American women and 30% of men called themselves feminists or strong feminists. Far from man-hating, feminists were confident that men could change, and that they would benefit from feminist policies, and they were right.

Gordon is a two-time Bancroft Prize winner, the Florence Kelley Professor of History and University Professor of the Humanities at New York University, and author of the forthcoming book The Second Coming of the KKK.

The U.S. is not technically a democracy

By Nancy Isenberg

American “democracy” has never been a democracy at all. John Adams argued that the best form of government was “mixed,” by which he meant elements of a monarchy (Executive), aristocracy (Senate), and democracy (House). And if that wasn’t complicated enough, most of the founders agreed that the federal Constitution established a “republic,” which for Adams was an “empire of laws, not men.”

The most obvious and consistent anti-democratic defect in U.S. society is the endless means used to restrict suffrage. Women, of course, did not secure the right to vote until 1920, though they comprised over half of the adult population. Before the Civil War, states created a hodgepodge of unfair voting regulations. In 1821, New York eliminated property requirements for white men, but retained them for free black men. Eight states passed laws disenfranchising the urban poor, and the new state of California prohibited slavery but established the practice of peonage on Native Americans that denied them political rights.

In the aftermath of Reconstruction, southern states used poll taxes to deny poor black and white men the vote. It was so effective that only 20% of the southern population participated in the presidential elections of 1920 and 1924. Poll taxes were not deemed unconstitutional until 1966. Finally, the Electoral College denies voters the right to directly elect the president, which the Supreme Court reconfirmed during the contested 2000 election. The winner-take-all proviso for awarding state electoral votes disfranchises minority party voters. The real leader in democratic reform is Australia, which made voting compulsory. This innovation has produced vastly higher turnouts and greater legitimacy for the victors.

Isenberg is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University and author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

Vietnam’s communists leaders weren’t the men you think

By Lien-Hang Nguyen

As we near the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Tet Offensive — perhaps the most well-known event of the Vietnam War — it is worth debunking a deeply-held myth regarding Hanoi’s war. Although President Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap have been credited with leading the Vietnamese communist war effort to victory over the Americans, they were actually on the losing side of a major political battle on the eve of Tet. The victors, Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, managed to marginalize Ho and Giap, who opposed their military plans for 1968. Convinced that a nation-wide surprise attack on the cities and towns across South Vietnam to incite popular uprising would in fact end in defeat and devastating losses, Ho and Giap failed to persuade the rest of the Party leadership to abandon course. Instead, the “comrades Le” summarily punished Ho and Giap for their defiance by arresting their closest assistants and deputies and launching the largest purge in Vietnamese communist history. Powerless to spring their friends from prison in Hanoi, Uncle Ho stayed in Beijing while General Giap remained in Hungary until the offensive was well under way. A wise man once said that a lot of history is just dirty politics cleaned up for the consumption of children and other innocents. The tale of Tet is precisely that for Vietnam.

Nguyen, the Dorothy Borg Associate Professor in the History of the United States and East Asia at Columbia University, is a general editor of the forthcoming Cambridge History of the Vietnam War, and co-editor of the Cambridge Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations.

Hallucinogens didn’t start the Salem witchcraft crisis

By Mary Beth Norton

As a historian of Salem witchcraft, I have a pet peeve: people who believe the myth that the witchcraft crisis of 1692 was somehow “caused” by ergot poisoning. Ergot is a natural fungus that can grow on rye in wet conditions. People in Salem at the time ate bread made from mixed cornmeal and rye flour. Back in the mid-1970s, an article speculated that the afflicted people in Salem Village had ingested ergot in their bread, and that made them hallucinate. (Ergot can have effects like LSD.) This has proved to be a popular and enduring explanation for the 1692 accusations, so much so that whenever I give a talk about the Salem episode I am asked about the theory.

But it has numerous problems. The first is that experts refuted it shortly after it was published — but the general reading public has paid no attention to the refutation. A medical explanation blaming drugs is very attractive to many modern Americans, for it simplifies a complex event. Second, ergot poisoning also causes gangrene in the limbs, and no contemporary evidence suggests that any of the accusers had gangrenous arms and legs. Third, only some people in each household were afflicted. If everyone ate the same food, which was very likely, why were only some people affected? Finally, even if there was some hallucinogen in the food, it doesn’t explain why the accusers chose to charge particular people with witchcraft or what they charged them with doing. Both those questions are the crucial ones for which historians, including myself, have sought answers.

Mary Beth Norton is the author of In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, and president-elect of the American Historical Association for 2018.

Spanish speakers pre-dated English speakers in the U.S.

By Vicki L. Ruiz

Contrary to popular media depictions of Latinos as newcomers who arrived the day before yesterday, there exists a rich layering of nationalities, generations and experiences among Latino Americans. Yet their stories are often ignored or misconstrued. As an example, U.S. history textbooks typically give only a passing glance to Spanish-speaking settlements, such as St. Augustine (1565), Santa Fe (1610), San Antonio (1718) and latecomer Los Angeles (1781). The first European language spoken in the area that would become the United States was Spanish, not English. From carving out frontier communities in the 1700s to writing about citizenship and liberty during the 19th century to fighting for civil rights in the 20th, Latino Americans have made history within and beyond national borders.

Vicki L. Ruiz, a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, is a past president of the Organization of American Historians and of the American Historical Association and a 2015 recipient of the National Humanities Medal.

Asian Americans led a civil-rights movement of their own

By Ellen Wu

Without question, racial stereotypes are omnipresent in American society and culture. For instance, there’s a general assumption that Asians are quiet, impassive, don’t-rock-the-boat types. But the truth is that Asians in the U.S. have never been docile, unresponsive or apolitical.

Chances are you’ve never heard of the Asian American Movement — probably the least known of the 1960s social movements in the United States. Inspired by Black Power and the opposition to the Vietnam War, the Asian American Movement took off in the late 1960s and lasted through much of the 1970s. Across the country, persons of Asian ancestry energetically denounced racism and imperialism at home and abroad. They championed solidarity with “Third World” peoples everywhere, and they pushed for more equitable and just ways of living. The Movement was “one struggle, many fronts”: it generated a robust press and vibrant artistic production alongside campaigns for affordable housing for the poor and elderly, community-relevant education, accountability for police brutality, and an end to U.S. military invention in Southeast Asia.

“Asian American” identity itself emerged from this grassroots mobilization. Even as they condemned the nation’s ugly practices of denigrating and exploiting people of color, Movement participants unapologetically claimed a rightful place in America. Today, “Asian American” (and its variants) is widely recognized as a meaningful racial category. You can find it on the U.S. Census; it’s used by government agencies, employers and universities; significant numbers of people think of themselves as “Asian American” — even if they don’t always agree on “who counts” or what it signifies. This is the enduring legacy — if also the perennial challenge — of the Asian American Movement.

Wu is a professor of History at Indiana University Bloomington, and author of The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.

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