“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That classic line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” shows that sometimes we prefer the romanticized version of a story to the cold hard facts.
Years ago, I spotted a tie on Ebay. It had an image of a famous painting on the front, featuring the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. I looked forward to getting it in the mail like Ralphie waiting for his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring in the movie “A Christmas Story.” When it arrived, it was perfect…except for one little detail.
On the back, the tie incorrectly noted that the image was from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Instead of Thomas Jefferson and pals submitting the document to John Hancock, it was George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison…okay, maybe you needed to know a little something about both classic paintings (here’s the one from the Declaration of Independence).
That’s because George Washington didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence. He was in New York, preparing to defend the place from British General William Howe. Hamilton was Washington’s aide-de-camp, and with Washington. Madison never signed the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson wasn’t at the Constitutional Convention. He was in France. Hancock did not sign the U.S. Constitution. Oops.
It turns out that we may not know as much about our American history as we thought.
It seems like almost every year, I get a chain email, telling me about how several Founding Fathers paid the ultimate price for signing the Declaration of Independence. It starts like this: “Have you ever wondered what happened to the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence? Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died.”
I thought it sounded a little odd. After all, it mentions a lot of details and names of others later, but never says who the five are. It turns out that actually the British didn’t torture or even kill a single signer of the Declaration of Independence. They did capture a few, at battles of Charleston and Savannah, involving sieges where large numbers were captured. It seems they were treated no different from any other prisoner.
The chain email goes on to reprimand us for not knowing more about our history, admonishes us for taking our liberties for granted sometimes, and informs us “that patriotism is NOT a sin.”
What’s a sin is sending around email with falsehoods to others in the name of patriotism. Instead, we need to find out what really happened in our nation’s history. I’m sure our Founding Fathers would approve of our search for truth.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.