Saturday, July 17, 2010

That's Not in My American History Book

Just finished listening to the audio book "That's Not in My American History Book" by Thomas Ayres.  An interesting book with rich source of historical anecdotes.  Here are some patterns I noticed in these stories (the best is the last one):

The Hero
American History loves it's heroes.  Heroes are created for a variety of reasons.  
  1. Literary License.  An author wants to make his story better, so he makes the hero bigger than life.  This is partly how the Wild West was born.  
    • Example: Belle Star wasn't a beautiful female Robin Hood, but instead a mentally deranged woman who once stole some milk cows. 
  2. Preserving Character -  A prominent figure performs a truly heroic act so flaws are suppressed so that their memory is not tainted.
    • Example:  George Washington actually lost many battles and nearly lost the war.
  3. Promotion - History is invented to promote a relative, political candidate, etc.
    • Example: There is no real evidence that Betsy Ross made the first "stars and stripes".  The first time she was brought to public attention was by her grandson in 1870.
  4. Conspiracy - Besides heroes, we also need good villains to blame things on.  Drastic events need a good explanation
    • There is compelling evidence that John Wilkes Booth escaped and moved to Texas and that there was a cover up related to the person who was killed and lies in Booth's grave. 
Drugs and Alcohol
I ended up attending a youth conference/retreat for our church and some of the youth obligingly let me listen to the book on our drive.  They actually seemed to enjoy it, making comments and even asking me to resume playing the book after a short stop.  I noticed this while driving with them.
  1. Apparently one of the reasons General Custer lost and died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (besides the Indians being better armed) was that his troops had been drinking (their canteens where found filled with whiskey).  Custer split his forces, with Captain Benteen in charge of part of the forces.  Benteen's group survived and it is believed that a hangover prevented him from making the rational decision to help defend Custer.
  2. America's Shortest War (in Texas after the Civil War) lasted only a day after the victors returned to town, got drunk, and then were defenseless against the returning U.S. Army.
  3. Salem Witch trials may have been caused by the side effects of drugs that resembled being possessed by evil spirits or being under a witches spell.
Prejudice
Another pattern in suppressed history is due to prejudice.
  1. Gustav Albin Weisskopf was a German immigrant that designed and flew airplanes before before the Wright Brothers.  Apparently his accomplishments were ignored due to prejudice towards immigrants.
  2. Heroines of the Battlefield - many woman disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War.  Sibyl Ludington was a young girl "Paul Revere".  Sexism has made it hard for these woman to get proper recognition they deserve.
  3. James Beckwourth was a mountain man and explorer.  He discovered the pass through the Sierra Nevada mountains to California (now known as Beckwourth Pass).  His adventures are incredible.  You probably haven't heard much of him.  He's African American.  
In Conclusion, I highly recommend learning a broader spectrum of our history.

3 comments:

Kevin said...

I have no opinion on whether Weisskopf beat the Wrights to a powered flight or not. However, a brief review of his design and accounts of flight via the linked Wikipedia page shows that he completely missed the Wright's crucial innovation: the aileron, or "wing warping." The Wrights were pretty much the first to discover that "bank to turn" was a vastly superior method of turning than "skid to turn", which everbody else was using. When Wilbur Wright went to Europe in 1908 and demonstrated bank-to-turn for the first time in France, it was a sensation - and ironically spurred much more intensive development than was going on in the US, where the Wright's patents were hindering the development of aviation.

So, even if Weisskopf flew first, the Wrights are still the first true airmen, and deserve the acclaim they have garnered.

(You were just waiting for me to take the bait on this one, right? -:)

Ron said...

Kevin, no baiting intended :) The point is that relying solely on mainstream history limits our understanding of how events truly happened. I was taught the airplane was a spontaneous invention, when it was more of an evolution of competing ideas. How the airplane came to be seems to be a much more interesting story than "a couple of clever guys invented the airplane".

Kevin said...

No argument from me about using alternate sources. The one I've been touting for a while is Amity Shlaes's redo of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man, for obvious reasons.

Still enjoying your blog, even if I don't comment often; spare time is almost nonexistent right now...