Ten Myths in American History

In honor of our 100th article, here are ten myths that our contributors have debunked. Enjoy!


  • The Battle of Bunker Hill and Experienced Military Leadership



    Myth

    The Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Revolution in general, was won by untested but brave militiamen.

    Reality

    The battle might have been lost quickly without the leadership of officers who had accrued years of experience serving in the previous wars.


  • Did the Founding Fathers Really Turn to Moses for Inspiration?



    Myth

    The Founding Fathers based their political beliefs in Christian doctrine.

    Reality

    While some Founding Fathers believed that religion should play a role in civic life, all understood the problems associated with theocracy and opted to root their politics in Enlightenment values.


  • Louisiana Purchase



    Myth

    With the Louisiana Purchase, the United States acquired a vast tract of land for almost no cost.

    Reality

    The United States actually bought a century of expensive and destructive warfare with the powerful Native peoples who controlled the land.


  • President Obama, the National Prayer Breakfast, and Slavery



    Myth

    Christian doctrine in America always stood in opposition to moral crimes like slavery.

    Reality

    Pro-slavery advocates consistently twisted Christian doctrine to defend slavery.


  • Interstellar and the Myth of the American Hero



    Myth

    The heroes of American history have typically been “Average Joes.”

    Reality

    The people who saved America in times of crisis were usually either enormously wealthy or career military men, with a notable exception of Ulysses S. Grant.


  • Sympathy for the Ku-Klux



    Myth

    Immediately after the Civil War, most white Americans were appalled by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

    Reality

    Klan defenders found creative ways to foster sympathy for convicted Klansmen.


  • Walter White: A Real American Cowboy



    Myth

    Cowboys were brave individualists, freed from the confines of government intervention and big business.

    Reality

    Cowboys could not have existed without government support, and they collected their wages from some of their era’s largest corporations.


  • The Medal of Honor and the Wounded Knee Massacre



    Myth

    The Medal of Honor has always been nearly impossible to come by, awarded to only the most heroic soldiers.

    Reality

    The Medal of Honor was once given out for the asking, as evidenced by the twenty soldiers who earned the honor for their actions in the Wounded Knee Massacre.


  • “Go Forward or Die”: The Harlem Hellfighters in World War I



    Myth

    African American service in WWI paved the way for equality in America.

    Reality

    Despite their unparalleled heroism, African American veterans returned to a nation where lynching continued to be shockingly commonplace.


  • Sticks, Stones, and American Exceptionalism



    Myth

    Those who call for change in America do not share its core values.

    Reality

    True American “exceptionalism” is derived from the belief that America can and should be better. This often means confronting, understanding, and addressing the gaps between America’s myths and realities.

About the Author

We're History

We're History Team. We’re History tells the story of how America became what it is today. Written and edited by scholars, it is real history, with all its triumphs, failures, twists, and ironies.

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5 Comments

  1. An issue I have with myth #5, American Heroes, is the implication that heroes emerged only in times of crisis, particularly warfare. While I support wholeheartedly Gen. US Grant wearing the mantle of hero, I must submit that our nation has been blessed with others who satisfy the criteria as well. To me, a national hero is one who steps forward to struggle for a cause that is laden with risks that many contemporaries would never bear themselves. Their efforts were not merely to address a need of that time, but to recast their society for the benefit of the yet-to-be born. I would include Neil Armstrong, Dr. M.L.K., Jr., Pres. Abraham Lincoln, and the countless others whose names are only remembered by the Divine. The Revolutionary War era militiamen who risked everything to give birth to a nation, but whose name I only encountered recently as I cleaned their humble gravesite are heroes by all measure and definition.

    1. Mr. V- thanks for this thoughtful and passionate comment. I think you raise an important question. What, after all, constitutes a hero or a crisis? I believe in the context of the article, the author is using a narrow definition of crisis, looking at moments when the physical safety of the nation was threatened by military force. But you’re absolutely right that when you consider slavery and segregation as crises, then a number of heroes emerge from all walks of life.

  2. In my attempt to keep my earlier comment brief, I may not have fully conveyed my view that wealth was not a necessary prerequisite for hero status. The examples I offered were not considered to be among the wealthy elite in their own time or since. To summarize, while America has had many wealthy heroes in times of crisis, there have also been many heroes who were neither wealthy or engaged in warfare.

  3. #4 They didn’t twist Christian doctrine. They just cited the bible. The phrase that you wrote is an evaluation already. I could also write the slaveholders were defending slavery with the Christian doctrine until the anti-slavery block twisted it to imply that slavery is bad. Fact is, in the end faith is always based on personal interpretation with certain parts being cherrypicked. Saying that they are “twisting the doctrine” is correct in a sense that they of course wanted to justify slavery with the bible since religion had and still has an enormous influece, but you can’t imply they were being dishonest in what the bible says about slavery. Sure there are some parts that regulate (not abolish really) slavery but there are a lot of parts that defend slavery as an institution. So instead of writing they “twisted the Christian Doctrine” I would just write “they used the Christian doctrine”.

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