In a prior post, I analyzed the myths of the Battle of New Orleans which shaped the American psyche in a crucial formative period (https://deliberationsatmimirswell.blog/2017/11/21/the-myths-that-made-a-nation/). Of course, there were plenty of myths at the nation’s very beginning. Let’s examine a few that still hold currency today. Spoiler alert- the Patriot is loaded with them!
Myth #1- The Americans had an established right as English subjects to be represented before being taxed. Well, they certainly thought they did, but it was a right they made up. The rule in the English Constitution at the time was that Parliament had to approve taxes, but not every English subject could vote for members of Parliament. In fact, most couldn’t. Virtual representation, the belief that MPs spoke for the whole of Britain, even those who couldn’t vote, was a deeply flawed theory, but it was the one that was on the books at that time. Besides, the colonists told Benjamin Franklin when he went to England that he was not to accept any offers of representation. Translation: we just don’t want to pay taxes to the Mother Country.
Myth #2- The British were oppressing the Americans. Actually, the whole thing started because the British after a long and very expensive war wanted the Americans to chip in to pay for their own defense, and after all, isn’t protecting subjects the first duty of government? Didn’t the Apostle Paul tell Christians in the Roman Empire to pay some of the most corruptly levied taxes in history for the sake of law and order being protected? The amount of taxes the British were intending to levy from America were only a fraction of what subjects in Britain paid. In fact, one of the reasons it came to war was that Britain often backed off in the years preceding the war. Thus, when the British clamped down on the colonies as they became increasingly lawless, the Americans felt that they could get their way by fighting it out.
Myth #3- “Bloody Ban” Tarleton and his men were psychopathic killers who took no prisoners and massacred civilians. This is a gross distortion of their actual record, which, while not spotless, is not one of unmitigated barbarism. Certainly, they never incinerated civilians in a church like they do in the Patriot (that was the Nazis). This report of “Tarleton’s quarters,” on the basis of which the Americans themselves sometimes refused to show quarter either, mostly comes from the Battle of Waxhaws. Now, it’s true that the British Legion (whose rank and file were actually American Loyalists) inflicted frightening casualties on Buford’s command, but this was not the result of a premeditated order or natural bloodthirsty inclination. What happened (and this has corroboration from the American flagbearer’s own account) was that, as Buford’s force was being overrun, one of his officers raised a white flag, after which someone shot Tarleton’s horse out from under him. The Loyalists, thinking their commander had been killed by treachery, went berserk, or “were stimulated,” as Tarleton put it, “to a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.” The casualty rate for Buford’s command was out of all proportion to the typical figures for the war, and many Americans were badly cut up, but even then the British Legion did take some prisoners, and they didn’t execute the wounded like Colonel Tavington would have.
Myth #4- The Loyalists were largely selfish, airheaded aristocrats who cared more for their property than principle. This is the impression movies like 1776 and the Patriot try to convey, but actually there were plenty of humble Americans who fought for the British and plenty of wealthy Americans who fought for the rebellion. The richest man in America, John Hancock, was President of the Continental Congress. The British raised many units with Loyalist rank and file drawn from everyday colonists, though it must be admitted that one of the reasons they lost was that these units let them down at some key moments.
Myth #5- The Founders were inspired by the Christian religion to fight in the rebellion. Well, it’s true that the Scots-Irish Presbyterians were staunch Patriots and some representatives of the Continental Congress like the Reverend John Witherspoon were Christians, but the leaders of the movement were mostly Deists inspired by Enlightenment principles. The Declaration of Independence nowhere mentions Christ or the Bible, but merely a nebulous “Nature’s God,” which was about as religious as most Enlightenment figures got. In a question I like to pose to those who think this nation was founded largely by Christians, I ask, “Between John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George III, would you like to guess who the only Christian in that group was?”
Myth #6- American militia, armed with Kentucky rifles, won the war with infallible marksmanship. Actually, while it had its moments and did inflict a lot of casualties among officers, American militia had a propensity to flee when the going got tough. Before the advent of the Minié ball, rifles could not be used in large numbers because they were too slow to load with a suitably fitted round. It had to fit the barrel exactly, and then it was hard to ram it down all the way. In fact, there were even cases like the opening of the Battle of Princeton when the British overwhelmed slower loading rifle units. Most of the heavy lifting in the war and the winning of the crucial battles was due to Continental regulars trained in European warfare. Speaking of Europe, the fact that three of the greatest European powers ganged up on Britain is a large reason why there’s a United States of America today. The British had conquered New York and Philadelphia and consistently defeated Washington when the French made them reallocate their resources and a Prussian officer taught the Americans how to fight like Europeans. At Yorktown, it was the French general’s plan, the French artillery, and the French fleet that made the whole Allied victory possible.