Examining Ten Commonly Accepted Verbal Maps of American History
Levinson, Martin H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
There is an analogy in general semantics that words and statements are like maps that describe territories. The purpose of the analogy is to remind us that words, like maps, only represent reality and are not reality itself (the map is not the territory). To find out how well words represent reality, general semantics suggests it is a good idea to check the map against the territory--carefully examine what is being labeled or described to see if the words that describe it are accurate. Let's do that with respect to ten commonly accepted verbal maps of American history.
1. The Map: Christopher Columbus Discovered America
A review of the territory: A national American holiday and two centuries of school-history lessons have led many to believe as true that Christopher Columbus was the first to reach America. But most scholars think Columbus actually landed in Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and on an island in the Bahamas during his 1492 voyage from Spain to the New World. Archaeological evidence suggests that Norse sailors led by Leif Ericksson reached North America five hundred years before Columbus, establishing a colony in Newfoundland around 1000 AD.
It is interesting to note that Columbus's bravery, persistence, and seamanship have earned him a prominent place in American history. But many school-books gloss over the fact that in his obsessive quest for gold he enslaved the local population. With other Spanish adventurers, as well as later European colonizers, Columbus opened an era of genocide that decimated the Native American population through warfare, forced labor, and European diseases to which the Indians, a name Columbus bestowed on Native Americans, had no natural immunities.
Considering Columbus's prominence in our nation's history, one might ask, why don't we live in the United States of Columbus? The answer is that Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian who captained four voyages to the "New World" beginning in 1499, recognized that the New World, a term that he coined, was a landmass separate from Asia. To honor his revelation, Vespucci's given name was placed on the first map of the region. While Columbus may have found the new world first, Vespucci understood that it was a new world. Columbus went to his grave thinking he had reached Asia.
2. The Map: The Pilgrims Landed on Plymouth Rock
A review of the territory: On December 16, 1620, the Pilgrims on the Mayflower reached their new home in America. Nearly all scholars put the Pilgrims' landing about 10 miles north of the lumpy scrap of stone known as Plymouth Rock. There is no mention in any historical account of that rock, a large boulder located in Plymouth, Massachusetts, into which, in 1880, the Pilgrim Society carved the year 1620.
The legend of Plymouth Rock was started in 1741 by a 95-year-old man who said his father told him about it. Twenty-eight years later, celebrating the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock became an annual event in New England. By 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville reported pieces of the rock were being venerated in different American cities, and it was established as an American icon.
Offers for chunks of Plymouth Rock have occasionally popped up on eBay, where asking prices have been as much as $900. However, while it is true that lots of souvenir hunters did carve off parts of the Rock during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there is no way to differentiate a real hunk of Plymouth Rock from a fake one. For those interested in seeing what is left of Plymouth Rock (it is estimated to be only about one-third to one-half of its original size), it is preserved today in a state park near the mouth of Plymouth harbor.
3. The Map: Betsy Ross Sewed the First American Flag
A review of the territory: The legend of Betsy Ross as the first embroiderer of the American flag was originally brought to light in 1870, when one of her grandsons, William J. Canby, reported a story his grandmother had told him. According to Canby, George Washington and several others visited Betsy's upholstery shop in Philadelphia and showed her a crude drawing of the flag, which she then produced. After Canby's death, a book called The Evolution of the American Flag, published in 1909, presented the claims for Betsy Ross made by Canby in 1870.
While Betsy Ross did make some flags in the late eighteenth century, it is known that she made "ship's colors" for which she was paid, no one has been able to verify that the Canby story is true. Furthermore, some evidence exists that a Philadelphia poet named Francis Hopkinson designed the Stars and Stripes in 1780. However, Betsy Ross is still thought of by most as the sewer of the first American flag, and her house in Philadelphia has become an historical site. (NB: There is doubt among some historians that she ever lived in that house.)
4. The Map: The Evidence Is In--Thomas Jefferson Fathered Children with Sally Hemings
A review of the territory: A popular Federalist claim in the early nineteenth century was that Thomas Jefferson had carried on an affair with a young slave named Sally Hemings while he was an envoy in Paris, and that she had given birth to his illegitimate children. Jefferson never spoke about the charges.
The controversy reemerged in 1998, when the national news media widely reported that DNA tests on descendants of Jefferson and Hemings confirmed the Jefferson-Hemings relationship and that Eston Hemings, who was freed in Jefferson's will, was Jefferson's son. But the findings were actually not conclusive, and they showed evidence that others could have been responsible for impregnating Sally Hemings.
What makes this story more important than a celebrity gossip piece is the incongruity it holds between the idea of "all men are created equal" and the "peculiar institution" on which Jefferson's life and fortune were built. But the fact is that nearly all Caucasians in Jefferson's day, including most abolitionists, assumed that blacks were racially inferior. Jefferson, to his credit, agonized over the subject. While he was inclined to what would be considered today racist views, Jefferson also maintained the possibility that he might be wrong. In this respect, compared to his contemporaries, he was somewhat progressive.
5. The Map: The Civil War Was a Clash between Two Diametrically Opposed Groups: Proslavery, Anti-Union Secessionists in the South and Abolitionist, Pro-Union Forces in the North
A review of the territory: After the first seven states seceded there were eight slave states left, and the U.S. government tried to craft a compromise to keep the Union intact. While the lower South states where slavery was more deeply entrenched were solidly secessionist, voters in Virginia, Arkansas, and Missouri elected a majority of pro-Unionists to state conventions to decide the question. In North Carolina and Tennessee, the voters rejected secession conventions entirely. And in Texas, Governor Sam Houston, the greatest hero of Texas independence, opposed secession. Clearly, not everyone in the South wanted to leave the Union.
In the North, a number of people, including the prominent abolitionist Horace Greeley and lots of workingmen who believed that freeing the slaves would mean lower wages, argued that the North should allow the South to go its own way. Other Northerners wanted to preserve the Union for economic reasons (e.g., many Northern businessmen believed losing the South would mean economic catastrophe). In fact, the question of secession in the North and the South involved a multiplicity of views.
6. The Map: Abraham Lincoln Said, "You Can Fool A the People Some of the Time and Some of the People All of the Time, But You Cannot Fool All of the People All of the Time"
A review of the territory: One of the most famous quotes attributable to Lincoln is this one: "If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect. You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." But there is no record that Lincoln ever really said it. Supposedly part of a September 1858 speech in Clinton, Illinois, the quotation does not show up in the text printed in the local newspaper. The best evidence available for attributing the quote to Lincoln came from two people who, in 1910, recollected what Lincoln had said in his Clinton speech.
The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has a page on its Web site that exposes sayings Lincoln never uttered. Among them:
* "To sin by silence, when they should protest, makes cowards of men."
* "There is no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There's nothing good in war except its ending."
* "The strength of a nation lies in the homes of its people."
Lincoln also never said "If I knew what brand he'd used, I'd send every general a bottle," in response to General Ulysses S. Grant's drinking.
7. The Map: Teddy Roosevelt Led the Rough Riders Cavalry Charge That Won the Battle of San Juan Hill
A review of the territory: The Rough Riders were a cavalry regiment that Teddy Roosevelt recruited to take part in the Spanish-American War. It was a widely varied force consisting of seasoned ranch hands, Pawnee scouts, Ivy League athletes, cowboys, policemen, East Coast polo players, and others who represented a broad cross-section of American society.
Before leaving for Cuba, rigorous cavalry training was conducted for about a month at Camp Wood in San Antonio, Texas. The Rough Riders then moved to Tampa, Florida, the port of embarkation for the Cuban Campaign. Unfortunately, a serious lack of transport resulted in almost all of the unit's horses being left behind.
The regiment landed near Daiquiri, Cuba, on June 22, 1898, as part of the cavalry division under the command of Major General Joseph Wheeler of the army's V Corps. Although officially a cavalry unit, the regiment fought on foot.
The Rough Riders were only a few hundred men among 8,000 U.S. soldiers who took part in the battle of San Juan Hill. In point of fact, about 1,200 African Americans, known then as "Buffalo Soldiers," had as much to do with the victory as the Rough Riders. But Roosevelt's account of the battle emphasized and expanded the role that the Rough Riders played, and his chronicle of the events helped him to get elected president in 1903.
8. The Map: American Women Were Not Allowed to Vote before the Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920
A review of the territory: The Nineteenth Amendment was not as revolutionary as it may seem. Women in New Jersey had been granted the right to vote as early as 1776. At that time, a new state constitution was adopted that gave suffrage to any free person worth more than fifty pounds. If a woman met that financial qualification, she could vote. (The men who framed the New Jersey constitution had not expected women to take advantage of the vote and were not trying to make the state more democratic. But their constitution inadvertently did open up the system to women--at least women who had more than fifty pounds.)
At first, few women availed themselves of the opportunity to cast a ballot. Legislators believed the constitutional loophole so harmless it was retained when a new constitution was written in 1797. But the next few years saw women deciding closely contested elections, so, in 1807, the New Jersey legislature rescinded women's suffrage.
In 1868, the issue of woman suffrage reemerged in the Wyoming Territory. Without controversy, a measure granting women full rights passed the upper house of the legislature. But in the lower house the bill faced stern opposition. Men there ridiculed the bill, added outrageous amendments, and considered not voting on it until July 4, 1870--when the legislature would no longer be in session. But the bill passed by a majority of six to four. The members voting for the measure did not really want women voting, but because they were all Democrats they decided it would be politically advantageous to let the governor, a Republican, who was known to oppose woman suffrage, veto the bill. He, and not they, would be blamed for defeating women's rights.
But Republican governor John Campbell did not take the bait. Though a young man and new to the state, he detected the plot and, not willing to incur the wrath of the ladies, on December 10, 1869, signed the suffrage bill. It is interesting to note that at the time of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment women were allowed to vote in a dozen states.
9. The Map: John F. Kennedy Wrote Profiles in Courage, For Which He Was Awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1957
A review of the territory: It is true that Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, a book about senators who had performed a courageous act while in office. It is also true that the book won Kennedy national attention and cemented his standing among liberals in the Democratic Party. But it is highly questionable whether he wrote it, or at least wrote it by himself.
The idea for the book--a study of heroic U.S. senators--came to Kennedy in 1954, when he was a first-term senator. Initially, he imagined it as a magazine article, but during a long convalescence after a couple of back operations he decided to make it into a book. His chief assistant on the project was his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, who worked on the project for six months, sometimes twelve hours a day. Sorensen coordinated the work and drafted many chapters. Others also made contributions, most importantly Georgetown history professor Jules Davids.
Garry Wills, a noted historian, has argued that JFK was the author of the book in the sense that he "authorized" it. While it is true that Kennedy conceived the book and supervised its production, he did little of the research and writing. Evidence also exists that suggests Why England Slept, an earlier bestselling book on the causes of World War II credited to Kennedy, was at least partly the work of someone else.
10. The Map: The Bush Administration Moved the United States Away from a Tradition of Cooperative Diplomacy by Violently Overthrowing the Governments of Afghanistan and Iraq
A review of the territory: America has had a long history of toppling foreign regimes. Beginning with the ouster of Hawaii's monarchy in 1893 and continuing through the Spanish-American War, the Cold War, and the "war on terror," the United States (through coups, revolutions, and invasions) has overthrown fourteen foreign governments. Specifically, those in Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States carried out overthrow operations openly, through military power. During the Cold War, that was no longer possible because an invasion or direct intervention against a foreign government might bring about a reaction from the Soviet Union. Therefore, in the early 1950s, the CIA was given the job of clandestinely overthrowing governments. It did so four times in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile.
In recent decades, America has returned to its original way of overthrowing foreign governments: by military invasion. During this period, the United States has overthrown the administrations of Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
America will probably remain an interventionist power. Its position in the world makes this fairly certain. But an important question to ask is: Can the United States intervene more effectively, in ways that promote stability rather than instability? Perhaps if our leaders are able to learn from their mistakes in the past, the answer to that question will be yes.
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Martin H. Levinson is the President of the Institute of General Semantics and the author of several books on General Semantics.…
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Publication information: Article title: Examining Ten Commonly Accepted Verbal Maps of American History. Contributors: Levinson, Martin H. - Author. Journal title: ETC.: A Review of General Semantics. Volume: 66. Issue: 4 Publication date: October 2009. Page number: 364+. © 1999 International Society for General Semantics. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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