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June 29, 2006

5 Questions for Ray Raphael


photo of ray raphaelACCLAIMED SOUTHERN HUMBOLDT HISTORIAN Ray Raphael (left) doesn't really have anything against the Fathers (though he doesn't much care for the term). What he objects to is the central role they have assumed in the teaching of American history. In his recent work, Raphael has gone back to original documents to show that the impetus for American Independence came not from a few heroic leaders, but from the great masses of the incipient nation's citizenry.

The paperback version of Raphael's latest book -- Founding Myths: The Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past -- will be released on July 4. In it, he argues that the "great man" theory of the Revolution, with its adulatory, larger-than-life portraits of figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the rest, is an invention of the 19th century, a time when the new country was in need of heroes. Unfortunately, he says, the great men have overstayed their welcome. Most Americans still think of the Revolution in terms of their actions. They miss out on the truly revolutionary aspect of the country's origins, and therefore fail to understand its powerful lesson -- that millions of people together were able to invent their own form of government.

Founding Myths recounts a number of stories that have worked their way into the American psyche -- book cover of Founding MythsPaul Revere's mission to warn Massachusetts farmers of an impending invasion, the signing of the Declaration of Independence -- and shows how the actual history is richer, more complex and more inspiring that the common story would have it.

1. I discovered in your book something I didn't know before -- that the Fourth of July is kind of a sham. Nothing that important happened on that day during the Continental Congress. But does that matter?

It doesn't really matter. There is something to celebrate, and what there is to celebrate is Independence.

The way we celebrate it, it's as if one man, Thomas Jefferson, a genius, dreamed up Independence. He wrote up this document and everybody voted for it and signed it, and that's what we're celebrating. That's the standard story, and what we're celebrating is the Declaration of Independence -- the actual document.

What we should celebrate is Independence, not the Declaration of Independence. Independence was a huge step, but it wasn't dreamed up by one man -- Independence was the climax of a six-month-long national discussion such as the country has never seen since. In every tavern, and in every meeting house, whenever people met, throughout the land, people were discussing whether to take the big step and go for Independence. They debated and debated and discussed it. They started passing resolutions at the state and local level, saying yes, it's time to go for Independence. We know of at least 90 of these documents.

Congress itself was hovering. There weren't enough votes -- there wasn't a clear majority one way or the other. And of course they needed an overwhelming majority for this thing to work. So rather than vote on it prematurely and have a split vote, the people who were in favor of it said, "Let's let these local bodies exert more influence" -- sort of send it back to the people. So, for instance, in Maryland, which was opposed to it, all the patriots got together, put together a state convention and reversed their Congressional delegation.

Enough of those came through so that finally, those who were in favor of Independence, said, "O.K., now we're ready for the vote." And they did vote -- on July 2. On the second, they vote for Independence. That was the big vote.

But one of the things they did when they were considering it, they said, "Well, if we're going to do this, we have to have a document explaining it." So they appointed a committee to write that document, and Thomas Jefferson wrote the main part of the draft. And that's the document we've sort of enshrined as scripture. But the thing is, that was kind of the rationalization. It wasn't until July 4 that they actually approved the final draft of the Declaration. That's where July 4 comes in. But Independence itself dates from the 2nd. That was the grand event.

But then they started thinking, "We should make a big deal of this." So they sent to have a fancy copy of it made, and that was ready on August 2. The delegates who were there started to sign it. Many of the delegates who signed it -- I think 14 of them -- weren't even present on July 4. Many of them weren't even Congressmen on July 4. But they signed it anyway. And they kept signing it through the fall. One of them didn't sign it until the next year. Meanwhile, this document has taken on a life of its own.

We create these scenes -- the signing of the Declaration of Independence, where everyone is lining up and signing their name on July 4. And we have this great mythology develop.

There's a very humorous story. There's this guy, Samuel Chase from Maryland. We know that he was in Maryland on July 2, and we know he was in Maryland on July 5. And yet he signed the Declaration! Now, in truth, this is not a startling thing, since nobody signed it until August 2. But everybody convinced themselves that everybody signed it on July 4, so this myth arose -- that he was so pumped up about Independence that he rode 100 miles through the night just to sign the document on the Fourth, and then rode home. All these old history books have this great patriotic story about Samuel Chase, riding through the night.

2. This is the nut of your argument, I think. In turning our past into stories, and to personify it in certain great characters, we end up losing touch with our actual history.

Right. And the distortions can be misleading, they can be derogatory, they can be dangerous. And the use of story moves us forward to right now. Karl Rove has mastered the art of the story, and the need for story, and is able to develop very clean, very clear stories that people want to hear, and that are totally bogus. It doesn't matter whether they're true.

Saddam is connected to 9/11 -- because he lives in the same part of the world, and there's a bunch of Muslims over there. The story works for his purpose. There's not a shred of evidence for it, but half of the American public believed it years later, and a third of Americans still believe it. And look at the harm that story did, and was intended to do.

Stories are invented as tools. In the crudest sense, they're propaganda tools. And in that sense, the better the story -- user beware.

3. But stories, also, are unavoidable. Humans have a sort of innate need for stories to make sense of the world. You yourself are a storyteller, are you not?

Humans use stories to make sense of the world. And you can do this responsibly, or you can do this as a means of grabbing power. From the beginning of time, people who have sought power have created stories about how they are linked to God. And they've used these stories to assume power. And they're still doing it today. Religious fundamentalists in both the Christian world and the Islamic world are using the story that they are linked to God to seize power -- to seize crude political and military power. So you have to beware of that story.

A responsible use of the story is to look at history, to try to understand how human beings behave and then to boil it down in a way that makes sense, and makes it interesting and appealing and kind of gets at the heart of the matter.

Let me give you an example. Instead of the Paul Revere ride -- which is the story we've kind of developed -- there is an earlier, alternate story about these farmers. The farmers in Massachusetts come together. For 150 years, they've come together in their town meetings and they could vote on their own. Suddenly, they're told they can't do this. And they come together in every tavern and every meeting house, and they say, with one voice, they say, "No way. We're not going to do this. We're going to shut down the government that does this to us."

And so they stage these marvelous popular demonstrations, which are more than just demonstrations -- they're actually acts of overthrow. In the town of Worcester, 4,622 militiamen -- that's half the adult male population of the entire county of Worcester -- come together in one town, in one moment. They line both sides of Main Street, and they get the British-appointed officials to walk the gauntlet between them, their hats in their hand, reciting their resignations, saying, "I will not uphold this British authority. This does not speak for the people."

Now, that's a good story.

4. Except for the fact that it doesn't have a protagonist.

It doesn't have a protagonist, and that's one big reason why that story hasn't been told. We like our protagonists. I'm actually addressing this in my next book. In my next book -- it's called Founders: The People Who Brought You A Nation -- I'm retelling the whole founding of the nation with specific protagonists. but the protagonists are chosen more responsibly, to reflect a whole cross-section of the American public rather than just a handful of elite men.

Within this, one of my protagonists is a man named Timothy Bigelow, who was a blacksmith in Worcester, in this town, in this story I just told. He was very involved in this group process. The people met at his home, and he was the representative to the provincial congress. When the people were ready to declare their independence, they gave him very specific instructions. So I can tell this story using Timothy Bigelow as a protagonist, but I don't have Timothy Bigelow being the motive force of this entire revolution. That's the irresponsible use of the story.

History, by definition, is a group process. And the way we tell history, in stories -- we reduce that group process to a series of individual actions. That distorts history. It's meant to be empowering -- look at all the impact an individual can have! -- but in fact it's very disempowering, because we all know we don't have that kind of power. The only way to achieve any kind of power is to work together. If we understood real history, we'd be much better able to seize the reins and to effect change.

5. How could the Fourth of July be celebrated in a way that would better reflect the actual history of the nation?

Well, hey! Fireworks? Take your cooler to the river and have a good time?

The civic-ness of the holiday has sort of disappeared into the pleasure of the holiday. Basically, the Fourth of July has become the midsummer festival. It's gone beyond its nationalism to a much more general celebration of midsummer. And actually, that's great. All cultures, throughout history, have figured out ways to celebrate the middle of summer. l


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