The Use of Myth in History

liberty or death

Bringing a touch of myth to traditional history makes for a stable mix in the American memory. Author Gil Klein explains.

Learn more: The journal Colonial Williamsburg


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. The stories of America’s founders have become legend, literally. True stories mingle with exaggeration and myth to create a history that’s entirely American. Author Gil Klein has given this topic some thought for his upcoming article The Use of Myth in History to be published in the summer of 2012 Colonial Williamsburg Journal. Gil, thank you for being our guest today.

Gil Klein: Harmony, this is a great opportunity. Thanks for providing it.

Harmony: So you got to thinking about mythology and folklore as they relate to American history and you had an observation that a lot of our American history has a better rate of survival if we sort of mythologize it.

Gil: Well there’s the use of myth in every country’s history. The actual history that we are familiar with and know and love is really kind of an invention of the last two or three hundred years, but most societies have a mythical backing.

Harmony: When we look at history it’s messy, there are threads that are picked up but never resolved. But when you look at mythology it’s a much cleaner narrative.

Gil: That’s right. What people like are stories that have an individual who is a hero. Any good writer knows that you have to have an individual that you can pin a whole story to and that is what myth usually does.

Harmony: Who are some of the most mythologized individuals from early American history?

Gil: Well of course George Washington is the greatest. He, in realty, was the unifying factor of the American continent, the United States. Without George Washington there would have been no United States. But they had to give him some stories that could really resonate especially with younger people. This happened to coincide with the beginning of public education in the United States.

And that’s were a lot of that came from, but Washington was the unifying factor of the country and there was a tendency to try to mythologize him and if you go into the Capital, the United States Capital in the Rotunda and you look straight up there’s “The Apotheosis of Washington” Washington being turned into a God. That’s at the very top of the Washington dome. So this is something that was very important to people just before the Civil War. That painting was started just before the Civil War.

And, but my favorite one is Patrick Henry. His “Give me Liberty, or Give Me Death” speech is so ingrained into Americans that even today, when my wife teaches fourth grade history, they re-enact that speech that is, “Give me liberty or give me death.” That whole speech is so dramatic and is so much a part of who we think we are.

Patrick Henry was a famous orator. Patrick Henry, and this is supposed to be during the second Virginia convention, I believe in March of 1775, and he did speak very forcefully for Virginia to act, to take up arms, to support the New England effort, but what he said is been pretty much lost to history. This was a speech written by a fellow by the name of William Wirt, 42 years after the event. He interviewed someone who had been there at the time, but who had not taken notes. So that person was doing it entirely out of memory. So Wirt wrote this speech, which was probably the best speech he wrote even though he went on to be an attorney general, I believe. a great speech and it’s wonderful, but it was made up by somebody who was not there at the time.

Harmony: So the likelihood of Patrick Henry ever having spoken those words is pretty low, those exact words?

Gil: Those exact words of that whole speech. I believe Patrick Henry probably said “Give me liberty or give me death,” at one time or another, but whether or not he said it at that particular time we don’t know for sure.

Harmony: And you mention in your article that part of your research showed that around the time that a lot of these stories are being generated it also coincides with early elementary education becoming standardized so these become tools for sort of communicating virtues.

Gil: Yes. I think that was a large part of it, was to try to write something that would inspire young people and that would give them a sense of the nation and that the nation was something special that should be supported and fought for. Once person said it was kind of written at the time just before the war of 1812 when they needed to make sure that the younger generation understood what the Revolution was about.

Harmony: Speaking of the Revolution, we know now that the midnight ride of Paul Revere probably doesn’t go exactly like the poem.

Gil: No it certainly does not go exactly like the poem. Once again, it is something that did happen, but whether it did not happen exactly as that poem says although it seems like the history of Paul Revere’s ride was written by Longfellow, by a poet. For many years people had assumed that’s exactly what happened. There were other riders. Paul Revere didn’t make it as far as he does in the poem and a bunch of other discrepancies, but it makes for one of the great national poems that was ever written.

Harmony: Another one of the anecdotes that you uncovered was the story of Pocahontas and John Smith. This is a really colorful local legend to Williamsburg and to Jamestown, Virginia. What really happened there?

Gil: We get this story from John Smith himself and there are those who think that John Smith when he wrote his memoirs embellished a few things. They certainly were not lovers or anything. The age discrepancy was too huge and now whether or not they were going to the Indians are going to bash out John Smith’s brains is open to dispute or whether or not this is all part of an Indian ritual to bring the captive to, I think he was at the point of death and then have somebody rescue him, but certainly Pocahontas is a real person and figured very large in the early history of Virginia colonies so again, once again it is a real person but it certainly didn’t look anything like it did in the Disney movie.

Harmony: It’s been said that, and you bring up in your article, that myths explain us as we wish to see ourselves. If that’s true, if myths are how…if American myths describe the way that Americans want to see themselves what do Americans want to see in themselves based on some of these myths?

Gil: Right. Well they want to see themselves as individuals who are making their own way in the world. You know the rugged individual, the whole westward expansion idea of individuals going out and conquering the wilderness. There’s a lot of that in it, and there’s a lot of that we are always on the right side of history. We are always the ones who are on the virtuous side and a lot of that that the, you know, when you get into the weeds of real history might not pan out quite so well.

Harmony: We’ve kind of torn apart these myths, but I wondered if, even though they’re not actually factual, if there is some element of truth that gets preserved there. Is there something, sort of historic value, that we see when we look back at some of these things even though they’re maybe only sort of truthy and not exactly true?

Gil: Oh, yes. For most of them there is truth at the core of it. What some of the people I quoted were saying was that if you’re going to do history you have to first address the myth, because the myth is so deeply ingrained. So you have to start with that, and then tear that away and get to the truth that’s at the center of them.

Harmony: I wonder if the myths we tell ourselves become part of our history’s own oral tradition, become a history in themselves?

Gil: Well, yes I think you certainly have to look at how this myth, how people want this to be true. The writer, Tony Horowitz, went all over the country looking at the myths of the explorers going right up to the time of the pilgrims and what he found was that the people…he would go places and do the research and find the real story and he found that the people didn’t want to know the real story. They wanted their myths.

Harmony: This is such an interesting study. I wonder as you were researching and writing this article what the experience of that was like for you? Were you surprised to learn anything? Did you come away with a different understanding?

Gil: Well certainly the idea we…you know historians always think that myth is bad but you have to…the idea that there is a value to myth I think was really new to me. These things are important to the development of a people.

Harmony: Gil, thank you so much for being our guest today. It’s been a fun conversation.

Gil: Oh this is great. Thanks so much for talking to me.

Harmony: And to see more stories and authors from the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, and to subscribe, visit