Ah the perils of myth-busting. Before you revel in exposing myths, you have to be absolutely sure all of your facts are straight. It reminds us of the first rule of editing: don’t introduce mistakes into something you’re trying to correct.
Someone who has fallen afoul of this rule is Adam Conover, of the TruTV show Adam Ruins Everything. We enjoyed season 1 of this show very much; there was a lot of effective myth-busting in many different categories—health, economics, politics, etc. But the new season that began recently was a disaster of myth creation in the guise of myth-busting.
The locus of the show is that everything Conover says is backed up by research. His sources appear briefly onscreen as he speaks. But if the first tool of the myth-maker is to create your own facts out of whole cloth, the second is to cherry-pick, mis-represent, and de/re/mis-contextualize facts in the sources you read. This episode, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth,” did all of those things with its sources.
Before we go through it with a fine-tooth comb, the overall point to make is that history is like science in that you must look at all the data. Cherry-picking is what we call looking for data that only supports your position and ignoring data that does not. History also requires objectivity and open-mindedness: if you begin research with the goal of making someone look good or bad, you are not going to do good research.
“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” is so irritated with the positive myths about the American Revolution, and somehow George Washington in particular, that it goes overboard trying to prove that it and he were awful and that all Americans should be ashamed of both. Now the show must bear the brunt as The HP Clarifies Everything.
The episode begins with Adam contradicting a pompous narrator who says the Continental Army during the Revolution was filled with patriots. Adam swiftly steps in to claim, for the first of many, many times, that the CA was “not made up of patriots, but drunks, immigrants, and farmers looking to get paid.” We’re not sure why immigrants cannot be classified as patriots—Adam implies that all of them were very recent arrivals who could not have had any loyalty to the patriot cause. He continues:
In 1775, as few as 1 in 5 colonists even supported the independence movement. And much of that support came from wealthy, land-owning elites.
WEALTHY MAN: It would be great for me if we were our own country. The king’s taxes are really hurting my bottom line.
But the average colonist didn’t care about patriotism at all.
FARMER: I’ve got a farm to tend. I don’t care which elitist wig-head is in charge.
And on top of that, about a third of the colonists actually supported the British side.
Where to begin with the problems here? First, it’s true that support for independence from Britain did not have majority support amongst American colonists. But to basically say that the independence movement was a tool used by wealthy men to make more money is not accurate, and certainly not myth-busting. To bullet it out:
—You cannot generalize about “the colonies”. Support for independence differed in each colony and each region of the 13 American colonies. Not all wealthy people supported it. And basically no wealthy man thought that separating from Britain, and leaving behind the lucrative trade with England that had made him wealthy in the first place was going to help his “bottom line.” Wealthy men who supported independence were men who were well-educated and believed it was worth the sacrifice of their wealth, at least temporarily.
—The comment about “average” colonists and “farmers” shows a complete lack of knowledge about revolutionary America. What made our revolution extraordinary was that it was debated amongst average people for a long time. Most Americans were farmers. All of the farmers in New England voted for their representatives to their colonial legislatures. Farmers in most of the Mid-Atlantic and South were politically active as well. Americans were unusual in the British Empire; the political identity and strong views most average American farmers–men and women—held, and constantly aired, surprised and sometimes amused visiting Englishmen and women. Very few American farmers believed their colony’s government was made up of “elitists,” and they cared very much about who served in their names. Voting rates were high and steady.
—Yes, a third of Americans supported British rule; that is, remaining part of the Empire. But even these were divided about what that should mean going forward, as America grew economically. Even Americans who did not want independence thought that the colonies should elect men to serve in the House of Commons in London, to represent America’s wants and needs.
—They wanted that in large part because they wanted to have some say in taxation, which was not hurting anyone’s bottom line as much as it was reducing America to the status of a vassal state. Americans had no say in taxation, and most of the taxes they were protesting throughout the 1760s and 70s had been levied not to raise money but as punishments for political protest—many were literally taxes levied to pay the tax collectors’ salaries. Taxation was protested against on a political level, for its political effects, not because it was hurting a few rich elitists’ incomes. One of the first things you learn when studying revolutionary New England is that wealthy merchants like John Hancock remained quite wealthy during these periods of taxation and trade bans because they continued to operate by illegal smuggling.
There’s another large problem that will become clear in our next post, when the show introduces George Washington as a swindler, liar, and criminal. Not all Americans in the Continental Army were true-blue patriots ready to die for their newly declared country. But that’s the miracle of the Revolution, and the testament to Washington’s leadership: slowly but surely, after the hot patriots served and left the Continental Army, he created a new army of patriots out of individual militia and men who did want to get paid and get out after one year. The American cause of liberty was something that Washington built up out of very little, out of defeat and suffering, through personal example and commitment, and ingrained in the hearts of the men of his army.
So to assume that all the Continental soldiers all had to be held in the army by force and lies throughout the war is simply wrong. The desire to knock Washington off his pedestal leads the show to go horribly off-course into something that goes beyond myth-making to truth destruction. But more on that next time.