American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley – BBC 4

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This certainly didn’t pull any punches. It was actually quite malicious; and I’d love to know what an American audience would make of it.  Remember the days when Auntie Beeb was actually neutral?!  Anyway.  I’ve been studying American history since 1986.  It’s one of the things I go back to if I’m having a bad spell with anxiety, because it reminds that me that I’m still me.  My specialist period’s the Civil War, and I’m rather looking forward to seeing Dr Lucy debunking some of the myths about that; but I do tend to get a bit soppy and romantic over the Revolution.  I’ve got my own little model of the Liberty Bell.  And I’ve even got a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (which I last night located behind my copy of the National Trust Book of Scones, for some reason).  But I do know very well that most of it is more romance than fact, and there was nothing factual in this programme that I found surprising or that I’d even really argue with.  It was still quite “interesting” to see the BBC absolutely lay into the United States like this, though.  I don’t think they’d have shown a programme like this before The Donald (he who thinks that it was the Canadians who burnt down the White House in 1812) got himself elected president.

Is it really weird for a British historian to get soppy over the American Revolution? Or is it a Mancunian rebel thing 😉 ?  I got genuinely emotional at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and even more so at the National Archives in Washington, seeing original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  (Maybe a bit less so at Boston Harbour, because the thought of all that tea being wasted was rather upsetting.  I’m very fond of tea.)   It’s all that “land of the free” stuff.  It really does get to you … even when you’re a Civil War specialist and can talk about the history of slavery in the US until the cows come home.

So, we started off with the basic point that the Declaration of Independence was actually made on July 2nd, 1776.  I remind people about that every Fourth of July – and probably really annoy them, sorry! Then we jumped back to 1773.  Lucy Worsley did surprisingly little dressing up in this: Michael Portillo dressed up when he covered the Boston Tea Party, but Lucy didn’t.  I did wonder if maybe she was trying to get herself taken more seriously, but there was some dressing up later on.  Incidentally, if someone is trying to get themselves taken more seriously, maybe they should avoid using the word “fibs” in the title of their programme.  It sounds like something you say to a naughty five-year-old who’s insisting that they weren’t the one who left toys out all over the floor.

It was pointed out that Washington, Franklin et al weren’t very amused by the Boston Tea Party – not so much because it was a waste of good tea as because it involved the destruction of private property. As we all know, the British and American well-to-do classes in Georgian times were obsessed with private property.  And it meant that those who’d been arguing against no taxation without representation were made to look like criminals.  Big black mark.  A bit of a dig was also made about the modern use of the name “Tea Party” by people who are … shall we say, not exactly associated with liberty and equality.  I nearly added “and fraternity” there – oops, wrong revolution.

Next up for debunking was Paul Revere’s ride. No, Paul Revere did not make a daring solo ride to warn the people of Lexington and Concord that the British were coming.  There were two other blokes involved, and Revere himself was captured at Lexington and never even got to Concord.  Paul Revere’s always annoyed me, for some reason.  I don’t know why, given that I do get soppy over the Revolution.  Lucy, quite rightly, put the blame for the Paul Revere myth on Longfellow.  That’s twice in a week that I’ve had a go at Longfellow (who also wrote Evangeline).   I much prefer Longfella.  Sorry – couldn’t resist that.

And then there was the idea of the American army as being made up of gallant farmers. Er, yep, I think we’re all a bit past that, and know very well that it was, or at least became, a professional army, but the myth persists.  I actually blame Oliver Cromwell for this.  He’s the main reason (Louis XIV is the runner-up, but a long way behind) that people in Britain got so paranoid about the idea of professional armies, and that idea crossed the Atlantic.  It took the Duke of Wellington to change people’s minds here, but he, obviously, didn’t have any influence in the US, and so the idea of the army of gallant farmers remained a romantic ideal.  It just isn’t actually true.   And, of course, the Second Amendment had to get a mention there.  Whilst I think practically everyone in the UK wishes that America would tighten up its gun controls, the BBC is supposed to be politically neutral.  Between that, the digs about immigration and the digs about fake news … well, as I said, I don’t think they’d have shown a programme like this before Mr Trump took up residence in the White House.

Ah yes, presidents. The great George Washington … slaveowner.  I’ve recently read Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning, and a lot of that revolves around the paradox of Thomas Jefferson owning slaves.  I didn’t get soppy at Monticello, nor at Mount Vernon.  It’s worth noting that Revolutionary France did abolish slavery (although Napoleon restored it a few years later).  As we all know, the new United States did not, and many of the Founding Fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, were slaveowners.  You can’t call that a myth, or indeed a fib, because no-one pretends otherwise, but … well, you can tie yourself in knots trying to reconcile the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with another nine decades of slavery.  Not to mention with the lack of rights for women.  The treatment of Native Americans.  Discrimination against non-Protestants. I love the United States and am not criticising her any more than I’d criticise any other country, but … it just doesn’t sit very well with the idea of the “land of the free”.

And poor old George III. Dear old Farmer George, with his fifteen kids and his health problems, cast as some sort of tyrant.  This really does annoy me.  Have a go at Parliament, by all means.  Either in the 1770s or today!   But it’s extremely unfair that the myths of the American Revolution cast George III as a tyrant.  In fact, it’s not even fair to class Parliament as tyrannical.  Look at what was going on in most Continental countries at the time!   But the specific point being made was that the colonists originally saw George III as an ally against Parliament, and that that changed – with Thomas Paine, who didn’t even move to the colonies until 1774, being the one who called for independence.  John Adams apparently said that American independence wouldn’t have happened without Paine.  In the wonderful North and South trilogy by John Jakes, Cooper Main idolises Paine … and I think that was where I first came across Paine.  But no-one talks about him very much in connection with the American Revolution, more about the Rights of Man.  And poor old George III got labelled as a tyrant.  He was nothing of the sort!

This was tied in with the myth of Who Started It. Well, you get that with all wars.  It’s always the other side’s fault.  But, with a civil war, which the American War of Independence was, there’s always a build-up beforehand.  The British blamed the colonials.  The colonials blamed the British.  And I’m not happy with the terminology there, because most of the colonials would have regarded themselves as British.  Interestingly, that was one road Lucy never went down … that of the American Tories, who remained loyal to the British Crown.  I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour, but I would have thought that that was quite a big issue.  American history tends conveniently to forget how many Americans actually fought for the British!  The role of Native Americans wasn’t really covered, either.  I suppose that doesn’t class as a “fib”, because American history doesn’t pretend that most Native Americans didn’t support the British (apologies for appalling sentence construction there!).  It just rather ignores the subject.

The Spanish got ignored, as well. It’s Aussie Open fortnight, OK: my brain’s running along rather Spanish lines ATM!  And, whilst I’m having a moan, I’d have liked a mention of the fact that the great Bostonian supporters of liberty were hitting the roof over Catholics in Quebec being allowed civil rights.  But the programme pretty much made out that the French were responsible for the Americans winning the War of Independence.  I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  It’s a reasonable point … but it’s an exaggeration.  But, yes, it was definitely all part of the … well, the so-called “Second Hundred Years’ War” that began with England fighting Louis XIV and ended with the United Kingdom defeating Napoleon.  It most certainly wasn’t just about the Thirteen Colonies.

They couldn’t even let the actual Declaration of Independence alone. I really do think some Americans would get very upset by this programme!   As a kid, I remember getting terribly confused by the fact that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place in 1775.  It didn’t make sense.  The whole thing didn’t kick off until 1776, so how could there have been battles in 1775? Why was the “shot that was heard around the world” fired a year before independence was declared?  Well, ahem, the fighting actually kicked off well before the Declaration of Independence – so presenting the said Declaration of Independence as something peaceful and heroic and idealistic is seriously misleading.  Well … OK, but I do wish the programme hadn’t clearly taken so much delight in knocking all those ideals.  There really was something quite nasty and vindictive about it … and, only an hour earlier, I’d been watching another BBC programme which had been pretty nasty and vindictive about the idea of grammar schools.  The BBC is supposed to try to present a balanced view of things, but it doesn’t do that with anything any more.

After that, it felt as if they were just looking for stories to tear apart. The idea of Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth is probably rubbish.  Well, like a lot of stories, it’s probably an amalgamation of various different stories about various different people.  That’s hardly uncommon, in history.  And the idea of the Liberty Bell ringing to proclaim the Declaration of Independence is untrue as well, we were told, not least because the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House was under repair at the time.  I don’t know.  OK, there wasn’t any big proclamation on the actual day of the declaration, but there are certainly accounts of bells being rung a few days later.  And no-one’s entirely sure what sort of condition the steeple was in at the time: there’s a lot of confusion about that. The Liberty Bell idea partly belongs to the 1830s, when it got tied in with the Abolitionist movement, but it was certainly a “thing” during the War of Independence, when it was hidden to prevent it from being melted down for use as munitions, and that does suggest that it was associated with July 1776.  I think Lucy was a bit too dismissive there.

After the Liberty Bell, we moved on to the Statue of Liberty. Hang on.  What’s the Statue of Liberty got to do with the American Revolution?!    It wasn’t built (do you “build” statues?) until a century later, and it wasn’t dedicated until 1886!  This was basically a dig at Donald Trump.  I’ve got a little model of the Statue of Liberty as well, incidentally, and I had as copy of part of Emma Lazarus’s poem stuck up next to it at one time!   We were told that everyone was getting rather cynical about the idea of liberty by the 1880s, and that the Emma Lazarus poem changed the meaning of the Statue of Liberty into being a symbol of the USA opening its arms to immigrants.  Oh come on, BBC!   I won’t repeat what I think of Donald Trump’s ridiculous idea about building a wall on the US-Mexican border, but what on earth has that got to do with the Revolution?  This was supposed to be a history programme!

It finished up with the Alexander Hamilton musical. That at least was relevant to the Revolution, but most of what was said seemed more of a comment on the current state of race relations in the US than on “fibs” about the Revolution.   It was all getting a bit silly by this point.

There was some interesting stuff in this, and it’s been a while since we’ve had any sort of new programme about American history, but I’m getting rather sick of the BBC shoehorning political opinions into everything. EastEnders. Holby City.  When I want to watch someone putting forward their views on the current political situation, I’ll watch a political programme.  This was supposed to be a history programme!  But, as I said, I get soppy over the Revolution.  If next week’s programme debunks the ridiculous idea that the Civil War (and it wasn’t a Civil War, but unfortunately you can’t say “War Between The States”, the more accurate term, without someone thinking you’re a racist) was about ending slavery rather than about preserving the Union, and if the following week’s episode debunks the myth that “the Russians” (why can’t people say “Soviets” instead of “Russians?!) were the big bad guys of the Cold War, then I’ll stop moaning and start praising!