View the h-law Discussion Logs by month
View the Prior Message in h-law's July 2000 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
View the Next Message in h-law's July 2000 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
Visit the h-law home page.
A recent Hartford Courant column by David Daley summarizes some of the facts and fancy of the tale of the Declaration's signers that has been making the rounds: STORY ABOUT FOUNDERS FACTUALLY FLOUNDERS TALE ABOUT DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE SIGNERS' FATES IS LARGELY INCORRECT -- DESPITE MYTH'S BROAD CURRENCY DAVID DALEY; Courant Staff Writer 07/12/2000 The Hartford Courant (Copyright @ The Hartford Courant 2000) As the story goes, five men who signed the Declaration of Independence were charged with treason, tortured by British troops and ultimately killed. Nine other of the 56 signers "fought and died from wounds or the hardship" of the Revolutionary War. One signer, Thomas McKean, patriotically served in the Continental Congress without pay while in hiding from the British troops relentlessly trailing him and his family. The British seized his fortune, and he died impoverished, with his sons begging neighbors to help pay for his funeral. They're inspiring stories to tell around Independence Day. They've appeared everywhere -- in Ann Landers' column in The Courant and other papers , on Paul Harvey's newscast, Rush Limbaugh's radio show and in a chain e-mail titled "The Price They Paid." Trouble is, the specific stories just aren't true. Nevertheless, amplified by the Internet's ability to convert myth into fact in the time it takes to forward an e-mail, "The Price They Paid" has not only reached more people than ever this year, it has fueled debates between broadcasters Limbaugh and Harvey and even contributed to the suspension of a prominent Boston Globe columnist. The real story is that five signers were captured, but none for treason, and all were eventually released. Only two, it appears, were wounded in action, and none died of war wounds. As for McKean, well, the Pennsylvania Historical Society confirms that he became the state's second governor and died a wealthy man in 1817. The tale dates back at least five decades. James Elbrecht of Schenectady, N.Y., whose Signer's Index Web site provides the most thorough account of the myth's history, traces it back at least as far as 1956, when Harvey published it in his book, "The Rest of the Story." Its popularity led Harvey to reprint the tale on its own in 1975 in a pamphlet called "Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor." Rush Limbaugh Jr., the father of the conservative radio host, wrote a similar, especially engaging essay that his son touts regularly on July 4, which has been reprinted by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and currently appears on Limbaugh's official Web site, RushLimbaugh.com. Limbaugh has suggested on air that his dad inspired Harvey. (Harvey's office didn't return calls asking about the essay's origins.) Those two accounts, and all their errors, have been magnified and plagiarized over the years, but never as they have in the past 10 days. "This year I've read copies of the e-mail on over 200 Rootsweb lists," said Elbrecht. "I've personally seen at least eight variations of the story," adds Walter Tucker Jr., editor of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution's newsletter. And that's before it hit the papers. "Ellen in New Jersey" forwarded the e-mail to Ann Landers, who reprinted it without correcting the historical inaccuracies as her July 4th column. Landers and her correspondent Ellen at least admitted that they didn't know who wrote the column or where it came from. That's one better than Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online, who did not attribute Harvey, Limbaugh or the e-mail in his July 1-2 column partially based on it. Then there's Oliver North, whose MSNBC column borrows liberally from the e-mail. The most egregious example looks like this: From the e-mail, as posted by the Connecticut Society for the Sons of the American Revolution: "Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts, and died in rags." From North's column: "Carter Braxton, a wealthy trader from Virginia, saw his armada of trading vessels swept from the seas in battle. To pay his debts, he sold all that he owned and died in rags in 1797." One Ohio politician, Lynn Olman, didn't do any better, simply printing, under his name, the entire e-mail in his weekly newspaper column, with the title "Signers of the Declaration Paid the Price for Freedom." And, when Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby attempted to correct the historical record in a column last week -- correcting the five- were-tortured and nine-died-fighting myths -- the Globe suspended him for four months because Jacoby did not mention that the flawed e- mail was the impetus for the column idea. "Since I was relating lore that has been related over and over, and since all of the sources I relied on had relied in turn on even earlier recitations, I assumed that all the material in my column was in the public domain," wrote Jacoby, in an open letter published on the Jewish World Review Web site this week. Indeed, the actual authorship is as murky as could be. Elbrecht, who traced the essay as far back as Harvey, has been bird-dogging journalists and columnists who repeat the myths, hoping that they might lead him to the original author. Instead, he's been led through circles of flawed history books. He first became interested in the essay in 1998, when he received the e-mail on a genealogy list, and then discovered another essay debunking it by Professor Brooke Harlowe on the Web site of the Connecticut Society for the Sons of the American Revolution. (Both the e-mail and the Harlowe response can be found at www.ctssar.org/ articles.) Just as fascinated by the origins of the essay as its inaccuracies, Elbrecht has found remarkably similar pieces posted on the Web sites of Pat Buchanan, the Libertarian Party, the John Birch Society and the city of Annapolis, Md. Only Buchanan mentioned a source: a long out-of-print book that Elbrecht says often treated myth as history. As for the Harvey vs. Limbaugh debate, Elbrecht doubts either one was the first source. "My gut tells me that the originator of the legends, the pre- Harvey and pre-Limbaugh spinner of tales, was someone who was so respected by his peers that they never questioned his lack of historical knowledge," he said. "I also suspect that he was listened to mostly by his peers and was not paid much attention to by folks outside of 'his circle.' As the stories got repeated, the circle got bigger, the messenger more mainstream and finally they were accepted by many folks who just never thought to check." And now e-mail just makes it that much easier for stories to spread that much faster. "It's like the telephone tree game," Tucker said. "You're a kid in school, and you pass a sentence down the line, and by the time it gets to the end, it's vastly different." Elbrecht, however, notes that although the Internet can be used to quickly spread these myths, plenty of Web sites are available to debunk them. In addition to his,(http://home.nycap.rr.com/elbrecht/signers/signerindex.html#Quest), there's the urban-myth clearinghouse (snopes.com.) and the reporting of Timothy Noah on Slate.com "I'm amazed at how quickly, this year, so many more folks are trying to quell the legends while still honoring the real men behind them," Elbrecht said. And that, says Tucker, is what's really important. "As history, it's not true. But as folklore, it's true," Tucker said. "Whoever made it up saw these sacrifices being made by people he knew." **************************** Matthew J. Franck Chairman and Associate Professor Department of Political Science Radford University P.O. Box 6945 Radford, VA 24142-6945 tel: 540-831-5854 fax: 540-831-6075 firstname.lastname@example.org ****************************