A companion piece to Episode 6: Rebel Rebel. Written by Laurel Hostak
This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast we talked about rebellion and the stories of underdogs who stand up to powerful empires or oppressive authority. It's a narrative that's cross-cultural of course, but it finds a foothold in American storytelling that continues to inspire and enthrall us. Our favorite stories often harp on this theme, from Star Wars to Hamilton. I don't think it's a leap to conclude that Americans as a whole gravitate to stories that reflect, however subtly, the circumstances of our nation's birth and its intrinsic individualism. We look for stories that feature long odds and celebrate rebellion against evil or injustice, because as kids in school, we're taught that revolution and heroism are often synonymous. When we first learn about the Boston Tea Party, we're not concerned with the destruction of property, we're clapping our hands and exalting the men who protested unfair taxation. That glorification of the underdog and righteous revolt is written in our bones and woven into our American spirit. Rebellion is our national myth. In this blog post, I'll explore a figure close to this narrative, and look at some of the implications of his influence upon American values.
The history of a land and its people is as much a collection of its national myths as its factual events and faces. In the intricate map of a culture, human beings are often as tied (or more so) to their folklore and their legendary heroes as to their generals or presidents. Think of Robin Hood or King Arthur in Britain, two folk heroes whose historical veracity is questionable at best but whose stories suffuse the cultural tapestry of that land. To the people of that land, they might be as influential as William the Conqueror or Elizabeth I. These folk heroes pop up in all cultures. Beowulf in Scandinavia, Hua Mulan in China, Cuchulainn in Ireland, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill here in the US... and though they may be fabrications or exaggerations, they represent a national ethos.
As a comparatively young nation, the United States has fewer folk heroes than countries that boast thousands of years of history. The ones we do have are usually the subjects of tall tales. But sometimes the lines are blurred between the historical and the legendary. Sometimes we turn our flesh and blood heroes into myths on earth. The most obvious example, of course, is our first president.
As a boy, George Washington's father gave him a hatchet as a gift. Washington then used it to cut down his father's beloved cherry tree. Seeing his father upset that someone had damaged the tree, the boy famously said "I cannot tell a lie" and confessed to the crime. His father was so impressed with the boy's honesty that he said something like "the truth is worth a thousand cherry trees," and forgave the boy.
If you grew up in the United States, you've heard this story. Probably in kindergarten. It's probably the first story you heard about George Washington or any American president. And you probably thought, "wow, what a great guy, he tells the truth even when he makes a mistake!" Maybe it encouraged you to tell the teacher the truth about those crayons you ate, and maybe the teacher was really proud of you for owning up to it even though your public school is constantly cutting its arts budget and most schoolteachers buy their own supplies with no reimbursements. I digress. The story drove home the point. Honesty is the best policy. The truth is its own reward. A gallant example set by our first president and a revolutionary hero.
From the outset, we are more familiar with this story of Washington's childhood than we are with his role as the general in the Revolutionary War, his crossing of the Delaware, his eventual triumph, his farewell plea to a nation divided, his warning against partisan fighting, his peaceful transfer of power... We know the cherry tree story better than we know the very problematic pieces of his legacy. He made colossal mistakes in battle. He struggled with the institution of slavery, yet he held hundreds of slaves at Mt. Vernon. The real man is much more complicated than the repentant youngster with the hatchet.
And the irony of our familiarity with the Cherry Tree honesty parable?
It's a lie.
It was invented by an early biographer of Washington, Mason Locke Weems.
The intention is pure enough--give an insight into the extraordinary character of this great American figure, and teach a lesson about good morals.
Here is my question: in the case of the cherry tree, is it harmful to "mythify" a founding father?
I don't have an answer to this question. I'm working through it. Derek has been reading biographies of many of the founding fathers, and this is much more his area of expertise, but I can't help dipping my toes in after this week's episode. Of course, having a story of our first president exemplifying the virtue of honesty is good. It inspires us to value honesty, to own up to our mistakes, and to offer forgiveness to others. But does this story, perhaps, cloud us to the faults and hypocrisies of the man? When we are ready to process nuance and more difficult subjects, is it already too late to change our feelings? And do we find ourselves making excuses and moral calculus for the figures we've come to laud as paragons of virtue? If our myths inform our culture and values, it stands to reason that we do ourselves a disservice in presenting our earliest political figures as incapable of anything but absolute honesty and moral uprightness.
Or am I misinterpreting the cherry tree tale entirely? Does the writer, in fact, purposely demonstrate a moment of poor judgment in our otherwise unbesmirched Washington, to show us that we can all seek redemption despite our many missteps?
They say to never meet your heroes. That's because human beings are inevitably messier and more complicated than we often want them to be. The idea is that if we came face to face with someone we admire, we'd be crushed if they turned out to have an unpleasant personality or obvious character flaw. But I'd argue that those nuances can only be helpful to us. I believe that we must seek more complex portraits of our heroes, be they folk or flesh or some combination. We must demand more intricate understanding of our political figures, historical and contemporary.
Myths are deep within us. They form the foundation of our societies and many of our core principles. But when our myths are born of real human beings, our foundation is bound to have cracks. Time exacerbates those cracks, makes them more obvious and more dangerous. But acknowledging the cracks, the faults, the deceptions, gets us closer to mending them. By looking for the unvarnished reality of those who influence us, we can begin to recognize our own intrinsic biases, and the vulnerabilities in our culture. Then we can start the great work of rebuilding.