the Concord Magazine May/June 2000
The Ezine for and about Concord, Massachusetts

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Myth and History: Is History About The Truth?

By D. Michael Ryan,the Concord Minute Men's historian, an 18th Century volunteer history interpreter with the National Park Service and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College. See the first installment of this continuing series here.

(Note: This article and the one to follow in our July/August issue are based upon the author's presentation on April 7 and 9, 2000 for the Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library's Exhibit called "To Support the Truth of It," celebrating the 225th Anniversary of the Concord Fight, 19 April 1775.)

William Emerson's GraveThe depositions following the events at the North Bridge on 19 April, 1775 were gathered to "support the truth of it." Exactly what is "it"? Can its truth be found? And what resources and materials exist to support any perceived truth? Fascinating questions and their answers will raise more queries as both my remarks and the Library's amazing exhibit will reveal.

Francis Bacon wrote, "It is the true office of history to represent the events themselves together with the counsels and to leave the observations and conclusions thereupon to the liberty and faculty of everyone's judgement." But is this the reality of history? Henry David Thoreau noted, "It is the province of the historian to find out, not what was, but what is." St. Augustine reminded us that with any historic event, there is the actual occurrence and then how it lingers and is embellished by our experiences.

History is supposed to be about truth. We have an outstanding Exhibit to support the truth of 19 April, yet numerous materials and writings over 225 years have created and supported myth, embellishment, personal belief, current conceptions and all too often, the outright falsehood of it.

What is truth? Defined, it means actual fact, conformity to reality, verifiable, indisputable fact, genuine, actual existence, freedom from deceit. Truth is momentary and it is eternal. It must be sought in primary source materials as found in this Exhibit and in our Special Collections and Town Records. An event must be studied within the context of its own time and participants. Historical truth is for the purist who desires unadulterated fact, not revisionism or popular myth. But can truth really be found?

Major Pitcairn and his bloody finger While factual documentation and materials are available to support the truth of 19 April at North Bridge, much history ignores them while fostering a particular, personal point of view; advancing a specific agenda; glorifying an ideal or value for the present. Even our beloved Dr. Ripley in 1827 wrote his "History of the Fight at Concord" to support the primacy of his town over others regarding 19 April events and its Revolutionary War role. Yet he claims to write "a fair and current statement of facts". He further expounds "nations of the earth are interested in the American Revolution... and circumstances of the actual commencement... it is our aim to give them correct information". This while he badgers old veterans in the local tavern seeking confirmation of his personal views. Unfortunately, the ends often justify the means when writing history and thus the truth does not always out.

The subject of 19 April and the Concord Fight could fill a college course especially if fact and fiction were both examined. The three to five minute encounter at North Bridge has taken on epoch proportions equal to Thermopylae in Greek history and like so many historical events, has been expanded, twisted, dissected and revised, incorporating fact with fiction in telling the truth of it. The noble purpose of such storytelling has often been to meet the needs of a people and nation in defining themselves and all too often to support glory, worth and importance of self being for towns, citizens and places.

History often reflects the time in which it is written as opposed to the time in which it occurred. Thus, a destruction of taxed tea becomes a Tea Party; the shooting of rioters, The Boston Massacre; skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, Battles. A name may reflect causes, values, politics, propaganda or personal views. Historic events placed in a current context are "presentist history", usually the product of revisionism with a purpose. This can lead to a homogenized, simple to understand, politically correct story which has provided material for the writing of such books as "Lies My Teacher Told Me", "Lies Across America" and "What They Never Told You About Boston (Or What They Did Were Lies)". There has even been a mid-1990s, little noted American "history war" to reclaim the truth of it in schools. Truth lost to Congress.

Paul Revere's Midnight RideHistory and memory are indelibly linked and thus the science of the latter must be understood. Depositions or writings may be accomplished days, months or years after an event and thus tainted by age, willful forgetting or purposeful remembering, memory loss, values of the recollector or construction versus recalling. There exists private or individual memory of an event and public or social, community, national remembrance, all of which can differ.

Henry David Thoreau in his Journal (14 November 1841), noted, "Nothing so restores and humanizes antiquity... and makes it blithe... as the discovery of some natural sympathy between it and the present... The heavens stood over the heads of our ancestors as near as to us...". There is a strong desire to connect historic events with ourselves and the present. But while historians may always be rewriting history, the past in fact cannot be revised - what happened, happened!

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1835 Journal was fascinated at what we preserve of history "...a few anecdotes of moral quality of some monetary act or word" while ignoring more important "laws, expeditions, books and kingdoms". In his essay "History", he writes, "All inquiry into antiquity... is the desire to do away with the there and then and introduce in its place the here and now... The student interprets the age of chivalry by his own age of chivalry... by quite parallel miniature experiences of his own... All history is subjective."

Top left: Grave of Rev. William Emerson.
Middle right: Major Pitcairn and his bloody finger
Bottom left: Paul Revere's "Midnight Ride"
All from "The Concord Fight," by Frederic Hudson, in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 50, No. 300, May, 1875. Courtesy of the Concord Free Public Library. (scans: Bob Hall)

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