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6 Things We Picture Wrong About American History

Old and creased US flag

How much of the American history you know is fact, and how much is fiction? We may hold these truths to be self-evident, only to find out that they were lies all along.

History, in the form of grade-school textbooks, can seem unimaginably boring. But history, in truth, is one of the most exciting things to study. It’s a collection of true stories that often seem stranger than fiction, featuring characters so compelling that we still remember them today.

However, sometimes those stories aren’t just stranger than fiction. Sometimes, they’re downright false. There are enough historical falsehoods to fill countless novels, but we’ve collected some of the most interesting ones here. Prepare to be surprised by these popular lies about U.S. history.

Hamilton Was a Good Guy

Look too closely at any of the Founding Fathers, and you’re likely to find some disturbing flaws that history conveniently forgot. Alexander Hamilton, in particular, has enjoyed a surge of positive modern publicity, thanks to the breakout musical Hamilton.

Although the musical has done the unthinkable (by making U.S. history cool and popular!), it has also come under fire from historians. It turns out that the real Hamilton wasn’t the pro-immigration, anti-slavery star that the musical makes him out to be.

In truth, he hated the lower class and thought the United States should be run by an elite ruling class, not by majority vote. He also thought rulers should rule for life in an elective monarchy. While Hamilton is still an interesting historical figure, he’s not the hero that modern audiences like to think he is.

Pirates Were the Bad Guys

tattered skull and crossbones pirate flag against cloudy sky

While Hamilton gets revered, pirates almost always get vilified by U.S. history. Although pirates are undeniably cool, they were also undeniably bad guys—or were they?

The truth is, pirates were key to the success of modern America. Without them, we might never have won the Revolutionary War.

The earliest European colonizers in America were actually welcoming to pirates. While England made it difficult for the colonists to get supplies, pirates could deliver sustenance and currency at a low cost. The colonists didn’t care that it was plundered, as long as they got what they needed to survive.

After all, these colonists had a lot in common with pirates. England treated the colonists as second-class citizens, and pirates were disdained by mainstream society, too. Pirates also had money to burn, so they helped the economies of America’s earliest cities thrive.

To make matters more interesting, pirates ran their ships democratically, voting on who would become captain and splitting most of the profits. This may have served as a source of inspiration for America’s first leaders. And, during the Revolutionary War itself, pirates helped yet again. The United States had no Navy yet, so its leaders hired pirates to fight the British and win.

The Second Amendment Always Gave Individuals the Right to Bear Arms

Regardless of whether or not you like guns, you’re likely familiar with the Second Amendment, which reads: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” This means that individuals in the United States are allowed to have guns—right?

While that’s the popular interpretation of the amendment, the legal interpretation hasn’t always supported it. Until 2008, federal courts and the Supreme Court only applied the Second Amendment to militias, not individuals. They interpreted this amendment to mean that state militias could use guns to defend themselves against the federal government, not that individuals could.

It wasn’t until a 2008 Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, that the amendment was affirmed to apply to individual gun rights. Even now, the true meaning of this amendment remains a subject of hot legal debate.

The Confederate Flag Was the Confederate Flag

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. The Confederate Flag was never actually the flag of the Confederacy.

Everyone can picture the Confederate flag or “stars and bars,” the symbol of America’s Civil War losers. However, this flag didn’t become a big deal until after the Civil War was over.

During the Civil War, Confederate leaders cycled through three different flag designs, none of which were today’s “Confederate flag.” They kept running into issues: the first flag confused soldiers because it looked like the Union flag. The second was mostly white and looked like a surrender flag. And, the third was unveiled just before the South surrendered.

What we know today as the Confederate flag was actually Robert E. Lee’s battle flag. So, far from being a symbol of Southern resistance and resilience, the flag is a symbol adopted by the losing side after they’d already lost. Even Lee himself wasn’t a fan of displaying this flag of losers. As he once wrote, “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war.”

America Has Always Loved Trains

old steam engine train pulling into station
Tushnov Alexey/Shutterstock

When you picture early America, you probably picture trains. These inventions helped people traverse the massive country faster and faster, changing the shape of the United States as we know it. Thanks to trains, even cities way out west could flourish thanks to the constant influx of supplies and people.

Even today, trains still seem to be a critical part of the U.S. landscape. What could be more American than taking a trip via Amtrak, the nation’s government-subsidized train service?

However, America’s love affair with trains is more complicated than it looks. Amtrak was founded in 1970 by Nixon, who planned for the rail service to fail in a matter of years. The American love for trains, he thought, had come to an end.

Passenger rail lines were losing money thanks to competition from cars and planes. Nixon expected rail travel to fall apart. Yet, he didn’t want to get blamed for its demise, so he decided to invest in trains that would look good on paper, without actually supporting the rail service in any meaningful way.

He started Amtrak as a federally-subsidized rail line, rather than as part of the national transit infrastructure. As a for-profit company, it had to prioritize profit over service. So, Nixon’s administration invested in routes that would make money and keep Nixon popular, rather than routes that would truly serve the public well. The train line was never designed to be effective at all.

Of course, the great irony is that Amtrak far outpaced Nixon in both longevity and popularity. Although it’s not as efficient as it could have been, the success of Amtrak is living proof that America still loves trains, even if its politicians don’t.

America Has Always Had a Middle Class

When you think of American history, it’s tempting to think that the middle-class lifestyle stretches back to the beginning. However, the middle class, as we know it today, only arose thanks to the unique circumstances that followed World War II. It’s not a given—it’s more of a fluke than anything.

While the real definition of “middle class” is always under debate, most people can easily grasp the concept. It means being neither rich nor poor, and having the ability to live comfortably with a reasonable amount of work. We can all picture those suburbs stretching for miles, with a home and a car for every family.

Yet, the idea of the middle class only started in the 1950s. Thanks to 1944’s GI bill, young men returning from the war could suddenly access the funds to buy homes, go to college, and start businesses. The bill created an artificial economic event that sparked the middle-class existence as we know it today. Without World War II, the modern middle class would never have existed at all.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »