This June, at our annual Mass History Conference, the keynote speaker will be noted author and “history detective” Ray Raphael. Raphael has focused his keen eye on myths surrounding The Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and other subjects in order to get at the facts that change our impression of history and, in turn, ourselves. What did those Founding Fathers really think of the role of government, for example, or when did The Revolutionary War actually begin? (Hint: It wasn’t 1776.) In an age when we are inundated with information, we have arrived at a moment where quality means far more than quantity. It is no longer about how much information we can find, but how accurate, trustworthy, and thoughtful it is. And that is where Raphael comes in. He has established a critical niche in the 21st century as a source that separates myth from truth, what we may want to believe versus what we must know. In other words: a perfect representative of the power of the humanities.
Mass Humanities’s Assistant Director Pleun Bouricius sat down with him to find out more.
Pleun Bouricius: Can you start by telling us how you happened upon seeing, and translating, history
the way you do?
Ray Raphael: I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and that gave me a strong notion of how history works, which is from the bottom up. That was a very grassroots movement and it wasn’t just one person. When I started thinking about the American Revolution, I saw there were a lot of similarities to the Civil Rights Movement. I was interested in that and extending the story of the Revolution to the underreported people, the constituencies that were less known. I wanted to talk about the poor men and boys who did the fighting, the African-Americans involved, the women, and other forgotten constituencies. There was a lot of material.
PB: We used to think those constituencies were not part of the historic record.
RR: Yes. For example, there were references to crowd actions and rural unrest in Western Massachusetts that weren’t a part of the core Revolutionary War narrative. That rural unrest took place in 1774—two years before the Revolution is said to have begun. The entire province of Massachusetts had risen up and cast off British rule seven months before Lexington and Concord. That is an amazing story: The Revolution had already taken place.
PB: The British were ousted.
RR: In the town of Worcester, for one: 4,622 militia men—half the adult male population of the entire county—showed up on one day to unseat the court there. That was in the fall of 1774, in the farthest outpost of British rule, and that rule never returned. That happened in every shire town in contiguous Massachusetts. Not in Boston because of course the British troops were there. But everywhere else they shed British rule and formed a Provincial Congress, and that Congress collected taxes and had the militia already getting ready for the counter-Revolution. And that’s all through the winter of 1774. What was formed was really a de facto government. As one disgruntled Tory from Hampshire County put it in a phrase I love: “Power has now devolved upon the people and they seem to be for using it.”
PB: Sounds like this was all quite revolutionary for you as an historian and scholar, as well.
RR: What that research basically did was make me ask: How can this key event in American Revolutionary history—our very formation—not be mentioned in the national narrative, all the documentaries, the popular lore, whatever? Why isn’t it in the textbooks? That was such an overwhelming question to me. And I’ve been grappling with that problem ever since: Why do some stories get told and some not? Who are the gatekeepers? Why are they doing it? And because I’m an historian, and I’m devoted to some sort of truthful rendition of what occurred, how can the narrative be altered, and how can these kinds of events be reintroduced? That’s what led to Founding Myths, which examines what stories are told and what stories are not told. Paul Revere’s ride, for example, that’s the classic—
PB: Yes, and one that is important to our conference…
RR: Yes, it’s the title song of the conference, isn’t it: “Listen my children and you shall hear, the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”?
RR: As many people now know, his ride didn’t happen the way Longfellow says in the poem, 86 years after the fact. The Massachusetts militiamen were preparing for the counter-offensive for months; they knew it was coming; people were leaving Boston in droves. And Paul Revere was riding out to let people know they were coming. But it wasn’t only Revere. Paul Revere was plugged in as a patriot—he rode out whenever things needed to be communicated—
PB: But it appears many people jumped onto horses as soon as they noticed something—
RR: That’s right. Paul Revere makes a great Everyman. But he’s not the only man.
PB: This is an example of what you call “hiding.” In other words: attributing things to this one man not only hides the collective action that was taking place at the time of the Revolution but it also hides Revere’s own patriotism, which was ongoing and not simply one act or one moment.
RR: Exactly. And this is what I’m learning across the board: that there are narrative demands to storytelling. We like to simplify our stories to a single protagonist, a hero, and to a single iconic event, particularly for stories told to children, which is what most of these stories are. And with history there is so much more than that. So, when you go beyond the simple story of Revere, which is distorted already—Revere wasn’t waiting there with the lanterns, someone else was; he never got to Concord, in fact he was captured by British troops; there are so many inaccuracies—that simple story actually hides the full story.
PB: One of the things that’s so wonderful about your work is that you show so clearly myth at work. You see the gears crunching behind it.
RR: When I’d gone through all these standard tales—the Valley Forge story, the Bunker Hill story, Yorktown—I realized that none of these were told this way by contemporaries. And what happens is all these stories distort the nature of revolution because the nature of revolution is that a population is involved and when you reduce it to these isolated tales of individuals, of heroism, you miss the purpose. It’s all about cooperation, coordination, communication—
PB: Revolution is scut work done by a lot of people.
RR: Yes. It’s a mass movement involving great social networks of people. And I think that’s why Founding Myths had a lot of play.
These days, I’ve switched a bit and am thinking about which myths persist and why, and that has a lot of relevance to this conference we’re doing because we’re talking about mythologies in public history. Textbooks are a form of public history. And there’s always a reason those stories are told in our textbooks and public history. Why they become our heritage. And heritage is not the same as our history. Longfellow’s Revere, for example, is a part of our heritage even though he’s not exactly a part of our history.
PB: I’m glad you mentioned public history because of course a lot of public history organizations and historic sites in Massachusetts—the Paul Revere House, for example—have inherited this heritage. And so the reason for their existence, their ace in the hole, the butter on their bread, so to speak, is the mythology. And yet they want to do responsible work, so they’re left with the question: How do we harness the myth, and yet disabuse people of the myth, and yet still give people something worthwhile that they’ll still be interested in?
RR: That’s the whole question. And that’s something we’ll be asking and developing some response to at the conference.
You can’t say that these are all just a bunch of stories and watch your customers go away. What you have to do is say, “Okay, we need to develop better stories.” By “better stories,” I mean stories that grab you and have great interest and conform to historical evidence. And in some cases we can use the story of the story. The Revere House, for instance, has nothing to worry about because they have such a rich “character” to deal with.
PB: So, with Revere, you’re saying: “Paul Revere is not what you think; he’s even better than you think.”
RR: Yes. Because, in fact, the Longfellow poem reduces him to this guy who hops on a horse. And it almost cheapens his life’s work. Really, through Revere, you can tell the story of those tumultuous years starting with the Tea Party through Lexington and Concord. You can tell an amazing story. And that story involves other people and is much stronger.
PB: After examining stories developed for children in the 19th century that have become our founding narrative, you made a small shift in your work with your new book, Constitutional Myths, that has just been published. It seems to me you are asking: Are we doing this kind of mythmaking today and how does it play out in our current dialogue?
RR: How we tell history presents a “grammar” by which we see contemporary issues—if you think history is the work of a few great men, that’s how you’ll see politics today. With the Constitution and the way it is bandied about by various partisan interests, there’s an even more direct connection between political needs and mythmaking. People say, “Here’s what the Founders thought.” And they mine the vast amount of material that these famous Founders have bequeathed to us and find a few quotes to support whatever position they have. And then they say, “See! This is what the Founders thought.” And they take things out of context and in many cases absolutely reverse the position of the actual statement and the person who uttered it.
Published in Mass Humanities Spring 2013 Newsletter Issue (pdf).