15 lies your history teacher told you (and the truth behind them)
That’s right history teachers, prepare to have your students shout, “No! You’re wrong!” Many of history’s most common stories are accepted as fact, and couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s time to set the record straight and debunk the lies your history teacher taught you.
Myth: Napoleon was short
Let’s start out with what you’ve been told, Napoleon conquered Europe to make up for the fact that he was short. One thing is true, Napoleon’s insatiable thirst for conquering land could be characterized as, “overly aggressive or domineering social behavior,” which is in the definition of a Napoleon complex.
If you consider going to war with Britain, Russia, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, and Italy overly aggressive, then you’re absolutely right. Napoleon’s ambitions came from French ideas of “grandeur” and “elan,” or a defining fighting spirit that led them to conquest. But when Napoleon’s height was measured just before his death on May 5, 1821, and historians are quick to point out that he was only 5 feet 2 inches tall.
Truth: Napoleon was of average height
During nearly two decades of war with the French Emperor, the British waged a propaganda campaign that constantly depicted Napoleon as short. In fact, he was a little bit on the smaller side, as he was originally commissioned as an artillery officer because he was shorter than most. After Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he was exiled to St. Helena Island.
Six years later he died, and his body was measured by members of his entourage. But they used an English yardstick, which was longer than the French one. Historians agree that the 5 feet 2 inches tall measurement they recorded was incorrect, and he was really 5 feet 6 inches tall, which was one inch off the average height in those days.
Myth: George Washington never lied
When George Washington was six years old he received a wonderful birthday gift from his father — a hatchet. His father, Augustine Washington, was a landowner, and a highly thought of in Virginia as a justice of the peace. Augustine instilled his strong values in his six children, including young George.
But George was eager to use his new toy, and as soon as he got a chance he used it to chop at a cherry tree. When Augustine saw what had happened he confronted young George, who said, “I cannot tell a lie… I did cut it with my hatchet.”
Truth: George Washington was human, just like us
This story has been told in countless history classes since 1800, and it is used to put Washington — our first president and victorious commander of the Continental Army — on a mythological footing up there with the Greek gods. But in truth, the entire story was made up by Washington’s first biographer.
Remember the name, Mason Locke Weems, because he’s responsible for perpetuating one of the most prevailing myths in American history. When Washington died in 1799, people were pining for stories about him, and Weems is quoted as saying, “My plan! I give his history, sufficiently minute… I then go on to show that his unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his great virtues.”
Myth: George Washington had wooden dentures
You may recall hearing in history class that George Washington wore wooden dentures. Well, the fact is that Washington’s dental hygiene was so bad that he did wear dentures, and by the time he took office as the nations first president, he only had one tooth left in his skull.
In the above depiction, you can see that Washington cared a lot about his appearance. This meant that he hated his dentures, and they were a constant bother. He had to go to great lengths during the Revolutionary War to receive dental care, and often kept the teeth he lost or purchased real ones from others.
Truth: He wore dentures, but they weren’t wood
The truth is that Washington definitely wore dentures, but they were most certainly not made of wood. It’s true that he did carve teeth to repair his dentures, but they were mostly made of ivory and gold. The fact that the myth prevails comes from the fact that his teeth were constantly stained with wine.
In 1798, Washington’s dentist received a set of Washington’s dentures for repair and wrote back the following: “The sett [sic] you sent me from Philadelphia… was very black… Port wine being sower takes of[f] all the polish.” It’s said that we have so few quotes from Washington because he didn’t like speaking, as the dentures were very uncomfortable.
Myth: Albert Einstein was a poor student
Somebody, somewhere along the way made a boo-boo just to make all of the average-minded people feel better. It is true, Einstein was rejected after his first attempt to apply for the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, but bear in mind that he was only 16 years old.
For his application, Einstein wrote an essay titled, “Über die Untersuchung des Ätherzustandes im magnetischen Felde (On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field)”. He was 16. And, he had enough of a handle on physics to dive into theoretical elements most can’t even fathom. So why did people think he wasn’t a good student?
Truth: Albert Einstein was fricken Einstein
Einstein could speak Latin and Greek fluently by the time he was 11 years old and picked up French on a whim. So what gives? In 1984, researchers finally put the myth to bed when they unearthed his grades and made a startling discovery.
Einstein received grades of “1” out of “6,” which was the best grade possible, on just about every report card he had. The problem is, the school changed its policy somewhere along the way and “6” became the best grade while “1” was the worst. Early biographers determined that he flunked math, which is as true as saying there’s no “d” in “dumb.”
Myth: An apple falling on Newton’s head led to the discovery of gravity
In 1666, a 22-year-old Isaac Newton was walking around his mother’s garden at their family home in Lincolnshire, England. Newton was slightly annoyed that he couldn’t contemplate the mysteries of the universe at Cambridge where he worked, as an outbreak of the plague had caused an evacuation.
He was contemplating the Moon and Earth, and the relationship between their size and motion. He took a seat on a bench underneath an apple tree, and as an apple fell from the tree and hit his head he had a “eureka” moment. The earth had drawn the apple toward the earth using gravity.
Truth: There’s a core of truth to that story
Newton spent the next few years inventing the equation and processes that would eventually explain gravity, but the story of an apple hitting his head didn’t appear anywhere in his work. The best accounts of the story come from when he was an old man and used the story as an entertaining anecdote.
Scholars largely maintain that Newton was having a little fun with the truth when he told this story, and actually his versions never included the apple falling on his head. However, scholars also agree that the apple tree, which still exists and grows apples to this day, did indeed have a profound impact on his discovery of gravity.
Myth: Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day
You’ve heard the popular story: Mexico was fighting a desperate war of independence from the Spanish monarchical rule (doesn’t that sound like a striking similarity to the history of the United States?). Then, on May 5, 1862, the Mexican army confronted a Spanish army that was much bigger than there’s at the Battle of Puebla.
The battle slowed the Spanish advance toward Mexico City and, even though the Mexican army lost battles shortly thereafter, the victory galvanized Mexican forces. The only problem is the battle wasn’t against the Spanish, and Mexico had already been an independent nation for over 50 years.
Truth: Mexico hardly celebrates Cinco de Mayo
El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla) is only really celebrated in the state of Puebla, Mexico (and the United States). The Battle of Puebla occurred during the Second French Intervention, which was effectively a French invasion of the country.
The war ended in a Mexican victory, that is, after they beheaded the de facto king and restored the Mexican Republic. As for Mexican independence, that’s celebrated on Sept. 16, which is when Father Miguel Hidalgo gave an impassioned speech against Spanish rule over Mexico. It’s effectively Mexico’s “Declaration of Independence” moment, and it happened all the way back in 1810.
Myth: Independence Day is July 4
We’ve already dispelled the myth of Mexico’s Independence Day, and now it’s time to blow your mind about Independence Day in the U.S. According to the famous painting Declaration of Independence (below) by John Trumbull hangs in the Grand Rotunda of the US Capital. The painting depicts all the delegates signing the immortal document on July 4, 1776.
John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, was the first to sign, and 55 more signers followed. Later that day, the Pennsylvania Evening Post printed the headline, “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.” Except, very little of that actually happened.
Truth: Independence Day is July 2
The truth is, the motion to declare independence by the Continental Congress passed on July 2, 1776. John Adams wrote to his wife, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”
But it’s the completion of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and three others on July 4, 1776, that is the cause for celebration. Even that day was without fanfare, however, as the first fireworks didn’t go off until July 8, and it took until 1777 for all the signers to place their John Hancock’s on the document.
Myth: Paul Revere yelled, ‘The red coats are coming!’
In the early morning hours of April 19, 1775, a silversmith named Paul Revere pulled up his horse in front of a house in Lexington, Massachusetts. He just had quite the ride, as he started from his home town in North Boston, where he had earlier hung two lanterns in the tower of Christ Church.
The lanterns signaled to the Sons of Liberty that the British army was coming to Concord by sea (one if by land, two if by sea). But Revere wasn’t headed to Concord — not yet. A friend of his begged him to stop in Lexington, where he could alert John Hancock and prevent him from being captured. During his ride, he is said to have shouted, “The red coats are coming!”
Truth: What he actually said
When Revere arrived at Captain Hall’s house there was a sentry stationed outside the front door. He gives the only account of what Revere said that night, and after telling Revere that he was making too much noise, Revere said, “Noise! You’ll have noise enough before long! The regulars are coming out!”
Revere then went inside, probably had a rum or two, and then got captured after running his horse blindly into the forest (possibly because he was drunk). In 1860, a poet named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized the obscure ride of Revere, and created the myth of, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Actually, very little of the poem depicts how the event unfolded.
Myth: Thomas Edison Invented the lightbulb
Thomas Edison opened an industrial research laboratory in 1876 called Menlo Park, which was effectively an “invention factory.” It is true that his staff of inventors are responsible for over 400 patents, and the facility featured the first underground electrical system.
Where it gets a little funny is when Edison is given credit for many inventions, the most questionable of which was the light bulb. According to popular thought, it is believed that Thomas Edison created the light bulb, and it became his “crowning triumph.” Now, humanity uses his light bulbs and the form of energy he preferred, which was the DC or “direct current.”
Truth: Many people invented the light bulb
Thomas Edison is a questionable character in the pages of history. The “Wizard of Menlo” once said, “Everyone steals in industry and commerce. I’ve stolen a lot myself. The thing is to know how to steal.” And steal he did, as many scholars postulate he stole many innovations that lead to the invention of the light bulb.
Edison was also highly convincing people that he invented the light bulb, as he was extremely outspoken on the matter. He then went on a tour touting his DC brand of electricity. His rival, Nokolai Tesla, preferred AC, or “alternating current” power (which is what is used today). But, to prove it was more dangerous, Edison used AC power to electrocute an elephant. Not cool, Edison!
Myth: Henry Ford invented the automobile
Not only has Henry Ford received recognition for his innovations in the automotive industry, but also for being a champion of workers rights. This is due to the $5 daily wage he paid workers, which was twice as much the average pay of industrial workers.
Ford was able to afford these high wages, however, because his factories were spitting out Model Ts at the rate of one every two-and-a-half hours. The Model T also featured inexpensive interchangeable parts that made it highly affordable and easy to repair. While Ford’s creation absolutely revolutionized the automobile industry, it most certainly was not the first car ever invented.
Truth: Benz invented the automobile
Henry Ford released the first Model T in 1908, more than 20 years after the first car was invented. In 1885, a German chariot maker named Karl Benz invented the first automobile. He, and his namesake, went on to form one of the most profitable automakers in history, Mercedes Benz.
The reason why Ford is so closely associated with the automobile can be found in the above photograph. Not only did Benz create a complex and expensive machine, but he also modeled it after a carriage towed by a horse. The tricycle design is almost comical, and it was only after Benz adopted a prototype closer to the Model T that they became successful.
Myth: Christopher Columbus discovered America
On Aug. 3, 1492, Italian sailor Christopher Columbus set sail from the port of Palos in southern Spain. Columbus was searching for a route to Asia, where it was promised that wealth in the form of gold and spices beyond his wildest imaginations could be obtained.
Columbus told his crew that the journey would take four weeks, and when that time passed, he made a deal with his men to keep sailing West for three additional days. After two-and-a-half days, land was finally spotted. It was the first time a European set their sights on the North American continent, except that isn’t exactly true.
Truth: America was inhabited, and Leif Erickson beat Columbus to the punch
First of all, it is well-know that America was discovered by people from Northeast Asia that crossed an ice bridge over the Bearing Sea into Alaska. These nomadic people became what would become known as Native Americans. Besides them, however, the first European to discover America was the Norseman Leif Erikson.
Erikson was the son of Eric the Red, an explorer that founded the first colony on Greenland. Archaeological evidence suggests that Erikson set out from Greenland and landed in Newfoundland, just off the Canadian coast, around the year 1000 A.D. But Spanish history still survives in written form, unlike that of Viking culture, which came to an abrupt halt in 1066.
Myth: The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves
Sixteenth President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, goes down in American history as “The Great Emancipator,” following his deliverance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, after the Battle of Antietam. It went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, and according to history books, all slaves in the U.S. were freed. But, like many instances in history, that would take a little longer.
The Proclamation is one of the most lauded documents in U.S. history, and for the rest of the Civil War, African-Americans lived as free people. Except there are just a few problems with that, number one being that Abraham Lincoln’s Union barely controlled half the country.
Truth: Few slaves were freed from the Emancipation Proclamation
The truth is, very few slaves were actually freed as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery had already been abolished in the Northern States, and the document did not apply to Southern states that remained loyal to the union (Maryland, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Delaware).
There were some slaves (about 50,000) that were freed under the Proclamation from lands ceded by the Union from Virginia. Americans actually celebrate June 19, 1865 (holiday of ‘Juneteenth’) as the day when the last slaves were set free in Texas. They were the last slaves to be freed by Union troops and had never heard of the Emancipation Proclamation until then.
Myth: The U.S. invented democracy
The Second Continental Congress convened on Nov. 15, 1777, and agreed on the content of the Articles of Confederation, which established the first post-war government in the U.S. Put into effect in 1781 at the conclusion of the war, it effectively made the U.S. fall under a democratic form of governance.
It was replaced in 1787 by the Constitution, which still in effect today. Both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution gave controlling power of the purse, and the ability to pass laws, to Congress, which has come to be thought of as “the great American experiment,” except it wasn’t a new concept at all.
Truth: The Greeks invented democracy
The Constitution certainly does deserve its fair share of credit, as the Bill of Rights may be the most progressive document in the history of the world. The Greeks invented and lived under a “demokratia” form of government for more than 2,000 years before the constitution, however, later adopting democracy in 507 B.C.
As progressive as the Constitution was, it also wasn’t the first document to guarantee human rights, as the Magna Carta gets that distinction (written in 1215 A.D.). The Greek form of democracy even had three branches of government so one can see that the framers of the Constitution already had an outline to work from.
Myth: Pilgrims feasted with Native Americans on Thanksgiving
It seems that, even in the mythological sense, people understand that the relationship between Native Americans and Pilgrims wasn’t always cordial. But, most believe that the first Thanksgiving was a fun-loving feast shared between two different people. So much so, that in the U.S., it is often reenacted in younger classrooms.
The first year was difficult for the Pilgrims, and many considered going back to Europe. But Native Americans from the Wampanoag and Patuxet Tribe, namely Squanto, showed the Pilgrims how to grow crops, and the Plymouth Colony was saved because of their cooperation. To commemorate their first year of collaboration, the Wampanoag and Pilgrims joined for a feast that became immortalized as Thanksgiving.
Truth: The Pilgrims feasted with themselves
Only 47 of the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower survived to see their first spring in North America. Squanto did arrive and show the pilgrims how to plant crops, and it was a blessing that he spoke English (having been captured previously by an English sea Captain).
There also were Wampanoag tribesmen present at the three-day feast (that wasn’t called ‘Thanksgiving’), but eventually, relations soured between native tribes and the Pilgrims. William Bradford became Governor in 1621, and, in 1636, he called for a “thanks-giving” after wiping out the Pequots by burning their village in retaliation for them murdering one of their own.
Myth: Armstrong meant to say ‘One small step for man…’
On July 20, 1969, at 8:15 p.m. Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong was struggling to put the Eagle landing craft on the surface of the moon. He had been up for 24 hours in preparation for the landing, and now it appeared everything was going wrong. Two indicator lights signaled alarm codes that Armstrong had never seen.
To make matters worse they appeared to be far off from their designated target and attempted to land in a crater field. Fuel was down to 30 seconds, and Armstrong’s heart rate skyrocketed to 150 bpm. Then, he radioed in, “The Eagle has landed.” Now, he was under tremendous pressure to deliver the first words from the surface of the moon.
Truth: Armstrong meant to say ‘That’s one small step for a man’
Armstrong destroyed a circuit while putting his hulking space suit on, then prepared to descend the latter. Then he uttered a phrase for the ages, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” which was not what he meant to say.
Armstrong swore that he said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” which makes a lot more sense. NASA covered for him and said the transmission was flubbed and failed to pick up Armstrong say it. But reporters and tech experts have determined there was no “a.” In a 1986 interview, Armstrong said, “Damn, I really did it. I blew the first words on the moon, didn’t I?”