The Real America and its History

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Bernard Bailyn, one of our greatest historians, shines his light on the nation’s Dark Ages

The myth: The Pilgrims escaped the religious intolerance of Europe to establish freedom in the New World. The truth: Frustrated with the Church of England the future Pilgrims left England for Amsterdam, but fear of their children becoming too Dutch led to their departure for America.

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Once here, Non-Puritans, from Quakers to Catholics , were outlawed from the colonies and voting rights were based on membership in a Puritan church. Early state laws banned Jews, and Christians that did not renounce papal authority, from public office. It wasn't until the founding fathers established a separation of church and state an idea that had gotten Roger Williams banned from Massachusetts that the concept of religious freedom began to take hold.

The myth: George Washington and others in a congressional flag committee asked seamstress Betsy Ross for a flag, and she produced the iconic design that lasts, with more stars, to this day. The truth: While this is a nice story , there isn't much evidence to back it up besides claims from the Ross family which emerged almost a hundred years after the fact.

There is no surviving evidence of a flag committee of any kind, and if there was it was doubtful that General Washington would be a part of it.

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Though Ross was paid by the Navy Board for her work producing flags, there were also negotiations between Congress and Congressional Congress member Francis Hopkinson , who had designed many seals and symbols for the early United States. Congress eventually told Hopkinson that the flag design was a collaborative effort -- which may take away from his claim to be the sole designer, but also throws doubt on the Ross story.

The myth: The Salem witch trials of put witches to death by burning them at the stake. The truth: Contrary to popular belief, witches were put to death by hanging , not burning. This was a method borrowed from England -- the theory being that hanging was the only true way to kill a witch. And not all the witches that were put to death were women. Out of the 20 that were formally executed, 6 were men though one of these men was crushed by stones during trial in an attempt to force a guilty plea.

The myth: The severely under-matched Texans stationed at the Alamo in died fighting for their rights. The truth : The Texans were not fighting for freedom, but to maintain their slave-trade. In , a new Mexican edict officially outlawed slavery and U. The 30, Texans living in the area compared to only several thousand Mexicans were outraged, leading to a revolt to make Texas an independent nation.

General Santa Anna led the victory against the undermanned and understocked Alamo mission, which became a rallying cry for the rest of the Texan army. Texas would then enter the U. The myth: Paul Revere rode through the night to warn the colonists that "The British are coming!

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In , they established a forward operating base at St. Augustine and proceeded to wipe out the Fort Caroline colony. In other words, the first encounter between European Christians in America ended in a blood bath. The much-ballyhooed arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early s was indeed a response to persecution that these religious dissenters had experienced in England.

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But the Puritan fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not countenance tolerance of opposing religious views. The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between and for persistently returning to the city to stand up for their beliefs.

Throughout the colonial era, Anglo-American antipathy toward Catholics—especially French and Spanish Catholics—was pronounced and often reflected in the sermons of such famous clerics as Cotton Mather and in statutes that discriminated against Catholics in matters of property and voting.

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In newly independent America, there was a crazy quilt of state laws regarding religion. In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. Future President James Madison stepped into the breach. This right is in its nature an inalienable right.

Madison also made a point that any believer of any religion should understand: that the government sanction of a religion was, in essence, a threat to religion. As a Christian, Madison also noted that Christianity had spread in the face of persecution from worldly powers, not with their help. The act is one of three accomplishments Jefferson included on his tombstone, along with writing the Declaration and founding the University of Virginia. He omitted his presidency of the United States. And as framed in Philadelphia that year, the U. The men who fought the Revolution may have thanked Providence and attended church regularly—or not.

But they also fought a war against a country in which the head of state was the head of the church.

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It was the recognition of that divisive past by the founders—notably Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison—that secured America as a secular republic. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.

As for Adams and Jefferson, they would disagree vehemently over policy, but on the question of religious freedom they were united. The belief widely held and preached by some of the most prominent ministers in America was that Catholics would, if permitted, turn America over to the pope.

Anti-Catholic venom was part of the typical American school day, along with Bible readings. In Massachusetts, a convent—coincidentally near the site of the Bunker Hill Monument—was burned to the ground in by an anti-Catholic mob incited by reports that young women were being abused in the convent school.

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At about the same time, Joseph Smith founded a new American religion—and soon met with the wrath of the mainstream Protestant majority. In October , after a series of conflicts over land and religious tension, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered that all Mormons be expelled from his state.

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  7. Certainly, the stories make for juicy and sometimes gruesome reading. Another early Norse pioneer was Thorfinn Karlsefni, who — along with his family and crewmembers — settled in Vinland and even traded with the skraelings before things turned ugly and more violence ensued. But why did the Viking presence in North America not last? This is another source of endless debate. Perhaps the indigenous peoples, or skraelings, proved more than a match for the fledgling pioneers, and beat them away. Whatever the reason, the alternative history of the New World — one in which the Vikings stayed and created a Norse America — remains a tantalising vision to ponder.

    The Real Vikings. The Vikings headed all the way to North America. Related Features.

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