HOW TO MAKE A NAME IN HISTORY (Without Actually Doing Anything)
HOW TO MAKE A NAME IN HISTORY
(Without Actually Doing Anything)
If “practice, practice, practice” is the way to get to Carnegie Hall, how do you get yourself
into history books?
Start with a good public relations team. It worked for Paul Revere and Betsy Ross. It might
work for you!
For example, there’s not a single thread of evidence that Betsy Ross had anything to do
with creating the first American flag. In fact, it wasn’t until 93 years after that first flag flew
that a gentleman named William Canby first spun the tale of Betsy Ross for the Historical
Society of Pennsylvania.
According to Canby, a delegation from the Continental Congress, headed by General
George Washington, came to Ross and asked her to design a flag for the new nation.
Nice story. Bad facts. First, Canby just happened to be Ross’s grandson. Secondly, he was
unable produce any evidence beyond the “recollections” of his own family members.
Finally, since Washington was not a member of Congress, he would not have led any
20 years later, however, the Ross story got an incredible shot in arm when a Philadelphia
artist named Charles M. Weisgerber got involved.
In 1893, he painted “The Birth of Our Nation’s Flag” with Ross, bathed in sunlight,
showing her flag to Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross. The image struck a chord
with the public. Weisgerber made a small fortune selling copies and Canby’s tall tale about
his grandmother became a history book staple for the next hundred years.
(A better bet for the creator of the first American flag would be Francis Hopkinson of New
Jersey. Hopkinson had already designed the Great Seal of the United States and he did
submit a bill to Congress for flag design. He did not, however, get paid.)
That brings us to Paul Revere. Whatever else Revere did in his life, he did not gallop from
Boston to Concord yelling “the British are coming” at the top of his lungs.
For starters, most colonists considered themselves to be British. Yelling that the British were
coming wouldn’t have made any sense to anyone. Moreover, Revere got stopped and
detained by British troops outside Lexington and his horse was confiscated. The Boston
silversmith ended his “midnight ride” by walking all the way back to Boston.
Enter Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 85 years after the fact. Seeking to galvanize his fellow
Unionists about what he saw as the inevitable coming of Civil War, Longfellow’s 1860
poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” played fast and loose with the truth but in the process, it made
Revere far more famous than any of his silver spoons and teapots ever had.