“Yes, father.”
“Come here, son, right now!”
Young George walks up to his father, sensing his anger about something and instinctively hangs his head. “Yes, father?”
“Someone chopped down that cherry tree over there, was that you?”
 Without hesitation, young George looks, and faces his father straight up. If he is going to get a whippin’, he is going to take it like the man his father trained him to be. “Yes, father, I cannot tell a lie,” Young George says in resigned proclamation, “I did it with my little hatchet.”


Almost every American school child has grown up hearing the tale of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree in one form or another. It has been used as a successful teaching tool about the immorality of lying not only to one’s parents but in all phases of life. The story has endured for generations of Americans going back to the founding of the country. Why has it lasted for so long?  Why would this tale of George Washington’s seemingly indomitable morality stand out for every American growing up in this country for the last two hundred years?

George Washington cutting down the cherry tree is an American myth. Even though it might contain some small element of truth, it does not matter. What matters is that it is successfully used to build the kind of character that would embody the ideal American spirit, arguably another American myth. Myths like this George Washington story serve more than just a passing importance to building and maintaining a cohesive, successful, enduring country like the United States of America. It is the perfect story for instilling in young people, moral and ethical values, like respect, honesty, and integrity. People can obtain those attributes from other areas of life like their respective religions, but, to have those religious values reinforced in the secular history provides a more powerful lesson in the overall message. That is precisely what happened in the case of Washington cutting down the cherry tree during nineteenth century America.


Since the beginning of recorded history, peoples have organized together to promote better lives for themselves and to prevent other organized peoples from taking away what they have. This organization, which comes in several different forms, is best exemplified in the state. The rules for building and maintaining the state depends on the political, social, geographical, psychological and the cultural components that exist within its confines. This is what accounts for the differences between states and how they function. Some components however, are similar to all states. Throughout history states have geared their rules in order to keep the largest number of citizens contented for the longest period of time. After all a contented population is one that does not revolt. One of the devises used by the state in order to maintain this allegiance is the use of mythology. All nation-states use some myths and legends in their culture. All states use George-Washington-cherry-tree type stories as tools to build a moral, patriotic and a dedicated citizenry.

Depending on which area of nation building is needed any number of societal elements can be used to create a mythology that ties the citizen base to the state. Religion, wartime heroics, ruler perfection are some of the most common. Ancient societies in Sumer and dynastic Egypt used the idea of the God-king to inspire their armies to defeat the enemy. “A people united by their fear and love of God have an ever-present help in time of trouble…” [1]This method of holding populations in line was also used very effectively during the Middle Ages. Louis XIV ruled by divine right. In other words, it was generally believed throughout the French realm that Louis held a particularly close connection to God. Even the pope had no closer connection than Louis XIV. This myth was used in a variety of ways to gel the French speaking population together as one nation. Indeed, the earliest national indications of France as we know it today can be found during Louis’ reign.


For the purposes of this paper I will focus exclusively on the mythology, which generated the patriotism during the history of the United States. Many fine examples exist promoting the use of myths and legends at any given time in history for any given state creating any number of models to use. The reason for using the United States as model is two fold.  (1) American history’s abundance of mythological examples in extant, and (2) the familiarity with American history from a majority of the readers of this piece. However, it should be noted from the outset that the thesis of this project could be applied to any number of states past or present.

This piece will attempt to argue how these stories have been used to influence citizens of the state system to become and remain patriotic. Several areas of research will be covered. (1) A difference between mythology and history is defined. (2) Building the proper character to fight wars. (3) The indoctrination of young people through the educational process. (4) How post-modernism has affected the use of myths and legends in the modern state.  Within these areas this paper will answer the questions how certain myths are developed, used, and disseminated?

The successful state is that state that utilizes myths and legends as one of its tools to build in each generation an unconditional patriotism among its citizens. In order to do this it is necessary to convince the population to support the state in making war, collecting taxes, and building a successful commerce by instilling the moral, ethical, and principle values coveted by the culture of the state. Although many facets go into state building, myths and legends are an integral part of this process and without them the growth of the state might not be possible.

First, a definition of terms is in order. There is a general difference between history and mythology or mythistory. Peter Heehs defines history as simply, “an account of what happened in the past.” Myths, he explains is a little “more difficult to define.”

Its basic meaning, that used by mythologists and anthropologists, is “sacred narratives of traditional societies generally involving superhuman beings, etc.” the term is often extended to include other traditional stories, such as legends , sagas, and so on.[2]

The last part of this quote directly applies to the subject of this piece. This paper is about both myths and legends in history. It should be understood that the two terms are not equal. They both come under the more general heading of folklore. However, it would be a mistake to count them the same as they represent two different species of the genre. The confusion is found in an existing overlap between the two terms because they are similar in definition, but not so much as to be able to use them interchangeably. Most standard dictionaries list myths as fictitious pieces of information, and legends as stories handed down from a more recent past, which might have some elements of truth in them. According to Bascom, who has made a study of these terms, he places these and other terms of folklore into a category he calls “prose narratives.”

Myths are prose narratives, which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past. Legends are prose narratives, which like myths, are regarded as true by the narrator and his audience, but they are set in a period considered less remote, when the world was much as it is today.[3]

In Bascom’s definitions within the context of American history, myths are those stories that come from the beginnings of American history, possibly during colonial America. An example of a myth might be the story of the first Thanksgiving in which we are told of starving pilgrims being helped out by friendly “Indians.” A legend on the other hand, could be something more recent from the twentieth century. The military exploits of Audie Murphy during World War II, or any of the vast number of sports legends that exist in the twentieth century, providing they are used in some manner of positively influencing American culture, could be used as appropriate legends.

Myths and legends established into American society were developed early on through writers who were imbued with a “richness of tradition…and a proclamation of a distinctive cultural ethos. “ [4] America was young and existed with a pioneering spirit. The folklore traditions that grew out of certain myths and legends during the nineteenth century, facilitated by such writers as Francis Parkman, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain, steered American thinking in the direction of building a particular national ethos. Although they did not voice it then we might label this nineteenth century nation building idea as; a rugged individualism, a personality separated from its European roots and exceptional in its view of God and land.

(Folklorists) have attempted primarily to fill in the sociocultural picture through the collection, description, and analysis of the “things” of culture: the material objects central to fashioning an existence, the texts of performances by which the various American groups gave voice to themselves, and the belief and value systems underlying folklife.[5]

The “things” of culture discussed in the above quote are the primary folk and literary traditions brought over from the continent of Europe during the nineteenth century which formed the basis for “fashioning an existence.” It is through these transplanted traditions European immigrants brought with them that became the basis for the types of stories needed to build a patriotic citizenry. Mixing the old world stories with the new world environment provided the cultural stew that became American folklore and established a full and varied tradition of myths and legends.

The conglomeration of immigrants from the different countries of Eastern and Western Europe created the ultimate by-product from this cultural synthesis, a homogenous American society. Maybe the most important use of myths and legends in American history is that these stories tie each generation of Americans together as one nation regardless of their arrival date to the American shore. Of course many factors go into the development of an American citizen but the use of these myths and legends were certainly a fundamental element of convincing these immigrants and especially their children that America was their land. Even though at the time of the American Revolution their ancestors were still Germans, English, French, Poles and Russians, they related to commonly held myths like Washington chopping down the cherry tree, the “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” and the exploits of the Minute Men, as their own history.

The use and dissemination of myths and legends was an essential component of creating the cohesive American nation because it helped immigrants to make a clean break with their European past. Their children grew up as American as any American did at any time in the history before they arrived.

Jewish people from Eastern Europe are a significant part of the immigrant story in America. Jews are bound together through a bond with which most other national groups are not acquainted. Maintaining a connection to a particular state, long since destroyed, through their religious liturgy provided a contiguous history that has given the Jewish people the sense that all Jews are part of the same nation no matter where they live. However, American folklore tradition changed all that with the Jews who immigrated to America during the last quarter of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth century. Their indoctrination into the American cultural ethic was as thorough as any immigrant group before them. Consequently, American Jews had no problem firing on and killing German Jews during the First World War, a quantifying phenomenon that Jewish historians have never been able to duplicate in Jewish history past or present. In most cases it took only one generation to wipe out the echo of European connections and create an American Jewish community in the beginning of the twentieth century tied totally to the American experience. American Jewish soldiers of World War I were no less American than Washington’s Continental Army of 1776.


The subject of American folklore is immense. Scholars devote their entire lives to explaining, promoting and disseminating myths and legends throughout American history. One time period that stands out among others because of its huge accomplishment is the Revolutionary War. Many heroes and legends have emerged from this period however, probably none greater than George Washington.

It was not by accident that the beginning of this study began with the well-known myth about Washington chopping down the cherry tree. As the first president he is held to higher esteem because of his particular place in history. Like many modern states he holds the place of a venerable patriot, warrior, and the embodiment of the true American soul. It is not uncommon for most modern states to hold in particular high regard one person who tends to embody that state’s ideals on a mythological level. Bismarck in Germany, Garibaldi in Italy, Cromwell in England, all hold this position in their country’s history. It is Washington, American historians look to, to set the pace of all other myths and legends from that period.

His popularity grew to mythical proportions after his death. When Washington died, there were no less than two hundred and forty-one eulogies “representing orations by men from different religions, occupations and residence. Despite the diversity of their circumstances and interests, these men praised Washington on remarkably similar grounds.”[6]

Although Washington’s mythical standing in American history still provides a powerful image to new Americans both young and old, during the nineteenth century Washington held a particular stature in American legend. All sides of the political spectrum and all areas of American society, geographical, sociological, intellectual, and philosophical, recognized his perceived greatness. His image played a particular role during the struggle for states rights during mid century and its eventual development into civil war.

George Washington was America’s foremost hero until after the Civil War. He stood first in the hearts of his countrymen regardless of their political affiliations. Leaders of thought in both the North and the South called upon the name of Washington in their appeals for national unity.[7]

Washington was the quintessential American hero during this time. This was recognized not only by Americans but by those observing America and its mid century tribulations from afar.

A  British observer wrote in 1860 that love and veneration for Washington’s name had remained and doubtless would remain deep-seated in the heart of every true American.[8]

The use of Washington as a larger than life role model continued throughout the nineteenth century. Approximately, twenty years after the above quote Francis Parkman published Montcalm and Wolfe, which described the Young Washington’s participation during the French and Indian War. Parkman’s contribution to the Washington myth portrays his character even as a young man with “Coolness of judgment, a profound sense of public duty, and a strong self-control, were even then the characteristics of Washington.”[9] Of course Parkman is suggesting here that Washington as “father of the country” and first president had only the purest of qualities even as a young man. These, and other exploits about Washington were passed down from each generation right through to the present day.

Parkman’s work is not a work for children, signifying that Washington’s exploits during the French and Indian War had by the time of Parkman’s publication found its way into American culture permeating several generations, affecting all Americans, no matter what their age. This along with Washington’s other legendary experiences combined to create the mythical George Washington, the quintessential American everyone looked up to, “the father of our country.”

Most of the legendary stories about Washington including the cherry tree story come from Mason Locke Weems, a Presbyterian pastor who published two life story accounts of George Washington shortly after he died in the early 1800’s. The Pastor Weems, probably imbued with the religious fervor of American exceptionalism, believed it necessary to show Washington as the quintessential American, righteous, brave, intelligent, and tolerant. Weems’s accounts worked on the newly formed American public with great success. In the early days of the nation Americans were struggling to find their own collective identification. The use of myths and legends through writers like the Pastor Weems provided the essential cultural glue, which began and eventually solidified the process of building a cohesive America. These stories about Washington and other famous legendary American figures were used by the state time after time to create a citizen base dedicated to promoting the goals of the American nation.

As the century progressed and more writers realized the potential of spreading this idea of legendary characters from America’s beginnings Weems’s accounts faded into the rather large body of work in this area. He had been mostly forgotten until his work was once again exposed in the biography of George Washington published by Henry Cabot Lodge in 1898. Lodge was not kind to the Pastor Weems, “Many are the myths, and deplorably few the facts, that have come down to us in regard to Washington’s Boyhood.”[10] Lodge made an effort to dispel some of the stories that had built a mythical Washington into the minds of American school children for the previous one hundred years.

Lodge’s contribution was a watershed of sorts. It marked for the first time of an attempt to set the record straight on Washington’s life. Lodge’s effort to describe the “real” Washington is significant for a couple of reasons.  By the end of the nineteenth century Lodge’s evidence shows Americans had become secure enough in their Americanism, i.e. their allegiance to the state, that they were ready to understand the meanings of the myths and legends, at least pertaining to Washington. This evidence also shows the effect on the collective self-awareness of the nation as the stories they were, proud pieces of the American past, separated and distinct from the actual history.  Therefore, we can conclude from Lodge’s biography of George Washington that Americans had reached a maturity in their national identity.

Lodge regarded dispelling of nineteenth century myths as crucial in order to understand the “real” Washington.  “Until Weems is weighed and disposed of, we cannot even begin an attempt to get at the real Washington.”[11]  Lodge’s argument was the first sign of a desire to make Washington seem more human. Lodge intellectually posited that truth must be observed in the discussion of history. To Lodge, it was essential to expose the one hundred year old myths about George Washington in order to write a significant biography about the man. In the cherry tree story Lodge succinctly put any truth that existed into proper context.

There can be no doubt that Washington, like most healthy boys, got into a good deal of mischief, and it is not at all impossible that he injured fruit-trees and confessed that he had done so. [12]

Lodge uses a logical approach to the story and therefore evolves the myth into another rather interesting stage. It can be argued that if a logical approach is taken, then the myth begins to break down and the object of the myth becomes less mythical and more human. Lodge’s attempt to do that here is revolutionary. Indeed, Lodge leaves open the possibility that it might have happened. He only indicates that if it did, it was much more human than mythical.  When the truth is exposed less mythology and more humanity becomes apparent. This is an argument that has followed historians right into the present day. Truth, or how much of it is used in any historical account has been the subject of some dispute between serious historians and mythmakers.

Myths and legends have been within the human consciousness since the dawn of civilization. Stories, which consist of part truth and part fiction, have contributed to building some of the greatest empires in history. Although there are other aspects of state building, which obviously must be incorporated so that the state can meet its goals, the use of these stories should not be underestimated. The element of truth is fundamental to this debate. Serious historians argue that truth must be held to the maximum if historical accuracy is going to play its rightful role in the growth of the state. Myths and legends on the other hand are held to a level that is tantamount to fairy tales.  Mythistorians  maintain that mythistory is just as important in the development of state power and that history gathering methods utilized by standard research procedures do little to make the stories historians present interesting. The dispute is best outlined in the following by Peter Heehs.

Myth and history are often considered antithetical modes of explanation. Those who study the data of one field tend to look down on or exclude those of the other. There have always been historians…who think it permissible to take myth seriously as myth, but this is not the same as taking it as a reliable account of historical occurrences…Many students of myth have a similarly dismissive attitude towards history and its methods.[13]

Heehs continues to point out different schools of anthropological and sociological thought that argue against the normal practices of gathering history.  It would be irrelevant to deepen this discussion further as it has little to do with a state’s use in utilizing myths and legends. But what should be noted is that a revisionist history plays a vital role in creating these myths. Truth is once again an issue. If it serves its purpose in building courage, morality, economic success, or just plain love of country, how much truth contained in the story is of no consequence in relation to the building and maintaining a state structure.

There is a delicate, historical balance between state institutions to build and maintain power, and keeping the citizen base of that state dedicated to these endeavors. One of the areas of state building that is most influenced by the use of myths and legends is a state’s military.  The army provides the essential components for a state’s ability to secure victory in war.  War and state making go hand in hand as Charles Tilly puts it, “War made the state and the state made war.”[14] Without an army the state cannot defend itself against invasion or when necessary seize the opportunity to make war itself in order to conquer and expand. The ruling power has an obligation and right to provide for the citizens of that state and as such claims a “monopoly of the legitimate use of force”[15]  A method is needed to create a patriotically dedicated citizen base in which to draw on to populate a fighting army in order to create this force. This method must be able to capture the allegiance of people generation after generation to keep the army at its maximum potential.  It must be so effective that soldiers must be willing to die for the state’s goals as it applies to war making.

A nation or any other human group that knows how to behave in crisis situations because it has inherited a heroic historiographical tradition that tells how ancestors resisted their enemies successfully is more likely to act together effectively than a group lacking such a tradition.[16]

How does a state accomplish this task? It uses a well-ordained mythology to build those qualities necessary for one to be willing to give his or her life, establish patriotic pride, perform courageously under fire, desire moral righteousness and believe in supernatural guidance. In order to form an army the state must establish a symbiotic bond with the people who make up the military. The symbiosis is established through the understanding of the same myths and legends taught in each successive generation. With the establishment of certain myths and legends the state creates the ideas necessary through various media representations to process citizens in the understanding of the importance of support for the state.

A soldier instructed in this manner will lay down his life because of his perception of an idyllic lofty goal, which translates into the ascension of state power. For example, many American G.I’s lost their lives during World War II. The goal was the destruction of Nazism and Fascism, but the benefit was the rise of the United States as the most powerful country in the world. Until this very day the United States of America is still reaping the benefits of that power through those soldiers who gave their lives fighting during World War II.

Dying for one’s country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps even Amnesty International can not rival, for these are all bodies one can join or leave at easy will. Dying for the revolution also draws its grandeur from the degree to which it is felt to something fundamentally pure.[17]

What Benedict Anderson is referring to in this quote is Marxist revolutions in particular, but these words apply to any state looking to secure its position and possibly spread its borders beyond its natural confines. The question is what is the difference between dying for the American Medical Association and dying for the United States of America? Both have complex bureaucratic organizations, employ large amounts of diverse peoples, and both have an underlying cause for their existence. I would argue that the difference here is love and pride in the particular organization. In a national group those attributes are learned in large part from the particular stories that have emerged and became ingrained into the society in each successive generation. Myths and legends, which are almost absurd in an organization like the AMA are a natural occurrence in a nation state.

“Nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies.” [18] Indoctrination of this kind can only be successful if begun at a very young age. Therefore, the most effective influence of myths and legends begins with school age children. For only through a lifetime of reinforcement of these stories would it be possible for rational human beings to be willing to “die for their country.” In the United States, as in most industrialized countries of the last two hundred years, the education system is where this process begins.

Bailey has observed that elementary school teachers spread myths and legends not out of any sense of moral or patriotic purpose but because “many elementary teachers of history and literature are not well enough informed to separate the legend from the truth.” And even if they were he concludes, “the safest course is to perpetuate the hallowed myths and not rock the boat.”[19] Therefore, we can assume that after many generations of promoting the same myths and legends, they have become so ingrained into the system that they become a permanent fixture of the national ethos and teachers risk political repercussions not to reinforce them. The stories take on an automatic hallowed quality of their own.[20]

Children have always been the main focus of these stories even before the onset of public education. American children would be entranced to hear stories coming from family elders sitting around cabin fires in the evenings listening to raw tales of Indian fighters and how the American Revolution brought liberty to an oppressed people. Many of the founding fathers of the United States have been the principles in these stories. Lifted onto pedestals, regarded as larger than life, children are taught that there are few things nobler in the world than to fight for your freedom. Once again we can turn to George Washington as a model because of his huge status as the quintessential American mythical hero. Take this prime example of Washington’s experience as an English officer during the French and Indian War, from a typical children’s book written in the 1930s.

For four years George Washington fought. Valiantly he defended the backwoodsmen and their wives and children against the Indian raids. The English king sent a great army to chase away the French soldiers and the Indian tribes. In a straight line the redcoated English soldiers marched into the wilderness. George Washington told them they ought to hide themselves behind trees and brushes in stead of marching that way, but they would not listen. So when the Indian warriors fell upon them from their hiding-places behind the trees, the whole army was beaten. George Washington’s coat was pierced by many bullets, but he was unharmed.[21]

Washington served with distinction during the French and Indian War. However, the above passage is probably in reference to the severe defeat the British took at Fort Duquesne in 1755. Washington’s force under the command of General Braddock was almost completely wiped out. Most of the officer corps was killed. Only Washington was left unwounded. General Braddock received mortal wounds and died a few days later. As the tale reminds the school children, “Washington’s coat was pierced by many bullets but he was unharmed.” Indeed Washington had written a letter to his mother that his coat “was pierced four times but I was left unharmed.” If this does in fact exist in a hand written letter then we can assume that this part of the legend is probably true. Therefore it exemplifies an historical truth, which serves to increase the legend. This is the perfect story of a war hero who seems impenetrable, even supernatural. A legend was born at Fort Duquesne.


Passages like this one, so common during the first half of the twentieth century are almost non-existent today. The post-modernist debates, which permeate every facet of modern society, has become a force to intellectually consider in the last thirty years. The bombardment of this phenomenon has served to change long-standing traditions and social institutions. The use of myths and legends and their dissemination for the purposes discussed in this piece has not escaped the post-modernist intellectual revisions.  It has become fashionable for serious historians to scoff at mythistory and any reliable impact it might have had on the growth and strength of states where it has taken root. It has been argued by Smith and others that:

…this phenomenon of denying the relevance of the value of myths and legends is really a post-modern perspective, which seeks to show that ethnies and nations are simply cultural artifacts, constructs of cultural engineers or chefs who tailor pre-existing mythologies, symbols and history for their own ends…[22]

Post-modernism works for many different theoretical constructs but the use of mythology as a means of enhancing a state’s power is not one of them. The problem with the post-modernist view in this instance as Smith points out is that if a nation is nothing more than a “cultural artifact” why do thousands of young men give up their lives in time of war? Literally millions of young men have made the ultimate sacrifice since the dawn of civilization, in order to fulfill a patriotic need, which was instilled in each and every one of them through this process of myths and legends.  It goes against the grain of human nature to suggest that people would lay down their lives for a “cultural artifact.”

Nowhere is post-modernist theory more developed than in history education where students are now taught a different set of principles and ideas than only a few generations ago.  The earlier passage about Washington’s legendary military prowess and fighting ability as a young man in the French and Indian War, if written more factual it would lose its sense of heroism and adventure. These traits, which are so important in the dissemination of myths and legends, are used to build the proper qualities in the nation’s citizens. Perhaps the beginnings of this trend can be traced to the late 1970s and early 1980s when there was a shift in the way American history was being taught to school children.  Fitzgerald wrote in 1979.[23]

…The texts have changed, and with them the country that American children are growing up into. The society that was once uniform is now a patchwork of rich and poor, old and young, men and women, Blacks, whites Hispanics, and Indians. The system that ran so smoothly by means of the Constitution under the guidance of benevolent conductor Presidents is now a rattletrap affair. [24]

According to Fitzgerald the textbooks have already changed to meet a demandingly different society, one that would not rely on myths and legends to build a continuous national pride but only on truth, no matter how painful that truth might be. Fitzgerald laments the accusation that textbooks were boring prior to the 1960s.

The mid-nineteenth century Peter Parley texts, with their tales of earthquakes and heroic children captured by Indians are, for instance, quite readable compared with the histories of the eighteen-nineties—though of course, somewhat less factual. [25]

Even though she does not vocalize it here, it is clear that she is talking about the use of myths and legends in children’s textbooks. She argues that the majorities of textbooks used during this time were in fact not dull or boring, because of the myths contained within the books. They provided an interest and allowed the imaginations of the children reading them to perceive these heroic adventures. This kind of text described above would never be accepted into the post-modern world that exists in the twenty-first century. To the post-modernist, Peter Parley as described by Fitzgerald is simply a “cultural engineer tailoring history to his own end” and therefore must be ignored.


Myths and legends are both important components to building a strong, secure and successful state. The usefulness of these tools proves invaluable generation after generation. Although there are differences between mythology and history in reporting past events, one apparently is not more integral than the other. Both have their places, but it is clear they are different and distinct. The “prose narratives” of myths and legends are used by states for their own purposes. That is not to say that there are no disagreements within the field of the legitimacy of mythology and history as Heehs pointed out. But, as history has shown both are used for specific purposes, myths for bending and stretching the truth so that individuals can derive a collective sense of belonging to the same great nation, and history, which provides the actual truth so that the actual story cannot be lost. History is used to put the myth into its proper perspective, and mythology is used to elevate those events in history to their most memorable heights.

This piece constructs those examples of myths and legends that help an army to perform and secure a state’s goals. Armies usually draw on other military exploits from the past, which help in heavier trials in the present. Examples of states both past and present doing this are many. The English during the Battle of Britain during World War II, the ancient Greeks recalling the tales of Homer, and the spread of Islam after Mohammad’s death are all examples of states acting on their own history to rally their soldiers to perform with the maximum courage to defeat the enemy.

The use of myths and legends doesn’t just happen. It is engrained in each generation. From an early age, children learn about their past in stories that prepare them to become patriotic citizens of that state, no matter how that patriotism is utilized. In the case of the American model used in this piece the dissemination of myths and legends comes from public education. The indoctrination of young minds into the national fabric of a particular attitude, moral judgment, patriotism, mixed with courage and a sense of collective privilege to belong to a particular nation state takes place in the public schools and is reinforced in the home and through religious venues. This is the only way to secure a citizen base in each successive age ideologically connected to protect and defend the state and to secure the state’s own advancement goals.  So strong is this education that it continually creates individuals who will commit any sacrifice including death to help the state advance.

The growth of the post-modern phenomena in the last thirty years has created a new set of principles for nation building. The preparation of children to become the kinds of citizens required to maintain a state no longer exists as it did in its previous forms. The loss of the educational venue to advance the use of myths and legends is detrimental to the goals of the state but it is not devastating to the national fabric as some have argued. The United States is not the only victim of this historical change. The phenomena exists in all modern industrialized countries, England, France, Israel, even Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union are currently experiencing the loss of myths and legends as a means to advance their societies. Religion, local community organizations along with the business sector to some extent have largely taken the place of the role public education has possessed in the past. Authoritarian regimes and those governments that maintain a strict control over the information disseminated to its public are much less affected by the post-modernist debate.

Because it can be argued that at the present time post modernism only has a detrimental and not a devastating effect on the use of this very important state building tool does not mean that there are no concerns about the direction of these debates. The changes now occurring have some unknown factors attached to them. How far will the post modernist debate take the situation? Will myths and legends completely disappear from the realm of state growth? And, if so, can the state system, as we know it survive such a monumental change? These are questions, which will become more pressing in the years to come. As states struggle to live without the use of myths and legends they will be forced to find alternatives like the ones mentioned above. It is inconceivable, at least to this author, that state building could ever be achieved in the same manner as happened so many times before without the use of myths and legends. Not using these very useful tools to build a state would be like trying to build a brick building with no mortar between the bricks. Therefore, something else will have to become the mortar if states will survive in their present form.



[1] William H. McNeill, “Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians ,”

The American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 1. (Feb., 1986), Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00028762%28198602%2991%3A1%3C1%3AMOTMHA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-G,  p..5

[2] Peter Heehs, “Myth, History, and Theory,”History and Theory, Vol. 33, No. 1. (Feb., 1994), p. 2-3. Stable URL http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00182656%28199402%2933%3A1%3C1%3AMHAT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-S

[3]  William Bascom,  “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives,”

The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 78, No. 307. (Jan. – Mar., 1965), p.4

[4] Richard Bauman; Roger D. Abrahams; Susan KalcikAmerican Folklore and American Studies,” American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3. (1976), p. 363.

[5] Bauman, Abrahams, Kalcik, p. 360

[6] Barry Schwartz, The Character of Washington: A Study in Republican Culture

American Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 2. (Summer, 1986),  p.204-205.

Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0678%28198622%2938%3A2%3C202%3ATCOWAS%3E2.0.CO%3B2-S

[7] William A Bryan., “George Washington: Symbolic Guardian of the Republic, 1850-1861,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 7, No. 1. (Jan., 1950), pp. 53-63.Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0043-5597%28195001%293%3A7%3A1%3C53%3AGWSGOT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-H

  1. 53.

[8] Bryan, “George Washington,” p. 53.

[9] Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War,  New York: De Capo Press, second

dition, 2001, p. 87.

[10] Henry Cabot Lodge,  American Statesman: George Washington Vol I, New York: Houghton, Miflin and Company, 1898,  p.41.

[11] Lodge,George Washington Vol I, P. 41.

[12]  Lodge, p.45.

[13] Heehs, “Myth, History and Theory,” p. 1.

[14] John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783,  Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1990,  p. 137. Tilly’s “dictum” is cited in Brewer, Charles Tilly, ed., The Paradoxes of State Power, Princeton, 1975, p. 42.

[15] Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology,

[16] McNeill, “Mythistory,” p. 6.

[17] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition,  New York: Verso, 1991, p.  144

[18] Anderson, Imagined Communities, p.149.

[19] Thomas A. Bailey, The Mythmakers of American History , The Journal of American History, Vol. 55, No. 1. (Jun., 1968), pp. 5-21.Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0021-8723%28196806%2955%3A1%3C5%3ATMOAH%3E2.0.CO%3B2-O

[20] In his 1968 article Bailey might have a point but I would argue a slightly different view. Teachers who grew up in the same society, listening to the same stories that they themselves were teaching, were taught by others who also grew-up learning the same stories from an older generation and so on. I do not believe that teachers promote these views only out of fear or any kind of political correctness of the time. Rather, they are no less a product of the myths and legends they are promoting to their students. They too, believe in these myths.  Teachers perpetuate myths not only because they fear retribution from school boards or parents but also because these myths are important for the state to generate whatever kind of morality the state believes is in its interests. Of course, the post modernism of the last thirty years has allowed teachers as well as the rest of society to break away from these views, and present history in a more self critical form.

[21] Ingri and Edgar Parain  Daulaire, George Washington,  New York: Doubleday & Company Inc. 1936, (no page numbers given).

[22] Anthony D. Smith , “Culture, Community and Territory: The Politics of Ethnicity and Nationalism,”International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), Vol. 72, No. 3, Ethnicity and International Relations. (Jul., 1996),  P.447

Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0020-5850%28199607%2972%3A3%3C445%3ACCATTP

[23] As the father of three children ages fifteen, twelve, and ten, I know from reading their textbooks and following their course outlines with them in history that they are taught an  entirely different historical emphasis than existed when I attended school during the 50s and 60s.

[24] Frances Fitzgerald,  America Revised: history Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979,  P.11. Fitzgerald takes a dimmer view of this change than I do.  While there are definite consequences in regards to benefits derived from a state perpetuated mythology, in the case of the United States I don’t believe that the inclusion of well defined minority groups into the American historical dynamic necessarily destroys or diminishes a traditional mythology. In fact, I believe that the change is indicative of the universal attraction that democratic ideals has over people in general. Jews, Muslims, African Americans, women and Hispanic children can receive the same lessons about Washington chopping down the cherry tree now in the twenty-first century as the Parkman’s and Lodge’s primarily dominated white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American culture did in the nineteenth century.  A hard look at the American forces today in Iraq, made up of all of these groups is proof positive that myths and legends of America’s past are still an integral part of growing up American. Therefore, I think Fitzgerald’s thesis is keen and pertinent, however, I  disagree with her conclusions.

[25] Fitzgerald, America Revised, p. 149.

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