“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts” is a quote often attributed to Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, though when, where, and to whom he addressed the comment is disputed. In fact, there is little evidence that he actually said it at all. Instead, the quote has been credited, if that is the word, to several others, including James P. Schlesinger (during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to the record), and to Bernard Baruch in an edition of the Deming Highlight, a New Mexico newspaper (January 6, 1950). The point remains though, facts are inflexible. Opinions are less so.
Much of what is considered to be fact regarding the United States and its history are instead opinions, formed to support political, religious, or social beliefs rather than supported by truth. They are repeated over and over, obtaining a level of belief based upon repetition and the authority of the printed word. Yet their basic falsehood remains, easily discovered to be bounced off the stubborn iron wall of prejudice. Too often falsehood remains because to accept it as untrue would cause other falsehoods to be called into question, creating a situation of discomfort. Here are ten commonly accepted “facts” about the United States of America which, unfortunately or fortuitously, are provably untrue.
10. American Independence was declared and the Declaration signed on the Fourth of July
A could place to start is the date commonly accepted as the nation’s birthday, July 4, 1776. It is believed to be and celebrated as the date when America’s founders courageously applied their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, paraphrasing founder Benjamin Franklin, hanging together or they would all hang separately. Independence was not decided that day, it was proposed by Virginian Richard Henry Lee on June 7, following Congressional acceptance of a preamble declaring Independence on May 15 (written by John Adams). Congress voted on the issue of Independence on July 2, passing the measure though the delegation from New York abstained, awaiting final instructions from the state legislature. Congress also debated the language of Jefferson’s completed document on that date, and approved its final language on July 4.
Adams believed that July 2 would be the date celebrated by posterity, though in that judgment history proved him wrong, largely because the date of the Fourth – the day the final language was agreed upon, but not the issue itself – appeared on the document when it was released. Nor did the delegates all affix their signatures to the Declaration of Independence that day. Many of the eventual signers were absent that day in Philadelphia, but since their votes for independence were recorded on July 2, their signatures on the final document were not necessary. Roughly three dozen signed on July 4, the rest of the signees, eventually numbering 56, signed over the course of the summer, when their presence in Philadelphia afforded the opportunity. Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire did not sign until early November. The Declaration’s first public reading was on July 8, in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, July 4 became the date celebrated as the birth of the United States of America, marked with events much as John Adams predicted, though two days later than he expected.
9. American inventor and genius Thomas Edison invented the light bulb
Americans learn early in their schooldays that Thomas Edison, an American inventor of renown, invented the light bulb. An ancient joke claims he did so that he wouldn’t have to listen to his records in the dark (having been credited with inventing the record player as well). But Edison did not invent the light bulb, nor is it an American invention. Edison’s patent was issued for an improved light bulb, not for the first ever recorded. It can be (and is) argued that Edison invented the first practical light bulb, the word practical understood to mean that it offered a reasonable means of providing illumination reliably and affordably. That isn’t strictly true either.
Englishman Joseph Swan demonstrated a light bulb incorporating many of the materials and most of the design Edison used. Swan was ahead of Edison by many months, and patented his invention in England. When Edison infringed upon the Englishman’s patents the courts favored Swan, and the two entered into a joint venture which they called Ediswan. Edison’s improvements to the design were innovative and worthy of his own patents, and he later helped make electrical illumination commonplace, though Westinghouse and Tesla’s contributions were substantial and eventually their system came to dominate. Edison and the lightbulb, a sample of American ingenuity if there ever was one, are widely known myths, but in fact they are part of the many myths Edison created about himself and his invention factory as part of his business expansion. Dozens of people demonstrated working lightbulbs before Edison (and Swan). Edison invented how to make them profitable.
8. The automobile is an American invention
Henry Ford is widely believed to have invented the automobile, which is untrue, though it is fair to say that Ford made the automobile affordable through two innovations – the assembly line and a living wage for his workers. The automobile however was not Ford’s invention, nor was it an American invention. Even when one divides what became the automobile into different categories based upon the means of propulsion it cannot be said to trace its lineage to the United States. The first steam based unit appeared in France, in 1769, when America was still a collection of British colonies. The first internal combustion engine to power an automobile was likewise French, though its fuel was hydrogen rather than gasoline.
That type of engine (what the Americans call gasoline is referred to as petrol in other parts of the world) first moved an automobile in 1870, though it was in the Austrian Empire. Its inventor, Siegfried Marcus, was Jewish, and many of his innovations disappeared from history for a time, thanks to the rewriting done by the Nazis in the 1930s. Credit for Marcus’ inventions and innovations was given to Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz. Meanwhile, automobiles began to appear in American towns in the 1870s, sometimes spurred, as it were, by competitions sponsored by local governments to find an alternative to horse driven transportation. The impetus was the desire to alleviate the waste left on community streets by horses and mules. By the early 20th century American automobile companies were everywhere, but the vehicles they built had been the basic design in Europe many years earlier.
7. Burning the American flag is a crime
Many Americans believe that it is a crime to burn the American flag. Many others passionately believe that burning the American flag is an act of treason. However, it has never been a crime to burn the American flag, whether in protest or for any other reason, and it remains the preferred means of disposing of flags which have been damaged or worn from use. Though many nations have enacted laws which make desecrating their flag a criminal act, the Supreme Court of the United States has twice ruled (Texas v. Johnson, 1989; United States v. Eichman, 1990) that burning the flag is an act protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees Free Speech. In the reasoning of the Supremes, burning or otherwise desecrating the flag (such as rending it to pieces) are acts of symbolic speech.
Desecrating the flag, contrary to what many might think, is not a recently arisen issue. In 1862 Union General Benjamin Butler ordered the execution of a Confederate sympathizer for the act of simply removing a United States flag from the grounds of the New Orleans Customs House. Since the Supreme Court decision allowing flag burning in 1990, numerous proposals to amend the Constitution to protect the flag from being the target of public protests have been made by members of Congress, but as of July 2019, it is not against the law to burn the United States flag in any of the United States, while it is against the law to publicly display one which is tattered, soiled, or overly faded from use. In five southern states (Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi) the same protections are extended to the Virginia battle flag, often erroneously referred to as the Confederate Flag.
6. The Pledge of Allegiance has always included the phrase “one nation under God”
The Pledge of Allegiance, as taught in American schools (many of which make its recitation mandatory though to do so is illegal) has been modified several times since its original appearance in 1892. It was written by a Christian Socialist reformer and Baptist minister who considered a version then extant to be “juvenile.” As originally written it read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Its author, Francis Bellamy, recommended its recitation while delivering what became known as the Bellamy Salute; right arm extended, palm open, at a 45 degree angle from the shoulder. Numerous photographs of children (and others) giving the salute while reciting the pledge can be found in books, museums, and websites. The same salute was later favored by the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy.
The phrase, “one nation under God” began to be included in the 1950s, with the Knights of Columbus adding it during meetings in 1951. The following year they began lobbying Congress to add the phrase to the pledge officially. They were quickly joined by other religious organizations, and in 1954, recently converted (to Presbyterianism) President Eisenhower endorsed such a change, urging Congressman Charles Oakman to introduce adopting legislation. The change was added to the Flag Code on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. The Bellamy salute fell into disuse in the 1930s and 1940s as the images of American children rendering what appeared to be a Nazi gesture grew distasteful in American eyes. It was officially removed by an act of Congress in 1942, replaced with the hand-over-heart gesture for civilians common today.
5. The United States has never fought a war of conquest
To many, every war in which the United States has been forced to defend itself and its freedoms has been a good war, in which American blood has been shed and treasure committed for the purpose of expanding personal liberty and justice to all. Disregarding the American Indian Wars, which raged from the 1620s until the 20th century, the United States has seized territory from other nations as a result of combat, and in the case of the War with Mexico the intent of seizing the territory was expressed as a casus belli before hostilities began. Nearly all of the American southwest was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe, forced upon the Mexican government following the War with Mexico. It was a war of which Ulysses S. Grant, who fought in it, later wrote, “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico.”
Grant later claimed that he should have resigned rather than participate in the war, explaining his actions as being caused by his youth, “only I had not moral courage enough to resign.” Grant also wrote, in his memoirs, “I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.” Yet Grant placed the blame not on the military but on the government, and its nearly religious belief in the concept of manifest destiny. The United States later claimed territory, including the Philippines and the islands of Guam and Puerto Rico, as prizes following the Spanish-American War, as well as a section of Cuba centered upon Guantanamo Bay. Wars of conquest are a part of American history disguised as wars of liberation from tyranny in elementary and secondary history classes, when they are considered at all.
4. The United States has the highest standard of living in the world
Americans believe it to be a matter of natural course that Americans have available to them, if they are not actually enjoying it, the highest standard of living in the world (discounting of course places such as Monaco). Though there are many measures from which the standard of living is calculated by economists, politicians, and others who so such things, the most commonly used is the comparison of gross domestic product (GDP) per individual. When using such a standard, Monaco is indeed number one, though a glimpse of televised images of its harbor and parking lots is all the measure really needed. Using GDP per person as the unit of measure relegates the United States to eleventh in terms of standard of living. But GDP is not the only measure, and when using others, the United States still has several nations which have higher standards of living, some much higher.
When using individual purchasing power as the measurement the USA drops to 14, below Ireland (10) and just ahead of Iceland (15). Individual GDP for Bermuda (9) exceeds that of the United States, as does that of Norway (6), Switzerland (4), and tiny Luxembourg (3). The argument that oil rich nations have an advantage when considering individual purchasing could be made from a perusal of the list since Brunei, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait all rank higher than the United States, but in 2018 the USA produced more per barrel than all of them, and trailed only Russia and Saudi Arabia. In 2019 US News and World Report listed nations by what it termed “Quality of Life” which included factors such as employability, access to food, housing, health care, education, and the quality of the environment. The United States did not make the top ten. Its northern neighbor, Canada, was number one, a position it retained from the preceding year.
3. The United States has the highest standard of education in the world
The United States has the admiration and respect of the civilized world for the availability and quality of education it offers all of its citizens. Such is a belief held by many to the point that it is an irrefutable fact of the modern world. It is incorrect. Though the United States ranks near the top in expenditures for education, at all levels, when compared to other civilized nations it is quickly apparent that money spent does not equal education achieved. In the percentage of students completing primary education the United States does not make the top five (Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico). For secondary education (that is, completing high school) the USA again does not make the top five. Nor does the United States rank in the top five for completion of post high school degrees, though in fairness such degrees mean different things in different parts of the world.
The World Top Twenty Project looked at post education success as well as other indicators to rank civilized nations by education in 2018, with the United States absent from the resulting list of the top twenty, which was led by South Korea. The United States own Center on International Education Benchmarking, a project of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), lists the top performing nations of the world in terms of education and does not include the United States among the top ten, instead reporting on the progress made in the listed nations and the changes which could be adaptable to American education systems. When CNBC listed the top ten most educated nations of the world in February, 2018, it listed the United States as sixth, a ranking bolstered to some extent by the number of foreign students completing advanced degrees at American institutions.
2. The United States is the richest country in the world
Besides the belief that the United States is the best educated country in the world enjoying the highest standard of living in the history of humanity is the belief that America is the richest nation in the world, evidenced by the vast reserves of minerals still untapped within its borders and off its shores. Again, the ranking of nations by wealth is subject to the variations of the means used for evaluation, but the United States again does not crack the top five in many rankings. Using the standard of Gross Domestic Product per capita, or GDP by individual, the United States ranked seventh in 2018, trailing international leader Luxembourg by almost half. It also trailed Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, Iceland, and Qatar.
Fox Business used another mix of criteria to list what it called the world’s wealthiest countries in May 2019, but even by its standard, which gave Monaco the top spot, the United States did not crack the top five. When using privately held wealth as the standard of measure, as did Visual Capitalist in May 2019, the United States jumped all the way to number one, a piece of data which offers a meaty bone of contention for those prone to enter into spirited discussions of what it means for society. Fortune Magazine listed the fifteen richest countries in the world in November 2017, and in its list it included the United States, ranking it above Iceland, the Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia in 12th. The argument over which nation is the richest in the world can be made using a variety of data as the facts for supporting it, but by most objective evaluations the United States is not in the top five.
1. The United States enjoys the highest degree of personal freedom in the world
Once again, a variety of indicators are used by various study groups to determine the level of personal freedom enjoyed by citizens across the world, including economic freedom (the ability to earn a living wage, and retain it for personal use), political freedom, access to education, religious freedom, and many others. The evaluation is then compared between nations, and in the final comparison the United States routinely ranks in the second ten. America’s neighbor to the north, Canada, invariably finishes with a higher ranking of personal freedom than the United States. So do New Zealand (consistently first among numerous rankings), Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
The all too frequent response from Americans ill-disposed to accept such rankings is to huff “If you don’t like it leave,” or some similar retort, as well as denial of the accuracy of the ratings. After all, the phrase “land of the free” is included in the national anthem, and is far more accurate than any intellectual studies. As with many facts which are in conflict with accepted myths, they are inconvenient, and thus to many must be considered inaccurate. Nonetheless, the rankings, some of which are far less laudatory of American freedom, exist, there existence is a fact, and whether or not one agrees with their findings they are easily available for study. The rest of the world may see them as well, and a student in Wellington may well wonder why American leaders claim to live in the greatest degree of freedom in the world, when the facts before their eyes indicate otherwise.