J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Where Did “The Price They Paid” Come From?

Yesterday I listed several websites providing comprehensive debunkings of the essay usually titled “The Price They Paid,” which circulates by email every Independence Day. It offers numerous misstatements about how members of the Second Continental Congress had suffered physically and financially for signing the Declaration of Independence.

In 1999 Jim Elbrecht got interested in the source of that essay and started tracking down different versions. His findings through 2003 are posted on his “Signer’s Index” website. The essay’s style makes it clear that it was created in the 20th century for a popular audience. But there are different versions, sharing the same mistaken facts but not the same phrasing. While keyword searching has made it much easier to find specific phrases these days, it’s still a chore to track misstatements phrased in different ways to their original sources.

The earliest printed form of the essay that Elbrecht found was in radio commentator Paul Harvey’s 1956 collection The Rest of the Story. At other times Harvey published it under the titles “We Mutually Pledge” and “Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor.” (And he published other Rest of the Story collections, to confuse matters further.)

Another version with different language was published by Texas author T. R. Fehrenbach in American Legion magazine in 1965, and later inserted into the Congressional Record by Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Those two versions have different language, but share enough false information to indicate that either Fehrenbach used Harvey’s essay as a source, or the two authors relied on the same erroneous sources.

“The Price They Paid” appears to combine statements from those two articles and perhaps a few others. The name “Gary Hildreth of Erie, Pennsylvania,” is often attached to the essay as it circulates on the internet, but no one seems to know who that is. I suspect he might have passed on the article at some point after the author’s credit had drop off, and his name became attached to it.

In 1997 radio commentator Rush Limbaugh published a version which followed the Fehrenbach essay very closely in both facts and wording. The title of this version was “The Americans Who Risked Everything,” and Limbaugh featured it on his website as recently as this summer. He claimed that his father had written it many years before:

My father, Rush H. Limbaugh, Jr., delivered this oft-requested address locally a number of times, but it had never before appeared in print until it appeared in The Limbaugh Letter. My dad was renowned for his oratory skills and for his original mind; this speech is, I think, a superb demonstration of both.
Limbaugh offered no evidence of his father’s authorship, or explanation of how the previously unpublished essay matched Fehrenbach’s so closely. Elbrecht has written:
As of April 2001 [nine months after his public request], I still haven’t heard from anyone who heard the speech given, nor has Mr. Limbaugh answered several emails from this researcher, or phone calls from at least 2 journalists.
As I’ve said before, when a person has grown up with a certain understanding of one’s family, whether recent or distant, it’s very hard to acknowledge that that understanding might be wrong. That sort of family lore is the basis of a lot of Revolutionary myths, and it seems to be the basis of Limbaugh’s belief that “The Price They Paid” showed his father’s “original mind.”

Other journalists borrowed from the internet essay in 1999-2000: Jonah Goldberg in the National Review online, Oliver North on M.S.N.B.C., advice columnist Ann Landers, and Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby in a piece headlined “56 Great Risk-takers.”

The latter two were especially notable since their pieces both appeared in the Boston Globe at the same time in July 2000. The paper was already reeling from having to fire its most prominent columnist for copying material from emails. When called to explain himself, Jacoby said that he’d wanted to correct the internet version’s errors, and had even acknowledged that source when he’d emailed a draft of “56 Great Risk-takers” to select friends before filing it with the Globe. This statement didn’t help his cause because it revealed that he had the habit of sharing his work with folks at the Globe’s cross-town rival before showing it to his own editors. Jacoby returned to the newspaper after four months. At the time, Timothy Noah at Slate noted how “Jacoby’s suspension has the right engaging in what, under different circumstances, it might characterize as victimology.”

The publicity surrounding Jacoby’s misstep caught journalists’ attention, and Noah reported no new sightings of “The Price They Paid” on newsprint in 2001. However, it continues to appear on websites big and small, and to circulate by email. In 2002, the Pentagon issued a statement credited to Gen. Richard B. Myers, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeating some of the errors. Google counts appearances on about fifty blogs this summer. Watch for it in your in-box next year.

Jacoby’s “56 Great Risk-takers” managed to avoid most of the errors in “The Price They Paid,” and he made a couple of further corrections in the following weeks. Those changes made the signers’ fates seem less dire, of course, but Jacoby maintained the tone of awestruck reverence for their sacrifices. So is there anything wrong with circulating that essay instead (aside from the fact that it’s under copyright, and in the Globe’s paid archive), or another version with the same corrections? I think there is, because focusing on the Declaration’s signers misses vitally important aspects of American society in 1776 and of the Revolutionary struggle.

TOMORROW: Who sacrificed the most.

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