January 1, 2012 - New Year's Day and Patriots' Birthdays

New Year's Day is the most widely celebrated holiday in the world (although not everyone celebrates on the same day!). 

Of course, some babies are born on this auspicious day every year, as well. Today we celebrate the birthdays of Paul Revere and Betsy Ross, two famous American “patriots.”

What the word patriot means is “one who is loyal to one's country.” Interestingly, Americans tend to use the word for historical figures who were actively rebelling against their country – because Britain was the ruling nation of the American colonies. So early American patriots were people who were loyal to the idea of a new nation – but were not a bit loyal to their actual country. Right?

Paul Revere (born on this day in 1735) was a silversmith. He is most famous for alerting Colonial militia that the British forces were approaching Concord. During the Revolutionary War, he acted as a courier and printed local currency; he also set up a powder mill that produced tons of gunpowder for George Washington's Continental Army. He opened a hardware store, served in the Massachusetts militia, and became a foundryman. (That means he learned to make iron and brass and other metal castings.) His company, Revere Copper and Brass, Inc., grew to be quite large.

One reason that Revere is so famous for one little event in his exciting and varied life is that his “midnight ride” was dramatized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem “Paul Revere's Ride.”

Betsy Ross (born Elizabeth Griscom on this day in 1752) was a seamstress. She is credited with sewing the first American flag, but there isn't evidence that this story is true. She was one of several flag makers in Philadelphia, and she changed the six-pointed stars to easier five-pointed stars. However, in 1857, twenty years after Ross's death, her grandson William J. Canby presented a paper claiming that she had made “with her hands” the first flag of the United States. The story appealed to Americans who were eager for stories about the Revolutionary War and thirsty for patriotic role models for girls, so the story was quickly accepted and widely retold.

And quite probably false.

The take-away from both of today's famous birthdays is that history contains exaggeration and even myth. We can learn and enjoy popular history, but we can also dig a little deeper to see what evidence says about our past.

For more about New Year's Day, see this and this other earlier posts.

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