Source Book for Social Psychology


474 Sociology; Social Psychology

121. Historical Legends and National Hero-Worship1

Not only are stereotypes and slogans carried in the mental patterns and come thus to affect actions, but there are whole sections of our mental content which are made up of stories, narratives, interpretations, and ideals which play important rôles in the control of social judgments and social activities. In truth, these more systematic legends and myths themselves contain much stereotyped content.

Thus, for example, M. Clemenceau’s images and ideas of Germany in 1918 were tied up thoroughly with legends about the Franco-Prussian War upon which were superimposed more recent deposits of legends from the World War. And coursing through this more or less systematic picture were stereotypes such as were described in the previous chapter.

The making of myths and legends is a natural phenomenon of the mind. This is described in detail by van Langenhove. Not only are there illusions of memory in the repeated recall of events, not only is there elaboration and dramatization of these events, not only is there transposition of time and place and actual accretion to the legend or story itself,—but there is, furthermore, in the course of this process, which arises in intercommunication, the acceptance of this much repeated story as objective fact. Moreover, a delusion of any particular individual which may arise in a crisis such as a war, a famine, a flood, or other critical situation may become projected upon other persons in the telling and become part of the whole mental pattern of the group. As Campbell puts it:

Under special strain the orthodox may lapse from conventional belief into individual delusion, and the delusion of one person may in any group or period become a socially acceptable belief. Delusion is no strange and mysterious element, it is no foreign parasite battening on the mind, it is not the meaningless expression of disturbed physiological processes; delusion is an attempt of the personality to deal with special difficulties, in which attempt the mind not infrequently tends to revert to primitive modes of adaptation, which are at variance with the actual level of thought of the period and group in which the individual finds himself; it is an attempt which has gone wrong insofar as it estranges the individual from his social group. Delusion, like fever, is to be looked on as part of nature’s attempt at cure, an endeavor to neutralize some disturbing factor, to compensate for some handicap, to reconstruct a working contact with the group which will still satisfy special needs.

Thus it was that during the World War a whole congeries of legends and myths we built up from delusion and illusion which were fastened upon the various national groups and will remain for generations a part of the mental patterns of these groups unless disturbed by other patterns more objective. While the psychiatrist may term these illusions and delusions reversions to primitive modes of thought, it is becoming more and more evident that the thought of the masses, corresponding as it does to the mental patterns of culture, is essentially primitive. And primitivity in thought is marked by emotional interpretations and by fictitious associations such as we have in magic. It is marked by illusions of memory, by elaboration, distortion and extension of items in experience which is much akin, as Freud has shown, to the dream consciousness. In short, primitive thinking is personal, subjective, and warm with emotion and feeling. It is, in fact, autistic in nature. It has little of the objectivity of scientific thought. It is marked rather by what Stransky calls the "logic of feeling" than by cool, deliberate, and impersonal conceptions. And the mental patterns of stereotypes, myths, and legends are simply the objectified, projected standardizations, the socially accepted precipitates of this type of thinking. All kinds of historical events, ideals, utopias, and millenniums partake of this character. Napoleon and Machiavelli, for example, for H. G. Wells, with his Fabian coloring, are two very different characters than they are for a chauvinistic Frenchman, on the one hand, or for a believer in Real-Politik on the other.

In the first selection from Sorel we have an incisive statement of the importance of the myth in social dogmas of various sorts. In the second paper we have selections from van Langenhove’s analysis of the legends built up in Germany about the franc-tireur (guerrilla) warfare in Belgium and the accompanying perfidy of the Belgians toward the invaders. He shows how the legend runs its course from mouth-to-mouth, face-to-face, narration to inclusion in newspaper reports, to becoming the subject of literary productions. It gets into formal military accounts, and finally into official histories of the war.

The selection from Addams furnishes a modern instance of the place of myth-making in social control. While the groups involved are immigrant folk, other superstitions among our own rural and even urban population are still current. Freedom from legend, myth, and stereotype is rare and depends on level of culture not on race, nationality, or geography.

The place of historical legends in our own national life is illustrated by Hart’s paper. Similar materials on other national heroes such as John Brown and Walter Hines Page may be consulted through the bibliography. As a part of the culture of the Christian era, there is no more constant myth than in the recurrent millennial hope which has sprung up again and again in the course of western history. This idealism has served a valid social purpose in periods of crisis. Such hopes stabilize people when under great strain and provide a core for the integration of individual and social life when all ordinary mundane arrangements have failed.

We should not imagine from our analysis that social concepts could be very different. Rather we are exposing more or less common patterns of culture, at least as they have been prominent in our Western world. As one examines the nature of social life and its culture patterns, one is impressed with the fact that emotions and feelings play a very large part in their formulation and continuance. The basic values carry emotional freight. These values and ideas are made over into patterns congenial to the survival of our group. The slogans, the mores, the standards, the legends, all revolve around the group as the most significant, the most superior, the most important in the universe. Man’s personal egotism has its reflection in the larger egotism of the in-group everywhere. And the mental patterns which we have examined in the present and the previous chapter merely furnish another clue to the understanding of this in-group feature of life and its reference to the personality.

To the student of lies the interesting question about John Smith is whether his life was or was not saved by Pocahontas. Upon that point he had the best of opportunities to tell a thrilling tale in his book The True Relation, written in Virginia and published in England in 1608. Among his thrilling experiences he there describes a little excursion to the Chickahominy, where he falls in with hostile Indians, becomes the target for twenty or thirty arrows, and is captured by two hundred men only because he gets mired in a swamp. Being brought before their Indian 475 king, although Smith knows not a word of his language, he says, "I presented him with a compasse diall, describing by my best meanes the use thereof, whereat he so amazedly admired, as he suffered me to proceed in a discourse of the roundness of the earth, the course of the sunne, moone, starres and plannets." Eventually he is brought before "their emperour," the great Opechan Conough, commonly called Powhatan. Efforts are made to kill him by Indians whose relatives he has slain, but the guards save him. In due course of time, after "describing to him the territories of Europe which was subject to our great King whose subject I was, the innumerable multitude of his ships, I have him to understand the noyes of Trumpets and terrible manner of fighting." Smith is then sent home with four men, one carrying his "Gonne and Knapsacke," while the other two were "loded with bread."

Elsewhere in the book he mentions the Princess Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan. This lady was only a girl—perhaps twelve years old—and another contemporary, Strachey, tells curious tales of the maiden’s fondness for turning cart-wheels through the streets of Jamestown. About the time Pocahontas married John Rolfe and went to England (1616), Smith published a little book in which he says:

After some six weeks (elsewhere he makes it four weeks) fatting amongst these salvage countries, at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own braines to save mine.

Then in 1624 Smith published another book, the Generale Historie, in which his memory seems suddenly to have unlimbered, for he rewrites his narrative, adds a hundred to his earlier enumeration of two hundred adversaries; additionally remembers that the Indians brought out a bag of gunpowder which they proposed to plant next spring; and is brought before Powhatan. With many new details he describes that potentate, and at last comes to the most exciting scene in the drama. You can see it all! The dusky Emperor, R. C.; Princess Pocahontas, L. C.; the hero before the footlights, bound but undaunted, his eyes flashing defiance.

A long consultation was held, but the conclusion was two great stones were brought before Powhatan; then as many as could lay hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines. Pocahontas, the King’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevaille, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death; whereat the Emperour was contented he should live.

. . . . . . . . . . .

First, and still unapproachable, as a biographer who creates the subject 476 of his book, comes Parson Weems—that beloved, graceless, national favorite—who was an estimable clergyman and one of the first and probably the most successful of book-agents in American history; he is also eminent because he has imperishably entwined his name with that of the Father of his Country. Mason Locke Weems, as the nineteenth child of David Weems, had eighteen opportunities to be gulled by his brothers and sisters. He was ordained a clergyman, became rector of All Hallows parish, combined with it a girl’s school, preached occasionally to Negroes, and somehow drew upon himself the dislike of his parish. He probably held services occasionally in Pohick Church, in which, years before, George Washington had worshipped; and upon this slender connection he based the title which he later assumed of "formerly rector of Mount Vernon parish."

Then, in 1800, he made the great hit of his life in his Life of George Washington. This immortal work was originally a brief account of Washington’s service in the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, couched in the impassioned language of the time, as, for example, the account of the aftermath of the battle of Lexington:

Never, before, had the bosoms of the swains experienced such a tumult of heroic passions. They flew to their houses, snatched up their arms, and, in spite of their screaming wives and children, flew to the glorious field where liberty, heaven-born goddess, was to be bought for blood. . . . Fast as they came up their ready musquets began to pour the long red streams of fiery vengeance. The enemy fell back appalled; while the gathering thousands hung upon their flight. Every step of their retreat was stained with trickling crimson; every hedge or fence which they passed took large toll of hostile carcasses.

In later editions Weems adds what we should now call an appreciation of Washington, in which are many anecdotes which are either true, or ought to be true, about the Father of his Country, combined with amazing quantities of good advice. Weems lived in a period when it was thought a moral duty to look upon the patriots of the Revolution and the fathers of the Constitution as demigods; it did not expect its historians to search for elaborate details and infinitesimal finish of statement. They wanted a good round mouthful of biography just as they wanted a boiling-hot sermon on perdition.

Weem’s Life of Marion was confessedly an "Historical Romance," and his Life of Washington is not much more authentic. Doubtless the lively parson had no thought of deceiving his readers by inventing long 477 dialogues and telling speeches; and perhaps his shade is today surprised and gratified to know that the story of the hatchet is an American classic which has crystallized the impression of Washington in the minds of millions of Americans. The text of this immortal invention is perfectly well known to every virtuous American boy and girl:

The following anecdote is a case in point. It is too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted, for it was communicated to me by the same excellent lady to whom I am indebted for the last.

"When George," said she, "was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond; and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day in the garden, where he often amused himelf hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the way, was a great favorite, came into the house; and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. ’George,’ said his father, ’do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden?’ This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment, but quickly recovered himself, and, looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out: ’I can’t tell a lie, pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.’ ’Run to my arms, you dearest boy,’ cried his father, in transports, ’run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is worth more than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.’ "

It was in this way by interesting at once both his heart and his head, that Mr. Washington conducted George with great ease and pleasure along the happy paths of virtue.

This story was first printed by Weems in 1806. The "aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family," was probably also a creation. As for the tale, it is a curious fact that a grandson of Weems says that one of Weem’s children, not long after Washington’s death, cut down a "Pride of China," candidly confessed his fault, and was rewarded with a sound whipping! If this anecdote be true, Weems was doing his best to make out that the father of George Washington was a wiser and kindlier man than Weems himself.

1 Reprinted by permission from A. B. Hart "American Historical Liars" Harper’s 1915: CXXXI: pp. 727–28; 732–33; 733–34.


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Chicago: "Source Book for Social Psychology," Source Book for Social Psychology in Source Book for Social Psychology, ed. Young, Kimball, 1893-1972 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), Original Sources, accessed March 21, 2019,

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