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Founding Fathers, Fake News
July 18, 2017
by William P. Meyers

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Fake News Common Before 1776

People act like fake news is a new thing. Perhaps it has accelerated. But it has always been a part of political and social life. Case to point: the events leading up the the Declaration of Independence by 13 of the British colonies on mainland North America in 1776.

A long series of events led up to the civil war that began in 1776. If you sat in an American History class in high school you may recall how the Stamp Tax and other impositions on the colonies by the King of Great Britain and its Parliament irritated many of the colonists.

The Stamp Act was real enough. Yet fake news had a heavy impact in those days, when newspapers and word of mouth were the only means of mass communication.

In 1764 and 1765 the various colonies were trying to figure our how to respond to the news that they might be taxed by Parliament to help defray the enormous costs of their defense, both ongoing and debt from the French and Indian War.

Patrick Henry was a slave-owning lawyer who had recently been elected to the Virginia legislature in 1765. Waiting until near the end of a session, when most of the members had already left for home, he introduced a series of inflammatory, anti-taxation resolutions. Even so, his five resolutions barely passed, and one was rescinded the next day. Two even more inflammatory resolutions were not submitted to the legislature, but were submitted to newspapers.

The Newport Mercury newspaper printed, as having passed, 3 of the four resolutions that passed, plus the one that was rescinded, plus the 2 extra-inflammatory resolutions that had not been submitted. Other newspapers throughout the colonies followed suite, mostly printing all 7 resolutions, thus indicating to Americans that Virginia was much more opposed to King and Parliament than was really the case.

Henry and his supporters had learned what the popular leaders in other colonies already knew or were soon to learn: Never let fact stand in the way of what you want the public to believe. [The Founding of a Nation by Merrill Jensen]

President Donald Trump's firm belief that if reality is not what he says it is, it will be soon enough if he keeps tweeting, is the norm for American history. It is not new. It differs only in style from the lying I have heard in my lifetime from President John F. Kennedy (the most incompetent President in American history) to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

Of course facts are constantly in competition with unfounded rumors, and so human civilization occasionally makes some progress.

It is a fact that the 13 colonies did declare independence, and it is a fact that their rebellion succeeded and they went on to govern themselves as the United States of America. After that the propaganda began, the omission from history of embarrassing facts, the making up of tall tales. America is not unique in that regard.

Whether you want to change reality, or keep it the same, there is no substitute for understanding its complexity. That requires effort, including the willingness to accept facts over convenient fables.

We live in an era when opium has again become the opium of the masses. It is also an era when a lie can spread to a billion people in a few minutes.

If a historian read several newspapers from 1765, she might think she knew what resolutions regarding the Stamp Act were passed by the Virginia legislature. Only by examing the records of the legislature would she find out the truth.

In our modern era even published scientific papers are often false, as shown by efforts to duplicate the results contained in them.

So be careful what you believe, and be willing to change your mind when you learn that an assumption you have been making has facts that contradict it.


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