The Boston Massacre, Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill, and George Washington’s crossing the Delaware are captured in paintings that often embellish the truth.
The old saying that a “picture is worth a thousand words” goes a long way in portraying the past but often at the cost of historical truth. Nikolai Tolstoy, writing about Joseph Stalin, quotes the composer Shostakovich talking about the numerous painters Stalin ordered shot because their portrayals of the Soviet leader “didn’t please him.”  Not as tragic as Tolstoy’s example, pictures from American history, however, often present embellished tales that added to the propaganda quality of the event.
The Boston Massacre and Paul Revere
On the evening of March 5th, 1770, a crowd of angry Bostonians, many unemployed, confronted a group of British “red coats” or “lobster backs.” Taunted by the crowd, the soldiers eventually fired, leaving five dead. This became the Boston Massacre. But it was Paul Revere’s engraving of the event, based on a drawing made by Henry Pelham, that created anti-British fervor throughout the colonies.
Revere’s engraving, reprinted in most American history texts, gave a grossly distorted view of what actually happened. One of the mob leaders, a mulatto named Crispus Attucks, was the first shot. Yet the Revere engraving shows no person of color. Those fallen in the foreground are white. The actual incident occurred in front of the customs house and only seven British privates and one officer were involved.
According to the lithograph, there is no impression that the British soldiers were surrounded by the mob. The incident began when a group numbering about twenty people started to intimidate a lone sentry, Hugh White. After retreating to the customs house, he was supported by seven others, commanded by Captain Thomas Preston. By now the mob had grown in numbers.
According to eye witness accounts, later used in the public trial of the soldiers, a ruffian struck one of the soldiers with a club, causing a shot to be fired. Although the order to “shoot” was heard by witnesses, Preston denied giving the order and other witnesses claimed that it came from a direction away from where Preston stood. The Revere depiction gives the impression of a premeditated volley at near point blank range into a group of innocent citizens.
The classic engraving does not show the crude weapons used by some members of the mob nor does it show any snow on the ground. The Boston Massacre encounter was not the first time angry mobs threw stones wrapped in snow. March 5th was the culmination of three days of provocation. None of the above facts are portrayed in the Revere engraving.
Paintings, Patriotism, and Propaganda
The story of the Boston Massacre is not alone in presenting false facts in order to achieve a desired response. Patriotism can do much the same. The classic painting of Teddy Roosevelt at the forefront of the Rough Rider’s charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War is frequently used in history texts such as The American Vision. The Rough Riders, however, had left their horses in Florida. The charge was made on foot, and contrary to the intent of the picture to glorify “TR,” he was not the commander of the group.
The 1851 picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze has become iconic in Revolutionary War history lore. However, the men who ferried Washington across the Delaware were white and black sailors under the command of Colonel John Glover yet one would be hard pressed to find any persons of color in the painting (one is to the right of Washington). Additionally, the troops crossed on barges, not open row boats and the general was not standing as in the painting: indeed, in the barges, everyone was standing!
- Robert Harvey, “A Few Bloody Noses:” The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2002)
- Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)
- Hiller B. Zobel, The Boston Massacre (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970)
-  quoted in Nikolai Tolstoy, Stalin’s Secret War: A startling expose of his crimes against the Russian people. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981) p. 19