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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview With Ken Davis

Aired July 4, 2003 - 20:31   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Ken Davis can tell you the Bunker Hill battle was fought on Breed's Hill. He wrote the book on it, in fact. His "New York Times" best-seller "Don't Know Much About History" is full of that and other amazing facts. He joins me now to debunk some common American history myths. Welcome, thanks for being with us.
KEN DAVIS, HISTORIAN: Glad to be here.

COOPER: And you already pointed out that we actually made a mistake earlier on in the broadcast. We said Washington didn't sign the declaration because he was -- we said he was in Boston.

DAVIS: You said he was in Boston, but he was actually in New York City.

COOPER: There you go.

DAVIS: Getting ready to get thrown out by the British.

COOPER: Before we get to debunking something particular myths, how do these myths start?

DAVIS: You know, it's interesting...

COOPER: And how do they get enshrined in our history?

DAVIS: Those are two different questions. A lot of the times it is somebody writing a children's story. Carson Williams (ph) is the best example, I suppose. He was a Washington so-called biographer, never met Washington, never had anything to do with Washington, but he told the story of the cherry tree, chopping down the cherry tree in a children's book that was supposed to teach morals. It had no basis in fact. But that's the story that got hooked into our kids' learning, understanding of American history.

COOPER: One of these stories -- let's talk about Paul Revere.

DAVIS: Same thing. Maybe his name worked better in the poem, but Longfellow writes a poem about that fateful night and he uses Revere as the central character.

COOPER: So there was no midnight ride?

DAVIS: There was a midnight ride. There were three riders. Revere gets arrested by the British before he gets very far. It's Billy Dawes (ph), another rider, who gets through and delivers the fateful message that the British were coming.

COOPER: But Revere gets all the credit.

DAVIS: Great press. Sometimes it's just good PR.

COOPER: All right. Betsy Ross, did she make the American flag?

DAVIS: Same thing. This is the family legend that got passed down to from one child to the next until almost -- more than 100 years later her great grandson wrote it in a book. She had nothing to do with ...

COOPER: Did she even saw?

DAVIS: She did saw. She was Washington's seamstress. And he used to come to her for his, shall we say, French cuffs, I don't know maybe...

COOPER: Freedom cuffs.

DAVIS: His freedom cuffs. His embroidered cuffs. But at any rate, she was a seamstress. She sold flags for Philadelphia that went on ships. And that was typical. And we do have records of her being paid for flags. But actually, Washington designed the very first American flag, and it wasn't a very good one. It was called Grand Flag of the Republic. And he flew it over the troops up in Boston. But it looked too much like a British flag, and it ended up confusing everybody. Because remember, that is 1775, a full year before independence that the fighting starts. People still wanted to retain some links to the British, perhaps. Americans were not Americans then; they were Englishmen and there were a lot of people who wanted to remain English.

COOPER: I'm not even going to ask you about Washington's teeth. Let's talk about Thomas Jefferson on the 4th of July. A lot of people obviously think the sole writer of the Declaration of Independence. There was actually some help there.

DAVIS: Well, he -- in modern parlance, we can say he sampled. You know? He took a little bit from here and a little bit from ...

COOPER: He was an early rapper.

DAVIS: He was an early rapper. He did write on a laptop also of his own design. He designed a portable desk that he could sit in a chair...

COOPER: But there was a commission, and there were a lot revisions, most of which he hated.

DAVIS: That's true. There was a committee of five. Most of them didn't want anything to do with the declaration. Adams suggested Jefferson because he was a southerner, first of all, Virginia was very important, and Adams said he can write 10 times better than me. Even Franklin was on that committee, and was agreed that Jefferson -- then Jefferson had to sit for two days as Congress went through his draft. And he was 33 years old, he was hot tempered, he was a genius. He did not suffer fools gladly.

COOPER: No writer likes rewrites.

DAVIS: Of course, the most important thing that they did change, they took something out of Jefferson's draft. He had criticized slavery, ironic since he owned slaves himself, and he later noted it was taken out of deference to the southerners who owned slaves and the northerners who made a great deal of money transporting them. Very few men in America had clean hands in those days when it came to slavery.

COOPER: That's certainly true. All right, we are going to have to leave it there. We're out of time. But Ken Davis, appreciate you joining us on this 4th of July.

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