Now, you might think of this as, indeed, gullible. A former colleague of mine put the thing very, very well. He spoke about, and I like to claim this approach, the position of scholarship to which we call the higher naiveté. The way this works is, you start out, you don’t know anything, and you’re naïve. You believe everything. Next, you get a college education and you don’t believe anything, and then you reach the level of wisdom, the higher naiveté, and you know what to believe even though you can’t prove it. Okay, be warned; I’m a practitioner of the higher naiveté. So, I think the way to deal with legends is to regard them as different from essentially sophisticated historical statements, but as possibly deriving from facts, which have obviously been distorted and misunderstood, misused and so on. But it would be reckless, it seems to me, to just put them aside and not ask yourself the question, “Can there be something believable at the root of this?”
And just to give you some small defense of that approach, I always like to ask students, “Suppose we didn’t have a single historical record, no newspaper, no diaries. You know nothing totally reliable for what happened in the latter part of the eighteenth century in America.” Would we know anything about what happened? Of course, we would. We would know that there was a revolution; it was against Great Britain. I’m sure we would know that the French assisted in that. I am certain we would know that George Washington was the commander of our forces in our battle. Those are easy. There’s no getting around reading those things, and then it gets to be more interesting as we speculate. We would know as a fact that George Washington threw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River, except that it’s impossible. So, we would dismiss that one. We would be told that he was very honest and told his father he chopped down a cherry tree, which would be baloney, but we would be told that too. But I think we would be told also very many true things, which came down to us. So, the hard job would be to select among these legendary things, to see what fact can be found, and it will never be easy or deadly certain. But that’s what I’m talking about here.