Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft
and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin
By Peter Charles Hoffer. New York: Public Affairs, 2004. 287 pp. $26.00.
ISBN 1-58648-244-0. Available
from Society of American Archivists.
Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory
By Jon Wiener. New York: The New Press, 2005. 272 pp. $24.95. ISBN 1-56584-884-5.
Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol.
68, No.2, Fall/Winter 2005)
The good news for historians in recent years is that they are increasingly
recognized as important voices in public policy debates and that the
most popular among them are becoming media celebrities. The bad news
is that their conclusions and methods are increasingly subject to public
criticism. As historians Peter Charles Hoffer and Jon Wiener point out,
their colleagues’ imperfections are getting them in trouble.
Although tackling the same broad topic, and even using some of the same
incidents and sources, Hoffer and Wiener come to very different conclusions
about what this all means. The contexts for their analyses of recent
controversies provide different explanations of the ethics of historical
work. For archivists, these glimpses into the inner world of a sister
profession offer useful lessons.
Peter Charles Hoffer gives us an academic approach, placing controversies
surrounding four prominent historians—Stephen Ambrose, Michael
Bellesiles, Joseph Ellis, and Doris Kearns Goodwin—in the context
of American historiography since the early nineteenth century. Part I
begins with Jared Sparks and Peter Force, who compiled and published
historical documents as a “record of facts, beyond cavil or doubt” (p.
20). George Bancroft, Francis Parkman, and others relied on manuscripts
and original sources to compile celebratory, nationalistic histories.
The consensus history that dominated the nineteenth century presented
the past as an unbroken chain of progress, unapologetically glorifying
the white Protestant (male) elite. This was, Hoffer states, “winners’ history
written and read by the winners” (p. 30). The scientific history
promoted by the American Historical Association (AHA, founded 1884) continued
to emphasize consensus and “merely camouflaged the prejudices” of
historians (p. 34).
Progressive era historians expanded the cast of historical characters
to include Indians, blacks, women, and workers. They emphasized social
conflict and introduced relativism—the idea that “facts are
not irreducible bricks” but arguments created from selected evidence
(pp. 38–39). Consensus history returned to prominence during the
Cold War, when Americans sought “psychological comfort in conformity” and
social unity in the past (p. 48).
By the 1960s, the social ferment of Civil Rights, liberation struggles,
and the anti-war movement led many historians to acknowledge the ideological
basis for historical writing and to challenge its domination by the privileged
classes. This “new history” featured “a quarrelsomeness,
suspicion of pandering to the public, and demand for methodological sophistication
that profoundly widened the divide between academic and popular history” (p.
61). As academic historians increasingly aligned themselves with the “new
left” politically, their challenges to traditional values also
led to emphasis on conflict and controversy in American history. They
sought new research sources, such as census records, and developed new
methods (or borrowed those of social science disciplines such as psychology
and demographics) to focus on daily life and the stories of forgotten
Part I concludes by examining a series of highly publicized controversies:
the Columbus Quincentenary celebrations, the Smithsonian’s Enola
Gay exhibit, the ideological struggle over National History Standards
for schools, and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Each of these
media spectacles shows the ideological rift between academic and popular
historians, the growing suspicion of academics by the public, and the
demand that history celebrate American achievements rather than reflect
(in Lynne Cheney’s words) “the gloomy, politically driven
revisionism” common on college campuses (p. 109).
Part II focuses on charges of fraud made publicly against Bellesiles,
Ambrose, Goodwin, and Ellis. As a former member of the AHA Professional
Division, which investigated suspected wrongdoing by historians, Hoffer
examines these cases in relation to the AHA’s ethics code, the
1987 Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. The core
of this code emphasizes professional integrity: awareness of one’s
own bias, carefully documenting sources, not misrepresenting evidence,
avoiding plagiarism, and not concealing errors. Based on his own research
in the writings of these four authors, news stories, and investigative
reports by other groups, Hoffer concludes that each author was guilty
of ethical violations.
- In Arming America (2000), Michael Bellesiles kept sloppy
notes and falsified his research on early American gun ownership. Hoffer
calls this the “most egregious” recent case of historical
falsification and a “high-wire act of arrogant bravado” (pp.
- Stephen Ambrose shared a nineteenth-century belief that facts are
facts and thus failed to indicate when he took primary source quotes
from other historians’ writings or when he paraphrased secondary
sources without acknowledgment (p. 181).
- Whereas Ambrose continued to deny charges of plagiarism, Doris Kearns
Goodwin in 1989 made payment to another author whose words and ideas
she had “purloined” (p. 199) in The Fitzgeralds and
- Joseph Ellis fabricated stories about his service in Vietnam to make
his class lectures on the war more immediate and compelling. Hoffer
discovered that Ellis had also used his “power to invent truth” in
several of his books, to allow the reader to “enter the mysterious
closed spaces where the document does not go” (p. 219). Ellis
even chose topics for which there are extensive published collections
of documents so that there was “no need to race about to archives
and libraries to find manuscripts” (p. 221).
Hoffer concludes that these public controversies caused little more
than “embarrassment and anger” for these four individuals,
who had cut corners to become successful popular historians. The underlying
problem, as he sees it, is the AHA’s “hypocritical refusal
to enforce ethical precepts” (p. 238). Faced with legal and logistical
problems in enforcing its Statement on Standards, AHA in May
2003 discontinued hearing complaints. In doing so, Hoffer charges, AHA
allowed “misconduct to hide itself behind the veil of popularity” (p.
Whereas Hoffer explains these controversies within the context of historiographical
conflict between “new history” and consensus history, Jon
Wiener provides a decidedly political explanation. Wiener covers the
four historians profiled by Hoffer and adds eight more examples of ivory
tower politics. “Why do some cases become media events while others
remain within the confines of scholarly settings?” Wiener asks. “The
answer briefly is power—especially power wielded by groups outside
the history profession” (p. 2). Thus Wiener focuses not only on
the merits of the cases that get historians in trouble but even more
on the political climate. He concludes that “the right has much
more power than the left to define the meaning and significance” of
charges brought against historians (p. 6).
Wiener thus groups his dozen case studies not according to the alleged
offenses, but by their political contexts. Three cases involve historians
nominated to influential positions by President George W. Bush, and three
others (including Michael Bellesiles) are historians “targeted
by the right for [their] politics” (p. 5). Two cases involve misdeeds
that did not become media spectacles, while the cases of Ellis, Goodwin,
and Ambrose are grouped—with a professor accused of concealing
a prior conviction for sexual abuse—in a section called “Other
In emphasizing the eight cases in which left-right politics seem prominent,
Wiener clearly sides with the left, defending those historians accused
by the National Rifle Association, conservatives, and the media, and
denouncing those appointed to prominent positions by President Bush despite
charges previously brought against them. Because the cases of Ellis,
Ambrose, and Goodwin do not fit this political framework, Wiener appears
most neutral in discussing them. They did bad things and were punished
(but not enough).
The case of Bellesiles, however, points up the differences between Wiener
and Hoffer. Whereas Hoffer severely criticizes Bellesiles, Wiener mounts
a spirited defense. The investigating committee “found ‘evidence
of falsification’ only on one page,” Wiener reports (p. 77).
He was careless in his documentation, but he “did not invent documents.” Wiener
concludes: “That’s error, not fraud.” (p. 86). Yet
Bellesiles became the only one of the twelve people Wiener studied whose
career ended “because of problems in his scholarship” (p.
212). By contrast, the media virtually ignored the research fraud of
economist John Lott, whose More Guns, Less Crime (1998) was
based largely on fabricated evidence and dishonesty. The major difference
in these two cases, Wiener states, was that the NRA and the gun lobby
pressured Emory University to fire Bellesiles but remained silent about
the pro-gun Lott.
Several of the cases presented by Wiener concern archives, archival
research, and questions of documentation and note-taking. For example,
a careful reviewer who examined the original documents on which Edward
Pearson based his Designs Against Charleston: The Trial Record of
the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy of 1822 (1999) discovered that the
volume was riddled with errors and drew conclusions that were opposite
the truth of the events it depicted. In defending David Abraham from
charges that he had misdated and mistranslated several documents in his
study of the rise of Nazism, Lawrence Stone made unintentionally revealing
statements about the difficulties of archival research. “When you
work in the archives,” Stone told Wiener in an interview, “you’re
far from home, you’re bored, you’re in a hurry, you’re
scribbling like crazy. You’re bound to make mistakes. … Archival
research is a special case of the general messiness of life” (pp.
95–96). Archivists (and researchers) take heed!
For archivists, the most interesting of Wiener’s case studies
concerns the nomination of Allen Weinstein as Archivist of the United
States. Based on several articles dating back to 1992 in which Wiener
criticized Weinstein for “buying exclusive access to restricted
[KGB] archives” and “his withholding of archival materials
from other scholars” (p. 33), this chapter was written as the nomination
process slowly moved forward in summer 2004. Wiener even added a two-page “Update” on
the nomination (as of August 2004) at the end of the volume. Having been
a critic of Weinstein for more than a decade, Wiener played an active
role in seeking to block his nomination as Archivist. Charging that Weinstein
worked for a private think tank “with distinctly conservative politics” (p.
210), Wiener argues that his withholding of documents was “politically
motivated” (p. 36). Thus, he concludes, “with Allen Weinstein,
the right demonstrated far more power to reward its historians—with
White House nominations” (p. 57).
Like Hoffer, Wiener criticizes the AHA for its weakness in enforcing
adherence to its own Standards of Professional Conduct. However,
he frames the problem in political terms. “A strong and independent
profession might be able to stand up to the pressure of organized political
groups with their own agendas,” Wiener concludes (p. 204).
For archivists, these two volumes provide insights into how historians
view archives, archival research, and the relationships between the two
professions. The difficulty of interpreting, administering, and enforcing
professional ethics codes becomes, ultimately, the enduring lesson of
each volume. Archivists have also grappled with these concerns in recent
years. The recently revised SAA Code of Ethics had to delete
the commentary and examples of previous codes to avoid limiting the interpretation
of broad (and, frankly, rather bland) statements of archival ethics.
In today’s litigious and politically charged atmosphere, it becomes
increasingly difficult to establish and enforce ethical practices. This
is a challenge that we must face. Our professional integrity as archivists
may be at stake. We do not want to see a sequel titled Archivists
RANDALL C. JIMERSON
Western Washington University