Past 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 Tower

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 Part I begins with Jared Sparks and Peter Force, who compiled and published historical documents as a “record of facts, beyond cavil or doubt” (p. 20).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 people.

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. 142–3).
  • 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 the Kennedys.
  • 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. 239).

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 Media Spectacles.”

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 in Trouble.


Western Washington University