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Historical Truth and Personal Truths

by James M. Banner Jr. on Jun 27, 2001

James M. Banner, Jr.

Like most American historians, I've been repeatedly asked these past few days the same question: "What do you think of Joseph Ellis?"

Joseph J. Ellis is the Mount Holyoke College historian recently exposed by the Boston Globe as a spinner of tall tales about his past. A former army officer, he fabricated a record of service in Vietnam. A liberal, he concocted a role in anti-war and civil rights protests. An outstanding high school student, he invented tales of his prowess on the football field. In all of these, he lied to his students. What, I am asked, should be made of this?

As it turns out, no one really wants to hear my answers. They have their own. And those answers are as varied as human personality is varied. For some reason, this tale has struck the public with great force. Why this is so, why so many Americans are so troubled by Ellis's failings, rather than by the possible consequences of them–such as whether Ellis should be drummed out of academia or stripped of his many honors–which include a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize–is the question that interests a historian.

While we may wish that it weren't so, academia is probably as much troubled by dishonesty and other human shortcomings as other occupations. When scholars make mistakes, they are reported in the academy's trade paper, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and hardly anywhere else. But Ellis's dishonesty is now known to one and all because of the superiority and justified popularity of his historical works. His books on the framers of the nation have deservedly attracted a wide audience.

And that is one reason why his recent exposure, like exposures of President Clinton's ethical faults, has become a litmus test of sorts for each of us: Ellis's acts, the acts of a previously widely respected and influential scholar, force us to take a stand about what we think constitutes right behavior. When respected men and women make mistakes, society re-measures itself.

More than this, Ellis is a teacher. He instructs and, purposefully or not, stands as an example for students. We correctly see young people as vulnerable and particularly exposed to the influence of their elders, especially of those, such as historians, who impart not only information but, inevitably, ethical and moral values. Anything that exploits that vulnerability, be it sexual seduction or self-aggrandizing fact, we instinctively see as wrong.

Perhaps most important in this case, we believe that historians — more than, say, professors of literature — have a heightened duty to be faithful to the factual truth. They are custodians of the past. Historians are charged with protecting and judging fairly not just the reputations of the dead but the very integrity of their existence. Historians owe something to sources living and dead: an absolute commitment to be true to those who cannot answer for themselves. To be sure, historians differ as to what's the truth about the past. But they're supposed to give their all in trying to discover that truth. When a historian traduces contemporary fact about himself, can we trust him to be true to the dead and to the past to which the dead are necessarily relegated?

Historians are also custodians of public knowledge. They have always helped shape a nation's and a culture's view of itself. And perhaps nowhere is this more true than with a culture's founding stories, whether they turn out to be comforting myths or real history. Ellis's specialty is the founding years of the American nation, and he has written brilliantly about them. But if he tells false tales about himself, perhaps, we say to ourselves, he has been telling false tales about the Founders.

There is no evidence that he has. But my companions in conversation seem to be asking themselves whether they can entrust the history of the nation's formative years and of its greatest generation to someone who does not tell the truth about himself. And if by chance he has read his own private confusions into the lives of others, such as Jefferson and Adams, of whom he has written, then are his evaluations of those men valid? A good question.

One can understand my friends' and neighbors' perplexity. But a historian, speaking as a historian, can't much help them out. What strikes a historian is the seriousness with which others take this issue, the importance they place upon the ethical weight of teaching and getting the past right. That's the one encouraging thing to come out of this otherwise sad incident.

James M. Banner, Jr. a historian in Washington, D.C., was co-founder of the History News Service. He is most recently the editor of A Century of American Historiography (2009).