Fall from Grace

Tt is especially depressing and disheartening when people of intelligence, quality, and substance make unaccountably foolish mistakes or serious errors in judgment. Those of us involved in more ordinary and less conspicuous pursuits have our values reinforced and validated when people of character live up to our common ideals. When respectable people are flawed, it, unfortunately, has the unwanted side effect of making it easier to excuse our own lapses. The responsibility incumbent on famous people is an insidious burden. It is with great sadness that we consider the sad lapses of three such people.

Stephen Ambrose is perhaps best know for his books about the World War II. Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, and The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany are probably the most well known. Unlike many other historians of the war, Ambrose focuses his formidable narrative skills to describing the intelligence and heroism of the soldiers and airmen who actually fought in the war rather than on the strategies of generals. This has made him popular among veterans and the experience of the war more accessible to the lay reader.

Ambrose’s gifts are not limited to World War II. Ambrose used to take students on summer trips following the path of Lewis and Clark. The experience helps account for the insight and readability of the Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.

Unfortunately in recent years, Ambrose may have rushed too quickly to push books into print. His book Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 suffered from repetitiveness and just plain poor editing. Even worse, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard reported that passages from The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s were almost verbatim excerpts from Wings of Morning, The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down Over Germany in WWII by Thomas Childers. The borrowed passages were sentences long and not set off in quotations. Although Childers book was cited there was no indication that the questioned passages came from Childers.

Ambrose is apologetic. He writes on his web page that:

“Recently I have been criticized for improperly attributing other author’s writings in a few of my books. In each case, I footnoted the passage in question, but failed to put some words and sentences into quotation marks. I am sorry for those omissions, and will make relevant changes in all future editions of my books.”

One wonders whether Ambrose would have accepted a similar apology for a paper from graduate student.

Everyone’s favorite Liberal is Pulitzer Prizing winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin. Unlike many dour and grim-faced modern Liberals who whine and sulk about victimhood, Goodwin is a Roosevelt Liberal who wears a ready and happy smile. Her best and most acclaimed book is No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II,. It is a sympathetic treatment of Franklin Roosevelt and Goodwin’s obvious personal hero Eleanor Roosevelt. One could not imagine being around Goodwin without being infected by her smile. Goodwin’s good humor and Liberalism seem to sprout from a genuine concern about others.

Unfortunately, it now turns out that Goodwin has been, at best, very sloppy in her writing. In The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, Goodwin borrowed so extensively from Lynn McTaggart’s Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times without appropriate attribution that Goodwin was obliged to destroy unsold copies of her book, reissue another corrected edition of the book, and reach a monetary settlement privately with McTaggart. The Guardian reports that Goodwin stepped down as a Pulitzer Prize judge in the wake of this controversy.

One wishes to be charitable. Under the axiom that it is best not to assume maliciousness when incompetence is a sufficient explanation, it is possible to forgive Ambrose and Goodwin for carelessness born of a pressure to publish what have proved to be monetarily rewarding books. Both have done much to reacquaint Americans with their history. However, what then can we say about Michael Bellesiles, the Pulitzer-prizing winning presidential historian famous for thoughtful and sophisticated commentary on PBS?

In 2000, Michael Bellesiles published Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The book examines records of private estates and wills to make the claim the personal firearms were not a common possession during the Revolutionary War Era. This argument contradicts the assertion that the Founders instituted the Second Amendment to protect personal gun ownership. If personal gun ownership was uncommon, the argument goes, the Founders could not have possibly intended the Second Amendment to protect it.

Liberal groups were quick to seize on the import of Bellesiles’s thesis. Bellesiles’s book received supportive reviews. The New Republic loudly praised Bellesiles for his scholarship in disposing of the “influential mythic narrative composed by the contemporary right” of American self-reliance, liberty, and independence protected by a right to bear arms. The book won Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize for history writing.

Unfortunately, Bellesiles’s book does not appear to pass historical muster as a scholarly work. �Others have examined the same probate records he did and have found radically different results. Not only have others not been able to duplicate Bellesiles’s results Bellesiles can’t easily do so either. Apparently his data were collated on legal pads that have since been partially destroyed when, as Bellesiles explains, “the pipes in Emory University’s Bowden Hall burst and flooded the building. ” When confronted with inconsistencies in his book, Bellesiles’s explanations have changed so frequently that Princeton historian, Robert Churchill, lamented that, “Six years after Bellesiles published his findings, those of us engaged in the professional responsibility of evaluating his work are still guessing at the composition of his sample.” [8]

Representatives of Emory University, where Bellesiles is a professor of history, are examining the entire matter. National Review quotes an Emory faculty member as stating that, “A number of [us at Emory] think the questions that have been raised by critics whose motivations are not in any way political, are exceptionally serious.”

Perhaps Bellesiles will ultimately be able to explain his results or at the very least the water will become sufficiently muddied that Bellesiles will be spared further embarrassment. Whatever the truth is about historical levels of gun ownership is a truth that will have to be dealt with by both sides of the gun control issue. � The real disappointment has little to do with Bellesiles’s argument. Rather, the disappointment is that Bellesiles may have allowed passion for an argument to overwhelm fidelity to truth.

Historians should not be attorneys attempting to win a case. � Scholars are expected to not only draw conclusions from their research, but to point out potential weaknesses in their own arguments. �At this point, Bellesiles appears not to have lived up to these standards.


  1. AP Report, “Twice Told Tales: Goodwin Admits Improper Credits,” Washington Post, January 23, 2002.
  2. Barnes, Fred, “Copycat,” The Weekly Standard, January 14, 2002.
  3. Bellesiles’s web page at the Organization of American Histories.
  4. Burkeman, Oliver, “Plagiarism Row Topples Pulitzer Judge,” The Guardian, March 6, 2002.
  5. Crader, Bo, “Get Me Rewrite,” The Weekly Standard, February 26, 2002.
  6. Lears, Jackson, “The Shooting Game,” The New Republic, January 22, 2001.
  7. Ringle, Ken, “Stephen Ambrose and the Rights Of Passage,” The Washington Post, January 11, 2002
  8. Seckora, Melissa, “Disarming America, Part II: Why Won’t Michael Bellesiles Seriously Respond to His Critics?” National Review, November 26, 2001.
  9. Skinner, David, “The Historian Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” The Weekly Standard, February 15, 2002.
  10. Tschida, Ron, “Plagiarism Scandals Hurting History Profession,” MSNBC, February 22, 2002.

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