Four years ago, disturbed by what appeared to be a growing trend of careless source citation in works of scholarship, I wrote a comment and sent it to H-SHEAR. It ran under the heading “Citations and Standards” (April 26, 2011) and generated some interesting discussion.
I was put in mind of this bit of history while reading two recent big books from major publishers, Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard, 2013) and Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic, 2014). Both have been widely acclaimed, and Johnson won last year’s SHEAR book prize. Slavery and capitalism are the major themes of both books, but both also stake large interpretive claims concerning antebellum politics and the approach to Civil War. Both are heavily documented: 86 pages of endnotes in Johnson’s book, 60 in Baptist’s.
Statements coming from such distinguished sources command respect. But by very virtue of their importance they also invite scrutiny, not only for the persuasiveness of their argument but for the soundness of the evidence on which that argument rests. It is surely not unreasonable to expect from master historians the same standard of care required in a well-vetted dissertation monograph.
Even before reaching the heart of Johnson’s political analysis, I was struck by an arresting ten-line block quotation on page 318, attributed to Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. It was arresting because it was eerily familiar: Johnson had used a shorter version of the same quotation to open the chapter just fifteen pages earlier (p. 303). But there he gave its author not as Butler but as one Leon Fragua de Calvo. Johnson’s footnote was of no help in sorting out who really wrote this passage, nor in determining which of the two versions he presents (they differ by two words and five commas) is actually correct.
On page 373 Johnson tackles antebellum politics directly:
“As at other moments of crisis—particularly the South Carolina Nullification crisis of 1831 (the refusal of the state of South Carolina to enforce the federal tariff, a problem that was eventually resolved only with Andrew Jackson’s threat to use the United States Army to invade the Palmetto State) and the Virginia slave emancipation debates of 1832—by the late 1850s several strains of thought that fed the ideological identification of ‘the South’ with slavery and slaveholding were beginning to produce rogue strains that threatened to metastasize into a real threat to slaveholding power. If the geographic dimensions of politics of slavery in the 1850s (the fight over the West, which culminated in the state-for-state Compromise of 1850; the fight over Kansas and the doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty’ for territories becoming states; the Kansas-Nebraska Act) made it inevitable that the defenders of slavery would come to think of their struggle in increasingly sectional terms, it also provided a frame that called attention to variation within the supposedly uniform space of ‘the slaveholding South.’”
Regarding this passage:
1. The nullification crisis was in 1832–33, not 1831.
2. South Carolina did not refuse to enforce the tariff. It was not and is not the province of state governments to enforce federal laws. Nullification meant preventing the federal government from enforcing its own laws, which is something quite different.
3. While Jackson did unofficially threaten invasion, it was the passage of a compromise tariff in Congress, not Jackson's threat, that is with reason usually credited for resolving the crisis.
4. There was no “state-for-state Compromise” in 1850. Indeed, the very unavailability of that Missouri-like solution was part of the problem that needed compromising. There was no slave territory ready for admission to accompany free-state California. The Compromise of 1850 did not maintain the balance of free and slave states. It broke it, and many expected that, once it was first broken, the imbalance would widen. They were correct. Minnesota joined the Union in 1858 and Oregon in 1859. No slave state was admitted after Texas in 1845. The Compromise of 1850 balanced California’s admission not with a new slave state but with other concessions to Southerners, notably the notorious Fugitive Slave Act.
5. The popular sovereignty doctrine did not concern “territories becoming states.” It concerned territories before they became states, perhaps even before they became formal territories. After Missouri, politicians in both sections generally acknowledged the unhindered right of citizens to choose freedom or slavery at the moment of becoming a state, even for citizens of a free territory to make a slave state. Abraham Lincoln conceded that point directly in his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas. The popular sovereignty doctrine concerned the ability of territorial legislatures or citizens to preempt that choice by sanctioning or interdicting slavery at an earlier stage. The distinction is not arcane: through much of the 1850s, the question of when or how territorial denizens could act on slavery well in advance of statehood formed the very crux of controversy.
That’s five consequential misstatements in two (overlong) sentences—and this from a historian who does not shy from lecturing us, even in this same paragraph, on how we have misapprehended the coming of the Civil War.
Edward Baptist begins the story of Andrew Jackson’s presidential inauguration by telling of “a man who on March 5, 1829, woke up aching in Washington, DC. . . . Andrew Jackson’s wiry old body felt the frost. . . . Now, as Jackson rose to his feet, a slave waiting outside the door heard the old man and entered the room. A few minutes later, the president-elect emerged” and went down to breakfast (p. 224). Every detail in this scene is imaginary except the one that’s wrong: inauguration day was March 4, not March 5. Baptist then turns to Jackson’s inaugural address, which he discusses in four paragraphs, each individually footnoted and devoted to a separate topic: Indian relations, foreign affairs, the tariff, and the patronage (pp. 227–28). As Baptist relates:
“First, Jackson announced that he planned to address the Indian issue according to the ‘feelings’ of his countrymen. Almost 50,000 native people still lived on and held title to 100 million acres of land in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. The ‘feeling’ of Jackson’s countrymen was that they wanted that land in order to launch expanded cotton-and-slavery-induced booms.”
Whatever Jackson may have felt, this is not what he said. Here is the full text of his paragraph on the Indians, the ninth (not first) of the address:
“It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.”
On the fourth issue, Jackson’s call for patronage “reform,” Baptist says “we know that the president was more concerned about the Second Bank of the United States,” even though “he left the harshest B.U.S. lines out of his inaugural address.”
One cannot leave out what was never there to put in. Jackson would, within months, vigorously attack the Bank. But as of March 1829 he had not said one word against it, either in public or private, and there was as yet no intimation that he would. If “we know” that he was more concerned about it than he was about the patronage, we know more than he did himself.
The point is more than semantic, for there were things that were indeed left out of the inaugural address. We have the first draft of it in Jackson’s own hand. It proposed the distribution of surplus federal revenue among the states “for purposes of education & internal improvement.” This recommendation was elaborated in a reworked draft by Jackson’s nephew and secretary Andrew Jackson Donelson, but then excised entirely from the final text. Neither Jackson’s draft nor Donelson’s said anything about the Bank (The Papers of Andrew Jackson: Volume VII, 1829, pp. 74–79).
How could Baptist go so far astray? The text of Jackson’s inaugural is absurdly easy to find. It is posted on various websites, all cribbed more or less faithfully from the standard printing in James D. Richardson’s Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, which is itself accessible online. Jackson’s draft is not in Richardson, but it is in The Papers of Andrew Jackson and also in John Spencer Bassett’s earlier Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, both of which Baptist cites elsewhere for other purposes.
Not one of Baptist’s four footnotes to his paragraphs on the inaugural address cites the address itself, in any printing or at any location. His third footnote, to the paragraph on the tariff, reads in its entirety as follows:
“25. NR [Niles’ Register], March 8, 1828, 19–22. Historians still argue about whether or not the plot existed, and if so, what it entailed: Michael P. Johnson, “Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspirators,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., vol. 58, no. 4 (2001): 915–976; James O’Neil Spady, “Power and Confession: On the Credibility of the Earliest Reports of the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., vol. 68 (2011): 287–304.”
The cited Niles’ Register pages have nothing to do with either Jackson’s inaugural or the Denmark Vesey conspiracy. Elsewhere, Baptist puts the Indian Removal Act in the wrong year, misquotes a famous passage from Jackson’s Bank veto message in 1832, and touts the black soldiers of the “famous 52nd Massachusetts Regiment” (pp. 265, 250, 402).
What is striking about these errors is not so much their magnitude as their obviousness. It is not all that hard to get these details right. So does getting them right not matter? Are they merely incidental slipups, or tips of a larger iceberg of carelessness or ignorance? At what point does factual inaccuracy undermine authorial credibility? It seems to me now, as it did four years ago, that such questions need to be asked, because they speak to the very integrity of the historical enterprise.
University of Tennessee