Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Perils of Secondary Source Research

John Marshall is one of the most famous Americans of all time. He was the third chief justice of the United States and is credited at having created the modern Supreme Court. He also had a nasty relationship with his distant cousin, Thomas Jefferson. Although their political rivalry is one of the best known stories, some of the vitriol attributed to Marshall about Jefferson actually accrued from a miscopied quotation.
In 1916, Albert Beveridge wrote what would become the definitive biography of John Marshall. For decades, it stood as the single most important work on the great chief justice. And for decades, its quotations were copied by later scholars. Too lazy to look up the original source of the quotation, they had no idea that they were perpetrating a writing error—over and over again.
The story goes like this: When Jefferson assumed the presidency, the nation was divided politically between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. As you might remember, Marshall was  of the Federalist persuasion and Jefferson the leader of the new Democratic-Republicans. Writing about the new president, Marshall said, “The democrats [today we would capitalize that word] are divided into speculative theorists and absolute terrorists. With the latter, I am not disposed to class Mr. Jefferson.” Sounds relatively mild and reasonable, right?
Change one word in that quotation, though, and the meaning becomes diametrically opposite Marshall’s intention; indeed, it becomes downright vitriolic. Here’s how Beveridge misquoted Marshall: “The democrats are divided into speculative theorists and absolute terrorists. With the latter, I am disposed to class Mr. Jefferson.” Big historical oops.
The bigger oops, though, came from the generation of scholars who accepted Beveridge’s quotation without going to the original source to check for themselves. Marshall was, as Jean Edward Smith has pointed out, painted as far more conservative than he actually was.[1]
Don’t make the historical oops. Find the original source whenever you possibly can. 

[1] Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 18.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Chief Justice: too much power?

A fascinating post in today's online New York Times by Supreme Court expert Linda Greenhouse details all the work that the chief justice of the United States must do. In addition to worrying about whether this is too much work, the more important consideration must be is this too much power to vest in one man--one man (so far) who is appointed for life.

You can read the post here, and I strongly encourage you to do so. This represents an agglomeration of power within one individual that might have horrified the framers of the Constitution. What do you think?