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.
Don’t make the historical oops. Find the original source whenever you possibly can.
at 10:58 AM