I often say that students should be "engaged" in their learning. So should I! Learning should be fun. We should all remember that absolute joy we felt as toddlers as we began to explore the world around us. Let's capture that spirit of WOW in what we have to learn now as well. To that end, this blog is a mixed bag of grammar and writing advice, constitutional news, urban history, political news, and whatever else comes to mind for my students. Tell me below which topics will help you most.
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
The Perils of Secondary Source Reliance: John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Beveridge
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
In 1916, historian 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 Beveridge wrote 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. And Beveridge did exactly that: he dropped
the crucial word. 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.
 Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (New
York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 18.