Historical Fraud and the Seduction of Ideas: The Poulshock Case





Mr. Sternstein is Professor Emeritus of History, Brooklyn College, CUNY, and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of American Biography.

Much of the commentary about the latest plagiarism scandal involving Stephen Ambrose, and to a much lesser extent, Doris Kearns Goodwin, portray them as victims of their own success. As best-selling authors of popular narratives that appeal to a vast audience hungry for well-told stories about America's past, they inevitably succumbed to the temptations of the market place which, the commentators invariably remind us, rewards speed rather than reflection, flash rather than substance. Had they only stuck to their last and produced serious works on serious topics, the kind of academic tomes read by the few rather than the many, their reputation for probity would still be intact. After all, so the argument implies, historians writing for other historians rarely plagiarize or commit other scholarly sins. Not that historians populating our colleges and universities are more ethical than, say, personal injury lawyers. But deceiving one's peers who, presumably, have total acquaintance with the evidence before them and delight in dissecting every sentence and running to ground every citation, is virtually impossible and fraught with so much danger that few are foolish enough to try. As John R. Dichtl intoned confidently in"Integrity and History," in the February 2002 Newsletter of the Organization of American Historians, in conjunction with institutional sanctions in academia which serve to intimidate potential wrongdoers employed there,"scholarly peer pressure keeps dishonesty in check."

The major problem with this theory is that it ignores the fact that the most egregious examples of scholarly fraud that have come to light can be found in just those narrow works of academic history that only specialists seem to love. Notwithstanding current attempts to rank Michael Bellesiles's The Arming of America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (2000) as"one of the worst cases of academic irresponsibility in memory" (quoted in Melissa Seckora, National Review Online [NRO], Nov. 26, 2001), I think it is fair to say that no historical study published in the past century violated the canons of scholarship more than one authored by S. Walter Poulshock, The Two Parties and the Tariff in the 1880s. Published in 1965 by Syracuse University Press and based upon the author¹s Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, the book rested on fabricated evidence. Yet it passed muster with the eminent historians who directed and read it as a dissertation and won the plaudits of a leading authority who reviewed it for publication as a"refreshing, stimulating, and significant work. . . . a major contribution to our understanding of the politics of the Gilded Age and the history of both the Republican and Democratic parties."

And it did indeed advance a compelling, though not wholly original, thesis. Contrary to previous interpretations of the Gilded Age which viewed the Republican and Democratic parties as captives of the"Robber Barons," Poulshock argued, the leaders of both parties"were independent seekers of political power" who deliberately employed the tariff issue as a partisan weapon, not because they were under the thumb of the business community, but in order to differentiate themselves in their search for party cohension and elective office. This generalization depended mostly on what the politicos said to one another in their private correspondence, a largely unexplored"wealth of materials" he claimed to have been one of the rare historians to have thoroughly mined and which, he insisted, future"historians of the period would do well to digest" if they were ever to acquire"a point of view" like his own,"fresher and more enlightened than that of the [Matthew] Josephson school."

The trouble with this exercise in self-congratulation, however, was that to prove his thesis and to disprove, as he put it, the"simplistic and naive" interpretation of previous historians, Poulshock relied upon little more than his febrile imagination. He engaged in almost no archival research but instead fabricated hundreds of quotations and statements, including correspondence between some people who never lived and some politicians who were long dead, all dreamed up to give substance and structure to his argument and all dressed up in the most respectable, though thoroughly deceptive, scholarly garb. His footnotes, especially, looked like models of careful annotation, seemingly providing all the information any reader might ever require. Moreover, not content with merely citing his spurious sources, Poulshock often larded his footnotes with learned suggestions pointing to new avenues for study so as to impress any and all with his unrivaled mastery of the material. Ironically, it was one of those authoritative musings on a subject I was working on which eventually led to his exposure.

Poulshock¹s book first grabbed my attention when I came across a chatty reference in it to a letter supposedly written by Sen. Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island. At the time, in early 1966, I was researching a biography of Aldrich in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress but the letter, said to be in the papers of Sen. William E. Chandler of New Hampshire, which I had scoured months earlier, had apparently eluded me. Another search of the Chandler papers at the Library failed to turn it up. Could Poulshock have simply been careless about the provenance of the document or was this a case of willfull dishonesty? Not knowing the answer but a little suspicious that something was amiss, I dashed off an inquiry to him at Rutgers University, where he was an Assistant Professor of History.

While awaiting his reply, I attempted to track down several other citations that had also raised doubts. To my surprise, none of them checked out. Over lunch a few days later, I told two other historians doing research in the manuscript room, Ari Hoogenboom and Irwin Unger, of my concerns. They were astonished, not merely because it seemed so improbable but because both of them were reviewing the book for major historical journals. Together, we decided to check thirty, randomly selected references and came up blank on all of them. Wondering now whether he had ever even stepped foot in the Library of Congress, where most of the documents he cited were located, we went over the records of the Manuscript Division¹s sign-in register and discovered he had never been there. At about this time I received a reply from Poulshock to my letter."I am at present in a temporary residence and all my notes are packed away in an inaccessible place," he explained."However, I will be moving in a month or so, [and] will be able to check the footnote thoroughly. At that time I will be more than happy to send you either the full letter or the precise citation."

Convinced now the book was fraudulent we decided to act quickly before any reviews appeared and brought our findings to the attention of Henry R. Winkler, who was the Managing Editor of the American Historical Review as well as a colleague and teacher of Poulshock's at Rutgers, where the latter had received his B.A. in 1952. Though understandably disbelieving at first, Winkler appointed us and Fred Nicklason, a historian at the University of Maryland, as a fact-finding committee to report back within a week. Dividing the book between the four of us, we concentrated on 195 references to collections in the Library and discovered only 23, all of which were apparently copied from biographies and other secondary sources. But even then Poulshock altered the content of those authentic documents, embellishing them by adding a couple of sentences here and subtracting a few words there, to bring them into line with his thesis. This practice also extended to quotations from contemporary newspapers, magazines, and books. Of the bogus letters, two deserve mention. They were supposedly written to Grover Cleveland's Secretary of the Treasury, Daniel Manning, ten months after he died by prominent politicians who might well have served as pallbearers at his funeral. (Click here to see a sample of Poulshock's footnotes.)

Winkler and a colleague, Richard McCormick, who came down to Washington for the meeting, heard our report and, because Poulshock was in the midst of receiving tenure and promotion, swiftly notified the President and Dean at Rutgers. What happened next, we were later told, was that Poulshock was summoned to a conference where a group of administrators and faculty presented him with our findings. At first, we learned, he vociferously denied everything but after five minutes or so he confessed to the obvious. Yes, he admitted, the documentation was fabricated but, he insisted, the thesis was nevertheless correct. Having no other choice, he resigned from Rutgers.

When Syracuse University Press was informed, it sent urgent notices to bookstores and libraries asking them to return their copies immediately because of production errors. For one perplexed bookseller near the Library of Congress this only added to his confusion. Completely mystified as to the reasons for a sudden burst of orders for the book from the cognoscenti anxious to get their hands on a copy, he took the requests to mean it was some word-of-mouth best seller he had better stock up. But no sooner did he put his books on display when the publisher called demanding he ship them back. Would someone please explain what was going on? he pleaded to a customer who took pity and told him the story. Others soon heard about it, too, when in July 1966, a cryptic notice appeared in Pennsylvania History, informing its readers that Poulshock¹s book as well as an article he contributed to the journal four years earlier was"based confessedly in part upon evidence which does not exist, has been withdrawn as far as possible from circulation, and anyone attempting to use it should be advised of this."

Unfortunately not everybody is aware of, or is willing to act upon, this warning. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, refused to revoke the degree it awarded Poulshock in 1962, and even went so far as to grant him another doctorate, this time in sociology, in 1978. Presumably, in the absence of any sanctions for his admitted fraud and its remarkable willingness to bestow a second Ph.D., that institution must have regarded his original, bogus dissertation as a worthy scholarly endeavor which not only should remain accessible to readers but as one which prepared him well for its doctoral program in the social sciences.

Similarly, the two major professional historical associations failed to caution their members or the public about the fraud, relying instead on the proverbial academic grapevine to shoo readers and researchers away from the book. As a result, despite -- or maybe because of -- the efforts of Syracuse to recall the book for unstated technical flaws, copies can still be found circulating in college libraries. And without any warning labels with"reader beware" emblazoned on the cover, it is no wonder that its fabrications sometimes turn up recycled in term papers and master¹s essays. Still, it is disturbing to find it prominently cited in published works by professional historians who should know better -- and probably would have known better had the responsible professional organizations not kept silent. Recently, a book by Robert W. Cherny, American Politics in the Gilded Age, 1868-1900 (1997), addressed primarily to college students, appeared with the Poulshock title featured in its bibliography for the light it sheds"on major issues and policies." Not that there isn¹t some merit to Poulshock's"thesis" but no historian should take other historians' claims on faith alone,"an expedient so desperate," the English scholar, G.R. Elton, asserted in The Theory and Practice of History (1967),"as hardly to deserve the name."

Which partly explains why, I think, Poulshock committed his fraud. He was convinced of his conclusion long before he undertook any major research to gather the specific factual evidence to support it. A remark Poulshock's dissertation adviser once made to me provided an insight into what might have impelled him to do what he did. Of course, this adviser was dismayed by the fraud and embarrassed that it happened on his watch. But, he said firmly,"the thesis is true," precisely the same comment his student uttered when he confessed. Both of them knew the truth and the facts were just incidental, mere bagatelles to be acquired and displayed in due course. In Poulshock's mind, at least, this certainty came to mean that if the evidence was difficult to obtain or didn¹t quite fit the theory, then the evidence and not the theory was at fault and he would set the evidence right no matter if he had to construct it. Poulshock, in that respect, appears to have been a pioneer in post-modern literary criticism.

Much the same casual, dismissive attitude about the worth, indeed even the necessity, of an honest evidentiary basis to support a given thesis, seems to be reflected in the controversy over Bellesiles's Arming America. Consistent with what Poulshock implied by his actions and his statements, some of Bellesiles's supporters assume that questions of fictitious or fabricated evidence are of far less historical and intellectual importance than the book's"thesis," its point of view, its larger purpose in the grand scheme of things. As Saul Cornell of Ohio State, one of Bellesiles's supporters, argues,"Even if he is proven wrong, it is possible to write an important book that moves the debate forward, even if it is flawed. We are all in Bellesiles's debt for opening the debate" (quoted in Seckora, National Review Online [NRO], Oct. 1, 2001). In other words, Cornell is claiming, if a work of history propounds a theme or"thesis" of political, social, or intellectual merit that stimulates debate, readers should not be too concerned about whether it is based on dishonest, bogus evidence. The book's"thesis" is what we should really focus on and treasure, not those grubby little facts that have the bad habit of sometimes getting in the way of the truth. So much for the notion that the seductions of the market place are what lure historians into error. While that may well be the case for some, for many more, especially in the groves of academe, it is the seductive power of ideas.


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Robert Chafin - 4/23/2002

Professor Sternstein wrote:
"And, yes, there are people out there, academics and non-academics, who couldn't care less about factual accuracy because they believe Bellesilles's thesis has merit. Paul Finkleman, who is a Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa, told the Chicago Tribune (Jan. 23, 2002) that Bellisles's book will remain an "important contribution" whatever the evidence proves. "In the end," Finkleman said, "I don't think it matters if he cooked the data."

Interestingly, when I asked Dean Martin Belsky, of the Tulsa School of Law, if Prof. Finkleman's remarks in the Tribune represented the school policy on academic honesty, I received not only a reply from Dean Belsky, but also a copy of his memo to Prof. Finkleman asking for his own explanation.
Finkleman, in his reply to me however, and while acknowledging Bellesile's falsifications, refuses to backdown from his claim that the work is nonetheless "important."
A claim which I cannot deny, but for entirely different reasons.

- Robert Chafin
Denton, Texas


Jerome L. Sternstein - 3/5/2002

Correction:
"Prof. Cornell's pose of scholarly open-mindedness in rendering a judgment. . . " "NOT" should precede "rendering"


Jerome L. Sternstein - 3/5/2002

Prof. Cornell's pose of scholarly open-mindedness in rendering a judgment about the charges made against the "Arming of America", as opposed to other's rush to judgment before giving the author "a chance to respond," is just that: a pose and little more. He had already rendered a judgment long before Bellesiles reponded in the OAH and the WMQ.

In his interview with the National Review this is what Prof. Cornell is quoted as saying: "We are all waiting to see what Michael's response to it (ie., the "thought provoking [and] powerful" work of Lindgren and Heather, and other scholarly critics) will be. Even if he is proven wrong, it is possible to write an important book that moves the debate forward, even if it is flawed. We are all in Bellesiles's debt for opening the debate."

Is Cornell telling the interviewer that if the serious charges of scholarly misconduct leveled against Bellesiles are proven to be valid, that if Bellesiles is unable to refute them in his response, the book will be discredited? Not at all. On the contrary, "Even if he is proven wrong," even if the charges by his critics stick after his response, the book will remain "an important book", though "flawed", and one that leaves us all in Bellesiles's debt for writing. Who, I wonder, is rushing to judgment?

Prof. Cornell states that we "do not share the same scholarly values. . . " If he means that I do not believe that we should be indebted to an author for writing history based on fabricated, dishonest evidence, he is quite right. Nor do I believe such works can ever be regarded as "important." Prof. Cornell appears to think otherwise.


saul cornell - 3/5/2002

In contrast to Professor Sternstein I believe that one ought to give someone a chance to respond to charges made against them before one makes a judgement. My comments to the National Review made it quite clear that I thought the argument made in "Counting Guns in Early America" and Randy Roth's draft of his WMQ article were extremely powerful. I thought it only fair to give Professor Bellesiles a chance to respond before making up my mind. Obviously, Professor Sternstein and I do not share the same scholarly values or the same understanding of the process by which debate unfolds.


Jerome L. Sternstein - 3/4/2002

Prof. Cornell is repeating himself, probably not intentionally. See my previous posting.


Jerome L. Sternstein - 3/4/2002

I fully accept Prof. Finkelman's explanation that the reporter for the Chicago Tribune misunderstood what he was saying. And I appreciate the fact that Prof. Finkelman's quarrel is with the reporter and not with me for quoting what appeared in the paper. But it is easy to understand how the reporter, not being a specialist on the controversy over Arming of America, could misinterpret the distinction he tried to make, "that the numbers were irrelevant to the thesis," when those who lavishly praised the book when it appeared, emphasized Bellesiles's skilled use of probate records to acquire the statistical underpinning -- the "main proof," as many reviewers considered it -- for his groundbreaking thesis. Claiming that the numbers are "irrelevant", now that they have been "demolished", is easy to misinterpret, especially when practically everyone -- excepting Prof. Finkelman -- still regards them as the crucial element of the thesis. And, I think, it is very difficult, at least for those of us who have read the reviews, the work of Lindgren and Heather, and others, as well as the Arming of America, to conclude otherwise. Indeed, Bellesiles asserted how important the probate statistics were -- if they were not there, said he, it would become a battle of dueling quotations -- for his thesis before the controversy over his use of probate records erupted. Lindgren and Heather's discussion of this point powerfully negates, in my judgment, Finkelman's claim that "the numbers were irrelevant to the thesis." As they put it: "That gun ownership was much higher in the 17th and 18th centuries than Bellesiles claims it was on the eve of the Civil War renders the main story in Arming America incoherent."

So the reporter who misquoted Prof. Finkelman gets my sympathy, though not my praise, for incoherently understanding the reasoning of Prof. Finkelman's words. A lot of other people not on deadline would to.


Jerome L. Sternstein - 3/4/2002

It gives me a great sense of inadequacy to learn that Prof. Cornell considers himself such a sophisticate in handling reporters, as compared to dolts like myself, who are so hopelessly naive that we accurately quote statements that appear in newspapers. Perhaps, given his self-confessed skill in this area, he should consider quiting academia and becoming a Hollywood press agent or press secretary to a politician. But that, I'm afraid, would put him in constant contact with those "hack" journalists he so disdains, yet, out of the goodness of his heart, he is gracious enough to grant interviews, like those for the National Review. But, better yet, Prof. Cornell would be doing all of us not blessed with his media savvy, a huge favor by setting up a firm to hold seminars on how to spin reporters. I'm ready to enroll immediately and I'm sure other historians would be too were they only aware of how little they know about newspapers and reporters compared to Prof. Cornell.

Everybody, I'm sure, must also be immensely gratified to read that Prof. Cornell has finally determined that virtually all of Arming America's "major claims. . . need to be qualified" and that the "new scholarship has demolished" Bellesiles's "claims about low levels of gun ownership in probate data." That Lindgren and Heather had "demolished" that contention months earlier in their article "Counting Guns in Early America", when Cornell gave his opinion to the National Review that "We are all in Bellesiles's debt for opening the debate," is not something those who reached that conclusion before his announcement should quibble over. They should just count their blessings that he has at last come to that profound decision and shared it with us. It will really be cause for celebration, however, when Prof. Cornell deigns to inform us -- that is, those of us outsiders "not properly" immersed in the "sources and the debate around Arming America," as he so prides himself on being -- that Bellesiles's book should no longer be considered an "important", if "flawed", work that he ranks alongside Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. I, for one, will be awaiting his oracular judgment breathlessly, though if it comes through a newspaper or some other similarly dubious source I will not break out the champagne until I hear it directly from him personally. I promise.


saul cornell - 3/4/2002

Professor Sternstein's recent remark about Paul Finkelman only underscores his failure to get up to speed on the Arming America controversy. Apparently professor Sternstein did not bother checking the discussion of Finkelman's statement on H-Net. Professor Finkelman explained that his quote had been taken out of context and stated clearly "Obviously it ‘matters' if someone cooks their data." Professor Sternstein naive use of quotes taken of context suggests that he has very little experience dealing with the press. Rather than sink to the levels of hack journalism ,it would be much more useful if Professor Sternstein took the time to properly immerse himself in the sources and the debate around Arming America. Like many in the profession I thought it only fair to allow Professor Bellesiles to respond in a proper scholarly forum. The recent WMQ forum certainly supports the notion that there are serious problems with Arming America and that virtually all of its major claims would need to be qualified. The new scholarship has demolished Arming America's claims about low levels of gun ownership in probate data. Professor Bellesiles has admitted error and confessed to being careless. These admissions are troubling. As far as questions of fraud are concerned, however, I think we will need to await Emory's inquiry before we can speak with any authority on this disturbing aspect of the controversy.


saul cornell - 3/4/2002

Professor Sternstein's recent remark about Paul Finkelman only underscores his failure to get up to speed on Arming America controversy. Apparently professor Sternstein did not bother checking the discussion of Finkelman's statement on H-Net. Professor Finkelman explained that his quote had been taken out of context and stated clearly "Obviously it ‘matters' if someone cooks their data." Professor Sternstein naive use of quotes taken of context suggests that he has very little experience dealing with the press. Rather than sink to the levels of hack journalism ,it would be much more useful if Professor Sternstein took the time to properly immerse himself in the sources and the debate around Arming America. Like many in the profession I thought it only fair to allow Professor Bellesiles to respond in a proper scholarly forum. The recent WMQ forum certainly supports the notion that there are serious problems with Arming America and that virtually all of its major claims would need to be qualified. The new scholarship has demolished Arming America's claims about low levels of gun ownership in probate data. Professor Bellesiles has admitted error and confessed to being careless. These admissions are troubling. As far as questions of fraud are concerned, however, I think we will need to await Emory's inquiry before we can speak with any authority on this disturbing aspect of the controversy.


Paul Finkelman - 3/4/2002

I a phone interview with a reporter from the Chicago Tribune I said that I believed that the non-quantitative data in Arming America stood on its own and that without the probate data the thesis was strong. I told the reporter something to the effect of "if the non-quantitative discussion holds up, then it probably wouldn't matter if the probate records were incorrect." This rather careful argument was translated by this reporter into my stating that it would not matter if he cooked the numbers. Of course it matters, both for the integrity of the book and to integrity of our profession. If any scholar "cooks the numbers" that person should face serious consquences. My point was that the numbers were irrelevant to the thesis. Similarly, if the rest of the thesis is wrong then the probate data would not prove much even if the probate data were correct. The reporter, posing as a serious person, in fact was apparently only interested in twisting my point so he could make a splash. I am utterly uninterested in whether the thesis is "stimulating" as the author below claims; I am only interested in whether the evidence supports the argument, and on that score I find the probate data to be the least important source of evidence.

Paul Finkelman
University of Tulsa College of Law

I am responding to this statement: " But, what I think is notable about all those negative postings is that virtually none of them emanate from the academy, which, I think, speaks volumes about where some academics stand in regard to whether it really matters -- as it quite obviously doesn't to Finkleman -- "if he cooked the data", so long as his "thesis" is stimulating and important. "


Jerome L. Sternstein - 3/3/2002

I misspoke and failled to extend my remarks in the last line of my posting. I inaccurately said, "If Edwin Moise wants to look, he will find similar sentiments expressed in the reader comments to Bellesiles's essay "Disarming the Critics," at www. oah.org/cgi-data/view/html."
What I meant to say is, he will find "DISsimilar sentiments," indeed very harsh appraisals of Bellesiles's book there, which on the surface seems to support his case that there isn't a problem. But, what I think is notable about all those negative postings is that virtually none of them emanate from the academy, which, I think, speaks volumes about where some academics stand in regard to whether it really matters -- as it quite obviously doesn't to Finkleman -- "if he cooked the data", so long as his "thesis" is stimulating and important.


Jerome L. Sternstein - 3/3/2002

I disagree with Edwin Moise's reading of Saul Cornell's statement. As I understand Cornell, he believes that whatever "flaws" are discovered in Bellesiles's book, the book is nonetheless important and worthy of being taken seriously because it advances the debate over an important issue, much as Charles Beard did, whose work, though "flawed", enlarged our understanding over the origins of the Constitution. But as I made clear in my answer to Cornell's posting, nobody ever alleged that Beard fabricated his evidence. What scholars and other interested parties are charging Bellesiles with is supporting his thesis by deliberately misrepresenting the sources that do exist and using bogus evidence to back up his claims where valid materials don't exist. Lying about evidence, as far as I'm concerned, does not advance any debate. It undermines and distorts it, and corrupts any profession that considers such lies in any way acceptable as long as it "enlarges our knowledge." According to this reasoning, one could argue that "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" had some merit because it increased our knowledge and advanced the debate about Anti-Semitism.

And, yes, there are people out there, academics and non-academics, who couldn't care less about factual accuracy because they believe Bellesilles's thesis has merit. Paul Finkleman, who is a Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa, told the Chicago Tribune (Jan. 23, 2002) that Bellisles's book will remain an "important contribution" whatever the evidence proves. "In the end," Finkleman said, "I don't think it matters if he cooked the data." If Edwin Moise wants to look, he will find similar sentiments expressed in the reader comments to Bellesiles's essay "Disarming the Critics," at www. oah.org/cgi-data/view/html.


David Levy - 3/1/2002

Perhaps the problem is not so much for specialists who would
not need to see the annoucement in the AHR but for nonspecialists.

To test this I did the following:

1. Conducted a JSTOR search for "Poulshock" in the text of the History journals. There were 6 hits. The interesting reference
is Paludan's 1972 review of Beth's Development of the Am Constitution. Paludan discussion Beth's status as an
outsider (p. 334): "He makes an occasional outrageous error,
such as citing the tragic book by Poulshock ...."

2. Everything except history journals. 2 hits seemed germane

Hays, "Social Analysis of American Pol Hist" Pol Sci Quar (1965) cites Poulshock's paper (p. 377) approvingly

"America's First Social Security System: The Expansion of Benefits for Civil War Veterans" Theda Skocpol
Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 108, No. 1. (Spring, 1993), pp. 85-116 also cites Poulshock approvingly.

Interdisciplinary workers need to check references in
JSTOR. I guess that would be the moral.

David Levy


James Bergquist - 3/1/2002

Yes, I meant to say S. Walter Poulshock.

An additional remark: This matter was hardly a secret among the historians I knew in the summer of 1967 when I had a summer fellowship at the Newberry Library. At coffee breaks, we would sometimes assemble a list of outrageous academic papers (not necessarily plagiarized) and threaten to publish them as a "Poulshock Festschrift." Sorry, it never appeared.

James Bergquist


James Bergquist - 3/1/2002

A Google search turned up the following item on Poulshock. It is from the Pennsylvania Gazette, an alumni publication of the University of Pennsylvania (December 1997) listing deaths of alumni:

Dr. S. Walter Poulshock, Gr'78, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a psychotherapist who recently served as a director of program management for the Windsor Behavioral Health Network; February 3. [1997]

So his career apparently went from history to sociology to psychotherapy. Is that up or down?

James Bergquist


Jerome L. Sternstein - 3/1/2002

Prof. Cornell is being disingenuous in claiming his "comments on Arming America were made before charges of fraud were put on the table." Yet, in that same article he is quoted as calling the work of Lindgren and Heather "thought-provoking [and] powerful," and then goes on to announce that "we are all in Bellesiles's debt for opening the debate." Well, Lindgren and Heather did all but charge Bellesiles with fabricating his evidence. In their research, presented in a paper "Counting Guns in Early America," they found that nearly 100 wills in Providence, R.I. that Bellesiles supposedly relied on, did not exist, that he repeatedly counted women as men, that he termed guns not so listed in the records as old and broken, and transformed one state owned weapon into "a great many." They also determined that the probate calculations that Bellesiles offered were statistically and "mathematically impossible."

At this very time, while Cornell was calling Bellesiles's work "an important book. . . even if flawed," Cornell must surely have know that Joyce Malcolm, of Bentley College, a specialist in Anglo-American gun rights, had said of Bellesiles: ". . . if you check his footnotes, a more disturbing pattern emerges. It is not just an odd mistake or difference of interpretation, but misrepresentation of what his sources [if they exist] actually say, time and time again." Also, when he made the remarks I quoted, Prof. Cornell must have been aware -- unless he was floating on an iceberg in Antarctica -- that Bellesiles's claimed to have researched probate records in San Fransciso, the Sutro Library, the Family Research Library of the Morman Church, and in the Federal Archives in East Point, Georgia, records that can't be found in any of those depositories.

As far as using Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution as an example of a "flawed" book that should nevertheless be treasured, I fully agree with that. But no historian accused Beard of fabricating or inventing his evidence. Indeed, as Richard Hofstadter points out in the Progressive Historians, its "academic reception was on the whole quite favorable." Richard Brown and Forrest McDonald -- whom I studied under at Brown University -- criticized Beard's methodology, took issue with his interpretation, disagreed with his emphasis on economic factors as the sole determinant in the framing of the Constitution, but still held him in high esteem. In their research, they asked one overriding question, as Brown put it: ". . . did the actual evidence which Beard presented really justify the Beard interpretation of the Constitution." Their answer, in the end, was no, but not because Beard falsified his evidence. Beard's "flaw", as McDonald saw it, was that his evidence was inadequate to explain the many factors that went into the framing the Constitution.

Bellesiles's "flaw", as his scholarly critics see it, is the dishonest, fraudulent evidence he employs, a "flaw" no historian should try to justify no matter how interesting a book's hypothesis. This is the lesson I learned from the subject I wrote about. This is the lesson that Prof. Cornell should take the trouble to learn also.


Jerome L. Sternstein - 3/1/2002

First, let me congratulate Prof. Ivan Steen for finding the note in the AHR on Poulshock's book. I thought there might have been such a note but was unable to find it in the yearly index. Nor do I believe that it has ever been indexed. But let's look at the AHA's statement. It is the exact same "cryptic" note that appeared in Pennsylvania History that month, less than three lines indicating that the book "is based confessedly in part upon evidence which does not exist. . ." As such, appearing in a journal of over 425 pages, it is hardly a notice that is going to reverberate very loudly in the historical profession or among the reading public. Only the most dedicated reader of the AHR would have seen it. And even that unique individual would have missed it, had he blinked or breathed deeply.

More importantly, it is a "canned" notice, perhaps emanating from the publisher, and saying as little as possible about the fraud. And it isn't as if the AHA didn't have all the information. We gave a detailed report to Henry Winkler, specifically citing the 172 references in the manuscripts that we discovered didn't exist, the 23 that were embellished, and numerous quotations in contemporary works that were altered. But all the AHA did was bury less than three lines of enigmatic prose -- and it never, ever uses the term fraud -- in one of its thick volumes. The AHA's statement -- if you can call it such -- is similar to one of those special interest clauses in a 500 page tax bill that only the lobbyist who helped draw it up knows exists. Or, better yet, one of Enron's off-the-books partnership filings to the SEC that only two people in the world were aware of, and they were the two people who ran the partnerships.

In short, I don't think a three line note in the July 1966 AHR absolves the AHA of failing its professional responsibility. No, it didn't keep silent about Poulshock's fraud. It simply whispered, and one would have needed perfect hearing to pick up what is was whispering about.


Kenneth Park - 2/28/2002

Postmodernism is really not Sternstein's main concern. But he does make an unfair accusation about postmodern scholarship. Near the end of his essay, Sternstein writes:

"In Poulshock's mind, at least, this certainty came to mean that if the evidence was difficult to obtain or didn¹t quite fit the theory, then the evidence and not the theory was at fault and he would set the evidence right no matter if he had to construct it. Poulshock, in that respect, appears to have been a pioneer in post-modern literary criticism."

This unfortunate statement reverberates a common misunderstanding of the so-called postmodern undertaking.


Comment - 2/28/2002

Professor Jerome L. Sternstein really ought to take more time to get his own facts straight before going into print. He obviously learned very little from the subject he has written about. My comments on Arming America were made before charges of fraud were put on the table. The National Review asked me to comment on recent scholarship that had challenged Arming America, not on revelations of fraud in the media. There are many examples of flawed works that move a debate forward. The work of Charles Beard is perhaps the most obvious example. By the logic presented in this essay then we should also stop teaching Beard.

Saul Cornell


R. B. Bernstein - 2/28/2002

Further, that comment from the AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW can easily be found when you plug the author and title into one of the leading used-book search engines. I found it that way and read it with care.


R. B. Bernstein - 2/28/2002

Toward the end of his essay, Sternstein criticizes Saul Cornell for saying that, even if Michael Bellesiles's ARMING AMERICA is factually flawed, it is an important book nonetheless because it raises important issues and questions with which historians must engage. Sternstein's sleight-of-hand suggests that Saul Cornell is tolerating lying if the message of the book containing lies is politically suitable or helpful. That is *not* what Saul Cornell was or is saying, and Sternstein's attempt to make it seem that way is deeply flawed.

Consider the example of Charles A. Beard's AN ECONOMIC INTERPRETATION OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES (1913, 1935). Two major books -- one by Robert E. Brown and one by Forrest McDonald -- challenged and disproved much of Beard's research. Beard's specific conclusion -- that the Framers of the Constitution wrote the document to protect their investments in "personalty" (specifically government securities) -- has thus crashed and burned. But his more general point -- that the Framers of the Constitution and those who suppported it during the ratification controversy did so for reasons beyond high-minded patriotism -- has not been undermined. Indeed, Beard valuably encouraged historians to investigate the full range of motivations, principled and sordid, that underlay the thoughts, words, and deeds of those who took part in framing and adopting the Constitution.

So, too, with Michael Bellesiles's book. He has asked us to reconsider two largely unexamined assumptions about American history -- that, far back into our past, most Americans owned and expertly wielded firearms, and that an armed citizenry was the key to American independence. His book may well be flawed in its research, but it is not the product of deliberate fraud, as Sternstein alleges. So far, the most searching examinations of the book, the January 2002 forum in the WILLIAM AND MARY QUARTERLY, although severely critical, eschews any charges of fraud or misrepresentation.


Ivan D. Steen - 2/28/2002

I appreciated Sternstein's piece on the Poulshock case. I was discussing this case with some fellow historians a couple of weeks ago. In fairness to the American Historical Association, one of Sternstein's comments needs correcting. He notes,
"Similarly, the two major professional historical associations failed to caution their members or the public about the fraud, relying instead on the proverbial academic grapevine to shoo readers and researchers away from the book." Not so! On page 1536 of the July 1966 issue of the American Historical Review, the following statement appears: "The Council of the American Historical Association has been advised that the work of S. Walter Poulshock, The Two Parties and the tariff in the 1880's and 'The Politics of the Tariff in the 1880's,' based confessedly in part upon evidence which does not exist, has been withdrawn as far as possible from circulation and that anyone attempting to use it should be advised of this."

Ivan D. Steen
Dept. of History
Univ. at Albany, SUNY









Charles Freeman - 2/28/2002

What a breathtakingly bizarre statement. If Sternstein is trying to "trash" anything, it's lying. Are you equating that with postmodernism?


Edwin Moise - 2/28/2002

Sternstein wrote:

    Much the same casual, dismissive attitude about the worth, indeed even the necessity, of an honest evidentiary basis to support a given thesis, seems to be reflected in the controversy over Bellesiles's Arming America. Consistent with what Poulshock implied by his actions and his statements, some of Bellesiles's supporters assume that questions of fictitious or fabricated evidence are of far less historical and intellectual importance than the book's "thesis," its point of view, its larger purpose in the grand scheme of things. As Saul Cornell of Ohio State, one of Bellesiles's supporters, argues, "Even if he is proven wrong, it is possible to write an important book that moves the debate forward, even if it is flawed. We are all in Bellesiles's debt for opening the debate" (quoted in Seckora, National Review Online [NRO], Oct. 1, 2001). In other words, Cornell is claiming, if a work of history propounds a theme or "thesis" of political, social, or intellectual merit that stimulates debate, readers should not be too concerned about whether it is based on dishonest, bogus evidence. The book's "thesis" is what we should really focus on and treasure, not those grubby little facts that have the bad habit of sometimes getting in the way of the truth. So much for the notion that the seductions of the market place are what lure historians into error. While that may well be the case for some, for many more, especially in the groves of academe, it is the seductive power of ideas.
No, Cornell was not claiming that "in other words." Cornell suggested that the debate triggered by Bellesiles's work will eventually enlarge our knowledge and produce works that have merit. This seems likely to me. But the passage that Sternstein quoted from Cornell did not say or imply that Bellesiles's thesis had merit, or that factual accuracy was not vitally important. Indeed, when Cornell referred to the possibility that Bellesiles's book would be "proven wrong", he seemed to me to be accepting that factual inaccuracy would be a fatal flaw in a book.

I am sure there must be somebody somewhere who has said that the merit of Bellesiles's thesis is more important than the factual accuracy of his book, but Sternstein's difficulty finding a quote expressing this attitude suggests that there probably are not many people taking such an attitude.

Edwin Moise

p.s.: When I click on the "preview" button to see how my post will appear, all the apostrophes get converted to quotation marks ( " ). If this in fact happens when my post is posted, please be aware that it isn't my fault; they were apostrophes in the text that I submitted.


Thomas Willette - 2/28/2002

While Sternstein's essay can hardly be said to engage with postmodern theory, either implicitly or explicitly, it is perhaps interesting that someone should think it does. The lesson Sternstein's case drives home, for me, is that neither the ethos nor the method of scholarship can be taken for granted by those of us who train graduate students. It remains necessary to explain and justify the scholarly approach to knowledge.


Edwin Moise - 2/28/2002

I am really startled by Tonglam's statement that Sternstein "only wants to use this case to trash postmodernism". As far as I could see, reading his essay, Sternstein was not discussing postmodernism at all.

Sternstein trashed people who invent spurious facts to advance their agendas. Is Tonglam under the impression that the invention of spurious facts is central to the enterprise of postmodernism, to such an extent that to attack one is to attack the other?

Edwin Moise


Robert Bulkley - 2/28/2002

This episode was not entirely secret. I remember a reference to the Poulshock book and its withdrawal from publication in, I believe, a review of another book on Gilded Age politics in the AHR or JAH in the late 1960s. I've always wondered about the details and appreciate learning them now. I think that what this episode points out is that appropriate standards for historical research have to become internal with each historian in order for the field to function. There simply is no way that someone who reviews a book or article for publication, or who reviews a book in a journal, can check the wide variety of published and unpublished sources that many historians typically use, let alone the data assembly and manipulation that those who work quantitatively undertake. I don't remember explicit teaching about these things when I was working on my Ph.D. in the mid-1960s, but it was inherent in every discussion of research sources and methods and we all understood that accurate note-taking and correct use of sources was essential to good history. I would hope that the same ethos continues, although this article raises questions about whether it does (and I don't think that post-modernism affects that essential point in the slightest). I compare history with the law (I had to become a lawyer in the 1970s), where the relevant sources are generally available at the nearest law library or, more recently, on line and are commonly checked, citation by citation, either by student law review editors for scholarly articles or, for litigation, by the other side in the course of preparing a response. External checks of that sort are simply impossible for most historical research, and are excessively expensive when they are possible, so the integrity of the historian is absolutely essential to the profession. Once that integrity is questioned, it is impossible to determine the value of the hisorian's work. A historian who has transgressed against those rules should, at the least, expect a long period of probation before being accepted back into the profession.


tonglam - 2/27/2002

The article contains many interesting facts and observations. But it seems to me that the author only wants to use this case to trash postmodernism, which he doesn't seems to understand at all. If Mr. Sternstein's thesis is also ideological driven, then he is not that different from Poulshock. What a revealing lesson!

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