Political pundits, journalists, and sometimes even ideologues draw to the Early American Republic like moths to a flame. Whether they are written in the attempt to make a quick buck exploiting the reading public’s endless fascination with the Founding Generation or push their own particular agenda, popular histories of this era abound. As with any popular field, these books are of varying quality. Some of them barely move beyond the usual anecdotes, employ out of context quotes, and at best repeat well-worn clichés. They are not works of serious scholarship, but they sell well and seem to feed the intellectual appetite of the breezy “Jefferson thought this” and “Hamilton said that” variety.
Most academic historians, I think, have made peace with the idea that we don’t own the past and that anyone is welcome to take a crack at reconstructing it. If you want to write a shallow, but accessible, work on the Founding Generation, you’re welcome to it. But don’t take the expert work of historians and pass it off as your own. That crosses a line that will get you on the fighting–albeit not usually intimidating–side of academic professionals.
Two historians of the Early Republic at LSU, Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, have written an essay on Salon.com that raises some interesting–and controversial–questions regarding this issue. It’s not necessarily only titles in their own chronological field that they are criticizing here, as the problem they describe is an all too familiar occurrence in all varieties of historical writing. They then extend what looks like a fairly pointed critique of plagiarism into a broader salvo against popular history. Perhaps we on the academic side of history find it all the more galling that these kind of works tend to get more attention, draw more praise, and fill more bank accounts than our own carefully crafted and professionally produced monographs? Is this jealousy or a legitimate professional concern?