We hear far too often today about historians who plagiarize from their peers or who fabricate data. I’ve written here about Michael Bellesiles, but there are certainly plenty of others who have disgraced the profession.
One example from the past is Augustus C. Buell. While not an historian, Buell (1847-1904) continues to mislead biographers of Andrew Jackson. Buell was a journalist who wrote a number of biographies of famous Americans, as well as a memoir of his time as a Civil War soldier. He never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and historians have relied on him for stories about Jackson that have no evidentiary basis.
Milton Hamilton’s 1956 article recounts numerous examples of Buell’s lies, including those in his two-volume biography, History of Andrew Jackson–Pioneer, Patriot, Soldier, Politician, President (1904), published posthumously. Hamilton highlights, for example, Buell’s Rachel Jackson, a woman who somehow learned a higher level of grammar and punctuation in his nonexistent sources, and the made-up account of Andrew Jackson reading the Declaration of Independence to the illiterate citizenry of the Waxhaws. (A sidenote: My wife actually found this anecdote repeated in a prominent text that is used in the homeschooling community.) Hamilton also cites a diary kept by a soldier who served under Jackson during the War of 1812; the soldier just happened to be a Buell ancestor. No record of this David Buell exists, according to Hamilton. Hamilton places part of the responsibility for Buell’s continued authoritative power among Jackson biographers on Marquis James, a noted journalist whose two-volume biography of Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. While James was a masterful storyteller and is certainly more trustworthy than Buell, one should still doublecheck some of his anecdotes.
More recently, Hendrik Booraem’s biographical study of Jackson’s early life contains an appendix that identifies twenty-one of Buell’s fabrications regarding Old Hickory’s time in the Carolinas. He points out that historians seem not to have noticed Hamilton’s critique of Buell, noting that James C. Curtis, David Hackett Fischer, and the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography all repeated some of his erroneous accounts about Jackson.
Just for fun one day, I looked at recent Jackson biographies to see if Buell was cited. John Buchanan, Sean Wilentz, and Jon Meacham avoid Buell, while H.W. Brands cites him twelve times in the first six chapters and calls his biography “[e]specially useful on Jackson’s early years” (p. 603).
I had never paid any attention to Buell’s truthfulness until I read Booraem’s book, but I’ve been careful to ignore him ever since. At least, I hope so. His stories have become such a part of Jacksonian lore that it sometimes is difficult to identify him as the source. By the way, for you conspiracy theorists out there, Buell has been cited as an authority by opponents of the New World Order.
For further study, see Milton W. Hamilton, “Augustus C. Buell: Fraudulent Historian,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 80 (1956): 478-492; and Hendrik Booraem, Young Hickory: The Making of Andrew Jackson (Dallas: Taylor, 2001).