With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Has Scandal Taken Its Toll on Joseph Ellis?

On October 26, 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis's latest work, His Excellency, George Washington, was released. The book, which focuses on Washington's flaws, is the first Ellis has written since his own flaws were revealed in 2001.

For nearly a decade, in his classes at Mount Holyoke on Vietnam and American culture, Ellis would enrich the course content by recounting his own experiences in the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement. In 2000, in an interview with the Boston Globe, he made a number of claims. He said that he had served in Vietnam in 1965 as a leader and paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division. He said that he had worked on the staff of General William C. Westmoreland in Saigon. He said that he had been active in the civil rights movement and in the peace movement.

A little research subsequently revealed that he had lied. As an undergraduate he served in the R.O.T.C at William and Mary, emerging from the program in 1965 as a second lieutenant. Instead of serving in Vietnam, as claimed, he had attended graduate school at Yale. He was not active in either the civil rights movement or the peace movement. After he graduated with a doctorate in 1969, he began active duty, but he served not in Vietnam but as a history professor at West Point, where he remained until 1972, when he finished his duty as a captain.

To many it was a shock that Ellis would risk so much for so little. As Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University told the New York Times at the time the scandal broke, "one of the great things about his writing is that he recreates past situations with amazing vividness, maybe he has become a victim of his own ability to do that." Many believed that Ellis was recreating a past more worthy of his present stature and position. The New York Times questioned his motives: "Why should a man as successful as Mr. Ellis, whose books are those rare creatures, best-selling works of history, feel compelled to reinvent his past? One might almost suppose that he was not so much reinventing his past as confirming his present, projecting his current degree of success backward in time, living up to a version of himself."

Ellis's mentor and advisor at Yale, Edmund S. Morgan, suggested a more sympathetic explanation: "I have been in close touch with Joe from the time he arrived at Yale, very uncertain of himself, as most graduate students are, sure that other graduate students were better than he was, as most graduate students think." It was this uncertainty that might have lead Ellis to recreate a grander past than he actually had. Ellis seemed to agree with this theory. In an interview with the Associated Press he said that he believed he recounted those stories as a result of having a dysfunctional family and an alcoholic father, which leads to a "combination of great achievement and great doubt about yourself."

Since he had shared so many of these fabricated experiences with his students Mount Holyoke was pressured to discipline him, requiring him to take a leave without pay for a year (though he retained his office and library privileges). Ellis returned to teaching in the fall of 2002. He remains a popular teacher held in high regard by his students. Recently, one student wrote on a professor rating site that Ellis is "a very interesting and intelligent man. He emphasizes multiple perspectives and brings the material to life. His classes draw people who tend to challenge him, but he's a great professor." Another student, Charli Lighty, told the Associated Press: "When I first heard about what happened, I thought, 'Oh, wow! Scandal!' But that was a long time ago; nobody really cares about that in this class."

It was during his leave from Mount Holyoke that Ellis began working on his biography of George Washington. Although he had planned to write about Washington before the scandal, Ellis soon began making comparisons between his character and Washington's. The Associated Press observed that "Ellis suddenly came to resemble one of his historical subjects, a man of high achievement shadowed by flaws in character." Ellis in his interview with the Associated Press said "the notion that [Washington] could not tell a lie is itself an adolescent fable. But thinking about what right and wrong means, how you deal with your imperfections and how you learn from your mistakes is something Washington does speak to." The book focuses on Washington's character and "psychological chemistry," in a "quest for the famously elusive personality of the mature man-who-became-a-monument," as Ellis puts it.

Most of the book reviews for His Excellency have been favorable. Publishers Weekly, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Associated Press have given the book glowing reviews. Publishers Weekly called His Excellency "a magisterial account of the life and times of George Washington, celebrating the heroic image of the president whom peers like Jefferson and Madison recognized as 'their unquestioned superior' while acknowledging his all-too-human qualities." Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, concluded that His Excellency "provides a lucid, often shrewd take on the man Mr.Ellis calls the 'primus inter pares, the Foundingest Father of them all.' And it does so with admirable grace and wit."

Few reviews made much of Ellis's scandal, and some did not mention it at all. The most critical review was probably David Hackett Fischer's in the Boston Globe, which broke the story about Ellis's scandal. Fischer complained that Ellis was unduly harsh, comparing Ellis's account of Washington's military leadership with the infamous debunking books that appeared in the 1920s. Fischer did not bring up Ellis's past, however, declining to subject Ellis to the same psychological analysis to which Ellis subjected Washington. A review in the Seattle Times, alluding to Ellis's scandal,concluded: "Ellis faces down a certain irony as Washington's biographer: How to strip away myth from a venerated figure, yet reveal him still as an accomplished leader, a hero despite his human flaws?" The review itself however was mostly favorable. Ted Widmer's review in the New York Observer took a light approach to Ellis's scandal in a flattering review of His Excellency. Excusing Ellis, Widmer wrote: "And no accusation of plagiarism has ever tainted Mr.Ellis’ work (which includes important studies of Jefferson, Adams and the founders as a whole). But still, this Walter Mitty–ish episode was disturbing to his admirers and to generations of his students at Mount Holyoke, the tranquil college in Massachusetts where he teaches."

The general tenor of the reviews mirrors the sympathetic approach most critics took after Ellis's lies became known. At the time only a few people seemed willing to take Ellis sharply to task. This puzzled some, like Elliot J. Gorn, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "[M]any of the professors I've spoken with feel sympathy for Ellis: They're afraid they may not be so different. That strikes me as wrongheaded…. the message seems to be that lying to students is less blameworthy than lying in print; that publications are our gods." David Garrow, the distinguished professor of law at Emory University, also found fault with Ellis, writing: "Knowingly being dishonest in class is just as great an act of moral turpitude as being knowingly dishonest or inaccurate in your written work." Subsequently, Garrow's own character came under scrutiny when Gloria Mann, the Law School director of operations at Emory, accused Garrow of simple battery, which led to his own suspension from the university for six months.

The lack of outrage among the academic community and their apparent feeling that there is a difference between professional versus personal dishonesty, and dishonestly in publications versus teaching, has allowed Ellis to return to teaching and scholarly work. University of Georgia historian Peter Charles Hoffer, in his recent book, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud, argued that Ellis's own flaws may well have made him sympathetic in a way he otherwise couldn't be with the heroes he has written about. "I believe that the lies he told about himself and the way he told them changed the way he wrote history," Hoffer wrote.

In its first week on the New York Times Bestseller list, Ellis's book reached number 6, suggesting that the scandal has not affected his book sales. The book has also been a main selection of the the Book-of-the-Month Club. Every indication is that readers are flocking to buy Ellis's book, proving that even flawed characters still deserve a second chance.