GI Joe Ellis

On June 18, the Boston Globe ran a Page One story reporting that one of America’s most eminent historians, Joseph J. Ellis, had seriously and serially misrepresented his military past. People used to lie to get out of the Vietnam War. Ellis charged in the opposite direction, claiming in interviews and classroom discussions that he served in the conflict, even asserting that he had been a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division and a staff aide to General William Westmoreland.  

Ellis’s mendacity is stunning in its uselessness. His career hardly needs embellishing. A beloved professor at Mount Holyoke, where he has taught since 1972, Ellis reinvented himself in midcareer as the author of well-written, thoughtful popular histories of the founding fathers (or brothers, as he prefers to call them). These included learned studies of Adams and Jefferson that earned him a wide readership. The Jefferson biography, American Sphinx, won the 1997 National Book Award. Ellis’ most recent work, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, just won the Pulitzer Prize and has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 26 weeks. Interestingly, Ellis observes in that book that the founders, for all their greatness, exaggerated their achievements and, occasionally, the truth. Jefferson “probably came to believe his own lies,” Ellis observes on Page 211. “He was not accustomed to having his word questioned and his excuses exposed, not even by himself.”

The weirdest thing about Ellis’s distortions is that they seem to have occurred largely after he scored his successes. In the 1990s, as his stock rose, Ellis began to appear more as a talking head–notably in Ken Burns’ lugubrious Jefferson documentary, where he provided a rare dose of genuine thought.  Slowly but surely, Ellis was entering the tiny pantheon of historians recognized by more than one-millionth of the American public. Now the Globe–whose own reputation has been besmirched in the past few years by the presence of fabulists on its staff–has pounced on Ellis for embroidering his own biography. How should Ellis respond? He might consider emulating one of the people he writes about in Founding Brothers. In 1797, Alexander Hamilton was accused of corruption and adultery by the scandal-monger James Callender. Hamilton answered with a remarkably candid account of his sorry participation in an affair with a woman whose husband then demanded a job from him, which Hamilton refused. After laying out the sordid facts, he concluded, “I have paid pretty severely for the folly.”

Ted Widmer is the director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College and the co-author of Campaigns: A Century of Presidential Races.

[Update, 10:05 p.m.: Ellis tonight released the  following statement: “Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made. I deeply regret having let stand and later confirming the assumption that I went to Vietnam. For this and any other distortions about my personal life, I want to apologize to my family, friends, colleagues and students. Beyond that circle, however, I shall have no further comment.”]