30 September 2010 by Published in: Research and Writing 9 comments

Thanks to Glenn Williams, National Park Service historian for sharing this. I hereby adopt this as my code.

A Historian’s Code

1. I will footnote (or endnote) all my sources (none of this MLA or social science parenthetical business).

2. If I do not reference my sources accurately, I will surely perish in the fires of various real or metaphorical infernal regions and I will completely deserve it. I have been warned.

3. I will respect the hard-won historical gains of those historians in whose steps I walk and will share such knowledge as is mine with all other historians (as they doubtless will cheerfully share it with me).

4. I will not be ashamed to say “I do not know” or to change my narrative of historical events when new sources point to my errors.

5. I will never leave a fallen book behind.

6. I will acknowledge that history is created by people and not by impersonal cosmic forces or “isms.” An “ism” by itself never harmed or helped anyone without human agency.

7. I am not a sociologist, political scientist, international relations-ist, or any other such “ist.” I am a historian and deal in facts, not models.

8. I know I have a special responsibility to the truth and will seek, as fully as I can, to be thorough, objective, careful, and balanced in my judgments, relying on primary source documents whenever possible.

9. Life may be short, but history is forever. I am a servant of forever.

By Richard Stewart, Ph.D., “Historians and a Historian’s Code,” ARMY HISTORY, No. 77 (Fall 2010), p. 46.

Works for me.

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  1. Fri 01st Oct 2010 at 8:23 am

    I like it – thanks for sharing.


  2. dan
    Fri 01st Oct 2010 at 10:03 am

    I like it.

    However, #6 is simply silly.

    Another item should be added that “respected” historians who engage in plagiarism (goodwin, ambrose, ellis, et al) will be outed, drummed out of the service, and forever shunned for their sins.

  3. Glenn F. Williams
    Fri 01st Oct 2010 at 11:11 am

    Dear General,

    Just a point of clarification, I am the historian of the National Museum of the U.S. Army Project. I left the National Park Service in 2004 when I accepted a position at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, and in 2008, assumed my current duties. Thank you for the kind words.


  4. Sun 03rd Oct 2010 at 7:48 am

    So true. Should be required reading for all students and budding historians.

  5. Mon 04th Oct 2010 at 1:00 pm

    The late George Tindall of UNC had a set of ten commandments: http://hnn.us/blogs/comments/32490.html

    As two of my under-grad, and one of my grad school professors were products of his tutelage, I was well acquainted with “The Commandments of the Muse.”

  6. Thu 07th Oct 2010 at 8:05 pm


    Interestingly, the same set of rules could be applied to my paying job, software development. Of course, beautiful coding in LotusScript is not forever and well-written code will almost never be read. There was one developer we knew who changed the header line in every program he touched to identify himself as the author. We mock his memory continuously, though he has been gone from our company longer than I’ve been with it.

    I wonder if because I’d been trained as a historian, with a special love of footnotes, I have more respect for commenting my lines of code….

  7. Gene Schmiel
    Sun 17th Oct 2010 at 9:04 am

    Thanks for your notes in Armchair General, and glad you enjoyed the trip to Antietam yesterday. Wish I could have been there.
    I am including my e-mail here because I couldn’t figure out how to do it at Armchair General, which has a rule about making 20 postings before listing an e-mail.
    Please respond to me at my e-mail and we can have a link that way. Thanks, Gene Schmiel

  8. Thu 30th Dec 2010 at 1:38 am

    With all due respect to both Glenn Williams and Dr. Stewart, parenthetical citations are here to stay, with footnotes becoming subsequently obsolete for matters of textual reference. If you need to illuminate some fact that pertains to the text or elaborate on the methodology by which the source was acquired–which to read your code, it seems you would like to do–endnotes which are cited at the end of the chapter would be the logical place to do it. APA (and like it or not more and more places are turning out students who write only APA) recognizes these days that the purpose of intext citations is solely to point to the reference citation, not to clutter the text or distract the reader. The fewest words possible intext to point to the correct source, along with endnotes that are easy to find, fulfill the author’s purpose. That is, presuming the author’s purpose is not to be obscure about his/her sources, which of course some are for various reasons.
    I have the benefit of degrees both in English and History and since I have taught my share of composition classes, documentation is something I understand.
    However, I am extremely pleased, no, thrilled, to see the charge to historians to change their opinions when new facts come along.Do you know how difficult that is.
    I wondered, for example, how the famous Jefferson historian (who will remain nameless) would take the news of the DNA testing of Sally Hemings’ descendants. It was a pretty dark time for him for a while, as the Monticello position statement legitimizing her children was publish, but within 5 years the anti-Hemings faction had found itself an out and published a retraction. His writing was preeminent in this. Fueling this was the fact that one of the main family legs, who had been passing for white, listed Jefferson’s uncle as their father, knowing that if Jefferson was in the family tree, Black blood could not be denied. Until this family could correct this error, which they had intended to do, since they did not deny the relationship in family circles, new facts cannot move history forward.

    Or look for a minute at our most famous assassinations: Lincoln and Kennedy. Ask yourself. Would there ever be enough evidence to change the way that history is written about them? Surely enough already has been presented to prove a grand conspiracy in both cases, yet so strongly has it been resisted by proponents of the official story that most do not even know such evidence exists let alone recognize the extent of its legitimacy. Can you imagine what it would take to contradict definitively the history in those thousands of books? Just the fact that there are dozens of living historians who would muster their might against it means history isn’t going anywhere. What are they supposed to do, start their research over, publish second editions, retractions–and in the case of some, apologies? Not likely.
    They have the upper hand, the proverbial high ground. Remember that when the official story was written, there were those near to if not within the government who had excellent reasons for the official story to read the way it read.

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