Citation Not Needed: Thoughts on Footnotes

Thanks to Luis Villa for commenting on my post on Samuel Adams and the Boston crowd. Villa asks:

Question about the book – this excerpt leaves me screaming, in the wikipedia sense, “Citation Needed” – both because I want to learn more, but also because strong claims need strong evidence. (Whatever its other flaws, Graeber’s recent Debt was great that way.) Will the book be heavily footnoted?

To answer the question first: No. My forthcoming book Founding Finance (the post in question represents material deleted from that book) will not be heavily footnoted. It will feature bibliographical essays for each chapter, in which my sources will be presented, along with commentary on my interpretation of those sources and on competing and alternative interpretations.

To give an example based on this post, sources would include Hoerder (the most influential on me regarding crowd action in Boston and on Adams’s regard for hierarchical, corporate unity in New England); Maier (whose From Resistance… is a standard text on related matters, and who has written a key historiographical essay on Adams); Zobel (basically a Tory, in my view, who sees Adams as a master manipulator of easily led crowds); Young, who brought the Tea Party and the Boston crowd back to life; maybe Jensen, since I think he’s where I got the stuff on Gage, but I’d have to go back to my notes to be sure; and others. Alexander —  since he’s the only S. Adams biographer who deals directly with the issue of crowd “agency.”

These sources don’t agree with one another, and I don’t agree fully with any of them. So for learning more, I think my essays will be useful.

But for proving a claim? Not so much. No citation will provide proof of anything I’ve said. My sources’ own citations don’t prove what they’re saying.

(This comes in a context in which, Villa to the contrary, I really haven’t made any strong claims in the post, at least not regarding the history. Mainly I’ve just reviewed the standard literature and made some strongish comments on it. And I’ve exposed my commentary as such, not pretending it’s either fact or inescapable conclusion.)

My concern, and the reason I use bibliographical/historiographical essays instead of footnotes, is that many readers seeing a note saying “Hoerder, op cit., 31-33, 42″ [UPDATE: Or, in some ways worse, “SA Papers, Reel 1, Microfilm 250″] will rest assured there’s bulletproof support for the thing being said. “Citation needed” — because a citation somehow makes us think something is true? or at least fully and fairly thought through?

I’m not saying such citations are usually totally falsified. But I can’t even put into words at the moment the sense of sheer, overwhelming, crushing futility I’ve experienced, day after day, running down citations in the work of our greatest historians, only to find the historians are citing only sources that tend to support their point of view, while trying desperately to expunge or marginalize sources at least as valid that might tend to question that point of view; drawing shaky and tendentious conclusions, without commentary, from sources that manifestly suggest conclusions other than those supposedly being drawn from them; ignoring competing interpretations that would be necessary to a well-intended reader’s making an informed judgment on issues at hand; etc.

I mutter underneath my breath, “Nothing is revealed.”

Running down references — and primary-source eyewitnesses’ testimony, for that matter — can inspire the thought “citation not needed.” And yes, I will back all that up one day, with reference to seminal works. I get into some of it in Chapter Five of the forthcoming Founding Finance, criticizing Hofstadter, Wood, Morgan, et al.  And in that chapter, I do give heavy citations — with page numbers! — because in that case, I am making strong claims [UPDATE: No, not claims; strong criticism], and I want readers to see, up close, how I think those historians’ intellectual processes work. But my giving a page number isn’t going to get a Gordon Wood, say, to think I’m right in criticizing his thinking about John Adams and Thomas Paine, say.

What I really think about footnotes: All too often, and especially where it’s most counted during the past sixty years, heavy footnoting is an abuse of reader credulity.

Most historians want to win an argument (seem to win, that is). I don’t — only because I know I can’t. Neither can they. The profession has trained them otherwise, so they waste our time and our good will on internecine wars they won’t even admit to being in: our poring over their footnotes becomes a weapon in the war.

But everybody knows that the same evidentiary base is repeatedly cited to “prove” opposing conclusions. Nobody’s coming running down the street with a smoking-gun letter from Jefferson to Madison, never before seen, that proves something new. My approach is to expose my thinking and acknowledge the thinking of those who think I’m completely wrong. Because you’ll find (if you want to waste your life on it) that learning what “actually” happened requires rebuilding every case from scratch — partly thanks to obfuscation by historians using heavy footnoting. After you do rebuild what actually happened, you’ll find you really have an interpretation of what actually happened, an interpretation all your own, which you’ll never be able to prove by citation.

So readers might just want to type “Samuel Adams Boston crowd Stamp Act historiography” into a search engine. When I do, I get this:,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&fp=87c6230bd8e448f1&biw=1366&bih=643

Google flatters me by putting my posts in the top five. [UPDATE: These remarks refer to the search results returned on the date of the post.] But it also gives me Beeman in the top ten, not a bad place to start getting into the various controversies. More closely targeted searches will turn up more focused results.

Because how did I find out about Hoerder, Maier, Zobel, etc.? By poking around libraries and figuring out what the argument is. And by finding out that argument is all there is.

[UPDATE: Even in primary sources! The argument is what we should be documenting — our own and others’ — not some set of supposedly unimpeachable sources that supposedly permits us to make claims.]

5 thoughts on “Citation Not Needed: Thoughts on Footnotes

  1. (And I think the idea of a per-chapter bibliographic essay certainly would address lots of my interests, while avoiding the problem you correctly recognize of citations that don’t actually say what they are cited to say. I look forward to the book.)

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