Those of you have read my review of the recent Wilson biography XX know that I have strong views on footnotes.

Every historian, I believe, owes footnotes to future historians.  It is only through good footnotes that one historian can retrace the steps of a prior historian, confirm whether the work is accurate, assess whether the interpretation is fair.

I have strong views on this because I am so often dealing with BAD footnotes, wasting time trying to find sources that my predecessors had at their fingertips.

A good example from my Stanton research is on page 328 of the Thomas-Hyman biography of Stanton, where they state, regarding the 1864 election:

“Stanton . . . dismissed twenty quartermaster clerks who had been touting McClellan.  Answering a protest from one of them he said ‘when a young man receives his pay from an administration and spends his evenings denouncing it in offensive terms, he cannot be surprised if the administration prefers a friend on the job.’”

I have checked each source cited in the footnote on this page; none of them include the quoted language.  None are even close.  I have also checked some other obvious sources, such as the Flower and Gorham biographies of Stanton.  No luck.  I have also simply placed bits of the quoted language into Google, and turned up a couple of more recent books with the same quote.  But they simply cite back to Thomas & Hyman, so no luck there.

This evening, while reading newspaper articles from 1864 that mention Stanton, I got lucky.  I found an article from the Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1864, which included the following:

“A few days ago Secretary Stanton dismissed twenty clerks from the Quartermaster’s Department, some on a charge of disloyalty, and some for intense zeal in opposition to Mr. Lincoln’s election.  One of them came directly to Mr. Stanton and asked him if he considered it disloyal because he favored the election of Gen. McClellan.  ‘By no means,’ was the reply, ‘but when a young man receives his salary from an administration and spends his evenings denouncing it in the most offensive language, he cannot complain if that Administration chooses one of its friends to take his place!  That is what I have done in your case.’”

This is clearly the source of the Thomas-Hyman quote, even if a few words have changed.  But a little further electronic newspaper research revealed some of the antecedents of the Chicago Tribune article.  For example, there was an article in the Springfield Republican, November 12, 1864, with the following:

“I hear of men in office here who talk McClellan to the opposition leaders and Lincoln to administrationists.  It is a nice business, and some of these reckless young gentlemen will find, after the election, that they are doomed to the loss of their places.  Mr. Stanton has begun the work already, and has dismissed thirty or forty clerks, who spend their evenings in denouncing Abraham Lincoln and their days at the war department, drawing pay therefor with great regularity.  Let the ax decapitate all these chating knaves!”

And there was an article in the Ohio Daily Statesman, October 27, 1864, with the following:

“The Commercial’s Washington special says that Secretary Stanton has dismissed twenty clerks in the Quartermaster Department for sympathizing with the rebellion.”

The Commercial appears to be the New York Commercial Advertiser, a paper I can and will check.

Where does this leave me on the question of Stanton really dismissed twenty or thirty clerks?  At present:  it seems likely that some clerks were dismissed, but unlikely that Stanton ever said anything about their evening habits; that looks like a clever reporter putting the words into Stanton’s mouth to make them more memorable.  But further research required, perhaps in records of quartermaster department in Washington.