For Love of the Footnote

Beyond the Classroom

July 18, 2014
by Hugh T. Harrington Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

I love footnotes. I won’t read a historical article if it does not have proper footnotes; why waste my time? When thumbing a book and contemplating a purchase I thumb from the back. The book must have an index[1] and it must have footnotes.[2] If there is no index or no foot/endnotes then I lay the book down with disgust.

Why, one may ask. The answers are simple. First, the footnote will clearly tell me what source the author used for his information. I’m not fool enough to believe everything I read so why should I believe what an author puts in his text without knowing exactly where that information came from?[3] I must be able to weigh the source, the evidence, to determine whether it is accurate and credible or not. Therefore, the citation must spell out the source specifically, including the page when applicable, so I can go to that source and see it for myself.

The concept of revealing the details of one’s research sources is a matter of intellectual honesty. An author can write about any subject, but unless the specific citation as to where the information came from is in the footnote the reader must conclude that the author made up the information, or, for some reason, the author does not want the reader to know the source of the information, or the author is careless. All are reasons enough for me to stop reading and throw the article or book away. Literally, throw it away as it has no value.

However, footnotes are used for more than simply citing the source. They are the place to put secondary material including the author’s comments, digressions, explanations of sources, suggestions for further readings, perhaps conflicting evidence and how the author made his editorial choices of what to put in the text.

Footnotes need not hinder the reader in the slightest. The casual reader will not be disturbed by a small superscript in the text and pass it by. However, that small superscript to the interested reader is the key to the treasure chest. A glance at, hopefully, the bottom of the page will give the reader specific information he wants to know. The reader must have the means to clearly be aware of how the author reached his conclusions or to locate the information mentioned in the text.

“Footnotes are, in a sense, the footprints of the author in the sands of research, analysis and writing. They make it possible for each reader to follow the author’s physical steps in research as well as the progress of her analysis. Each new element of complementary information, which the author thought was necessary to her own understanding of her topic, can be found by the reader, as well.”[4] That to me is the perfect summation of the importance of the footnote. And, there is no better guide to the writing, and appreciation, of footnotes than The Art of the Footnote by Francis A. Burkle-Young and Saundra Rose Maley. It lays out the reasoning behind footnotes and their various types as well as providing many examples. Simply reading this slim volume makes me want to do some research, write, and document it properly.

One of the best historians of our age, who also knows how to make the most of footnotes, is Ray Raphael.[5] Casually looking at the footnotes in Raphael’s excellent The First American Revolution, Before Lexington and Concord ,[6] I find the expected detailed citations which allow me to seek out the specific source materials he used. But, there is more, much more. Take for example footnote number 7, on page 226. After giving the source citation, Raphael adds the comment, “Early statistics listing the number of ‘artisans’ give a misleading impression, since many, and perhaps most, artisans at the time still engaged in some farming. A man who worked on shoes was listed in the records as a shoemaker, even if he continued to work a farm.” Interesting additional information.

On page 231, footnote number 45, Raphael tells the reader, “For the importance of Boston’s leadership with respect to revolutionary thinking at the local level, see also Richard D. Brown, Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). How very thoughtful of him to make this suggestion.

One of the real joys of Raphael’s footnotes is that he uses them as an opportunity for further clarification of the text; something others far too often neglect. On page 257, footnote number 3, Raphael engages in a discussion that encompasses various points of view and references to several other sources. This wonderful footnote is over 1000 words long.

Having looked at the excellent footnotes of Ray Raphael it behooves us to look as the other end of the spectrum. [See The Myth of Rifleman Timothy Murphy,] where I wrote about how faulty research, and very poor footnotes, led to the false myth/legend of Timothy Murphy having killed General Fraser at Saratoga.[7]

Very briefly, in this case, 19th century author Jeptha R. Simms wrote a dramatic account of how Murphy shot General Fraser.[8] Simms started the myth and it was picked up and repeated for 160 years by others, some of whom were, and are, respected historians. Blindly, the story became accepted as fact; yet there is not a shred of evidence to support it.

When “reputable” historians tell the story they often cite Simms as their source as if doing so makes themselves and the story credible. However, the reader is thus enabled, as I was, to go back to the original source of the story and discover to their horror that the story has no basis in fact. That is the power, and purpose, of the footnote. The footnote allows the reader to weigh the evidence, if any, and make the determination as to whether the source is credible and trustworthy and if the historian has understood the source correctly. Without the footnote the reader must rely on the judgment, the thoroughness and even the integrity of the author. That is more power than I want to give any author.

I want the ability to make my own determinations and not just blindly accept what is placed in front of me. To accept the written word without the means to question it is very uncomfortable and allows the reader to be led in any direction the author wishes. We as discerning readers ought to demand that authors always give us the proper footnotes that we deserve.


[1] And, the index must be comprehensive. If it’s not comprehensive how can it help me to find what I’m seeking within the book?

[2] I much prefer footnotes, at the bottom/foot of the page, to the now more common “endnotes” which appear at the end of the chapter or the end of the book. I cannot understand the ignorance of publishers. The poor reader who wants to follow the thoughts and research processes of the author must by necessity use two bookmarks, one for the text and another for the endnotes as the reader must flip between them.

[3] A true aggravation is the author who cites his source as “John Smith, The History of the World, volumes 1-40.” What good is that? Sure, it’s a footnote and it’s a citation but it has no value as I cannot be expected to examine 40 volumes seeking the information the author used.

[4] Francis A. Burkle-Young and Saundra Rose Maley, The Art of the Footnote, the Intelligent Student’s Guide to the Art and Science of Annotating Texts (Lanham, Maryland: University of America Press, 1996), 2.

[5] I am pleased to say that Ray Raphael is also a contributor to Journal of the American Revolution.

[6] Ray Raphael, The First American Revolution, Before Lexington and Concord (New York: The New Press, 2002). Ray Raphael has written other fine books, too. I chose this one as it was within reach of my arm.

[7] The Journal of the American Revolution article is an abbreviated version of Hugh Harrington and Jim Jordan, “The Other Mystery Shot of the American Revolution: Did Timothy Murphy Kill British Brigadier General Simon Fraser at Saratoga?,” Journal of Military History, vol. 74, no. 4 (October 2010), 1037-1045.

[8] Jeptha R. Simms, History of Schoharie County and Border Wars of New York (Albany, NY: 1845; reprinted Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1991), v, 259.


  • What an opportune article as just the other day I was chastised by my wife for reading the end-notes in the book I was finishing. It was in jest, but I explained myself in a manner much like your article Mr. Harrington. I also heartily agree with the statement in your note [2], that end-notes cause the reader impracticable stress if they are the ravenous reader. I can surmise the intent of publishers on the reasons why end-notes seem more popular as being a visual or design hindrance and production setup/cost.

  • David – Glad that the article came at the right time. As for publishers and their production costs….I have no sympathy for them. Seemingly every historical book is in desperate need of quality maps…yet, rarely are there any good maps and almost never enough maps. Perhaps if book publishers knew that people refused to buy their mapless or footnoteless books then things would change. A revolution of the reading public 🙂 Perhaps there’s a need for an article about the necessity to include quality maps. Thanks for your input.

  • I agree completely about the value of footnotes and made sure my book was well sourced in that area, to include discussion of disagreements among various researchers and additional content on the specific topic. I felt that should a reader want to delve more into a specific situation or incident, the book should provide the entry way. While I did obtain numerous illustrations, some quite expensive, and had them placed adjacent to the subject matter discussed vice grouped in a center area, I did not do maps. The reason for this was that generally available maps did not specifically related to the intelligence activities as I described them and the cost of custom drawn maps was too great (in my case the author paid for all illustrations, etc for the book). To further assist the reader I included a detailed time line of intelligence and related events and a glossary of terms specific to intelligence activities.

    That said, had I the resources I would have opted for a couple of custom drawn maps.

  • Hugh, I particularly like your suggestion that writer’s use footnotes rather than end notes. Footnotes are easier to locate and comprehend. It seems books are increasingly published with end notes, making it harder to follow the author’s reasoning and research.

  • Such a joy, Hugh, to find others so passionate about footnotes! A rare breed, I’ve feared, but not so rare after all, it seems. I too have often tried to track down contemporaneous evidence, only to find a dead end with some 19th century facile storyteller. This, initially, is part of what put me on mythology alert. Conversely, when I entered the field from outside the academy 20 years ago, footnotes by other authors — responsible ones, full citations — showed me the way. Now, search engines provide a great tool for tracking, even when citations are lacking. Type in an exact passage, within quotations, and see where it leads you. Those that stop in the 19th century are readily exposed. On the other hand, when we get a hit to some 18th century diary or letter or whatever, we can often contextualize the source without traveling to distant archives. A prime beneficiary: “The Journal of the American Revolution: All Things Liberty” and the scholarship it has inspired.

    1. Thank you, Ray. The more I read footnotes the more I enjoy them and the less tolerance I have for poor footnotes. I particularly like the clarifying note that takes the reader a bit away from the thrust of the text into areas the reader may not have thought of before. The internet certainly does make hunting down exact passages….and, can reveal plagiarism, too. With the advent of word processing I would think that including footnotes would have become so easy that only the lazy, sloppy or perhaps dishonest writers would not use footnotes. In any case, if there are no footnotes I don’t read it. BTW, I really enjoyed the video clip attached to the article. I had never seen it before. You really make the case for footnotes! Glad your audience agreed.

    2. Ahem! Regarding… Allan W. Eckert, “The Frontiersmen: A Narrative” or “That Dark and Bloody River: Chronicles of the Ohio River Valley”, where did he find the “Journal of William Grills”, Baltimore, MD, 1808?

  • As a collected group of dedicated readers and contributors that are pro-footnote, what would it take to hyperlink the citations on this blog so I can be true to my American nature and avoid the scrolling back and forth?

  • I used to be an adamant footnote guy, but now it doesn’t much matter to me thanks to the joys of ebooks. With an ebook it makes no difference to me whether it’s a footnote or an endnote (though if I’m reading a physical book then I much prefer footnotes).

    I also enjoy Ray Raphael’s use of footnotes. I found the endnotes in David Hackett Fischer’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “George Washington’s Crossing” to be almost as useful as the text itself.

    T.H. Breen is another author who’s footnotes in “American Insurgents” were a joy to read. There are many authors who make excellent use of footnotes and/or endnotes, though I do wish there were more.

  • An excellent and worthwhile post, Hugh. As a master of the art of digression, I share your enthusiasm for the footnote, and I see a new day coming in historical writing and analysis as the internet continues to “democratize” access to primary sources. I predict that in the foreseeable future vast sections of history are going to be substantially re-written as “traditional” accounts are re-evaluated in the light of vastly greater primary source data that authors in the past simply did not have the time or the resources to track down. I know my own research on the Court Martial of Arthur St. Clair has benefited enormously from it.

  • I couldn’t agree more with this; If I come across a secondary source that doesn’t list sources (in a footnote, endnote, or other), it’s not worth my time. If it cannot be traced back to a primary source, I don’t need to bother with it. Unfortunately, that means disregarding pretty much all secondary literature prior to the 1950’s.

  • Would that it was just the 1950s.

    I just purchased Thomas P. Slaughter’s Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution (released this year by Hill and Wang) on line, only to discover that, despite his great story and many worthy insights, there is not a single footnote in 436 pages. Christopher Hibbert did the same thing in his wonderful Redcoats and Rebels (1990 by W.W. Norton) and it is similarly frustrating because he relates many incredible facts without attribution. And between 1958 and 1974 (Random House) Shelby Foote did the same thing with his Civil War series.

    I don’t know what these authors, or their publishers, were thinking, but they do a great disservice to historical writing when they deliver only half a product.

  • True enough! I see a lot of this in authors who want “exclusivity” in their narrative retelling, by which I mean they did the leg work and it probably took them a while to uncover these details and they don’t want it to be easy for you (because it wasn’t easy for them). Because most people won’t do the leg work themselves, no one is going to be able to write what they’ve written and that makes their books seem more valuable. But it’s self defeating for the very reason you wrote here–without footnotes, their claims aren’t trustworthy and we’re not just going to take their words for it. And most likely they aren’t being dishonest, and they are relating things truthfully, but you just can’t know and so they’ve shot themselves in the foot.

    Nevertheless, when I was using the 1950’s date range, I was referring to academic volumes. I should have been more clear. =) Generally you won’t find academic volumes without footnotes.

  • Thomas Verenna – very good points. However, the “historian” who chooses to write his “exclusive” material may have trouble getting it published. It certainly won’t get published in Journal of the American Revolution.

  • There’s an economic dimension to footnotes and endnotes that helps to explain why they don’t appear in all history books.

    First, they cost a publisher more, starting with more editing and typesetting time. Before computerized design programs, footnotes were much more complicated to lay out in books than endnotes, which is why most publishers (even academic presses) chose the latter. Pages of citations also increase the manufacturing cost of a book, sometimes considerably.

    But the other part of the economics is on our side as consumers. Smart, curious readers like citations. Many other readers don’t want to be bothered by them, or even see them as a warning sign of difficult prose and uninteresting scholasticism. They see no need to pay more for a book with extra pages in small type that they won’t read.

    Thus, substantial, visible citations can actually reduce the economic value of a book, or at least not pay for themselves, with some readers. For other types of books, and with other readers, printed citations increase the value.

  • Hugh, I must say how much I enjoyed your article on footnotes… love ’em or hate ’em… as some people look at them. I was heavily influenced for being anti-footnotes by my mentor in the 1970s, Dr. Page Smith at UCSC, when we were both living in the Santa Cruz area and he was writing the popular two volume “A New Age Now Begins: A Peoples History of the American Revolution”. He detested footnotes and endnotes so much, he devoted two pages at the back of the second volume on why he considered them stuffy, elitist, and pompous. He instead explained why he embedded the source notes inside the referring sentence as a matter of style. He added that any historian worth his or her salt would know how to find the source material noted and confirm the accuracy. And this was in the mid-1970s when online libraries didn’t exist and good source books possibly only existed in another part of the country.

    As I started writing my own history of the American Revolution book a short time ago, I knew my audience will be the general public; not academics and scholars. So, I had adopted Dr. Smith’s footnote philosophy for my book… especially when it applies to my target market. No superscripted numbers to scare the casual reader.

    This is my public confession that I have turned completely around on my feelings about both footnotes and/or end notes! I, too, love them and think they provide not only honesty from the author to the reader, but shows the diligence and research that went into the work. Footnotes or endnotes, to me, have become the gift wrapping of the book. I agree totally that great endnotes (like David Hackett Fischer provides in “Paul Revere’s Ride”) are sometimes as good as the body of the text.

    Thanks to my definite footnote affinity now, I’m going BACK through my manuscript and citing direct quotes, uncommonly known facts, and so on. We all change over time, don’t we? I celebrate my original sources now.

    LOVED your cited essay on citations, Sir!

  • John, you scared me when you wrote that you weren’t using footnotes! I’m delighted to see that you’ve seen “the error of your ways” and have embraced footnotes. You won’t regret it! As for the “we all change over time”….I’m not so sure. I have a typewriter on my desk and own two vehicles with stick shifts. 🙂

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