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History (sadly) Repeats Itself

June 2024
1min read

A history magazine, we think, has a special obligation to be accurate, since mistaken history is worse than none at all. At the same time, we take the view that accuracy is not necessarily promoted by all the academic machinery that sometimes stultifies the pages of professedly “scholarly” journals. We do not regularly footnote our articles, for instance; but nevertheless we try to check all factual statements carefully before they go into print.

But the most experienced and learned authors make mistakes. So do editors, researchers, printers, and copyreaders; it is amazing how many pairs of practiced eyes can look hard at something and not see what turns out, later, to be an “obvious” mistake.

It is a touching tribute to man’s faith in his fellows that a certain percentage of these mistakes are simply the result of assuming that some previous worker in the historical vineyard knew what he was doing—when in fact he was fumbling. “History repeats itself”; so, unhappily, does historical error, especially when it is what might be described as attractive error. In our December, 1965, issue, which included a thirty-six-page picture portfolio on Canadian history, we noted with amused surprise that the lithographers of the panoramic view of the Battle of Queenston Heights (page 18) “made the American uniforms red and the British-Canadian blue.” We have received this polite corrective letter from LyIe Thoburn, of Gates Mills, Ohio:

“I would like to submit the theory that the depiction may be correct for this reason: the United States troops captured Queenston Heights and were later driven off by the British. This panoramic view might very well be the moment in which the British were in the act of doing so. This is supported by the fact that a close examination of the picture shows three flags, which appear to be the British Union Jack, being carried by the red-uniformed troops of the landing party.” Mr. Thoburn is quite right, as we proved to our dissatisfaction by looking closely at the picture as it appeared in our own pages; then we began to wonder how this strange case of color blindness could have afflicted us so easily. It seems that we rented the color plate for this particular picture from another magazine, which used it back in April, 1957. Not as an excuse, but simply as an illustration of the unfortunate tendency for historical mistakes to be repeated, we quote their caption at the time: “At Queenston, Americans attack across the Niagara. By error of unknown colorist, Americans are in red uniforms, British in blue.”

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