Earlier this summer, in preparation for my first-time visit to Monticello in the lush country of Virginia, I read Joseph Ellis’s biography on Thomas Jefferson. In the introduction, I was particularly struck by what Ellis described as one of the main struggles in writing on a man like Jefferson:
The vast literature on Jefferson has a decidedly hyperbolic character, as if one had to declare one’s allegiance at the start for or against the godlike version of Jefferson depicted in Jean-Antoine Houdon’s marble bust or at least Rembrandt Peale’s saintly portrait. This overdramatized atmosphere actually reproduces the polarized and highly politicized climate of opinion in Jefferson’s own lifetime, when you were either with him or against him, loved him or hated him. True enough, most biographers take the sides of their subjects. But in Jefferson’s case the sides are more sharply drawn and the choices less negotiable. It seems impossible to steer an honorable course between idolatry and evisceration.”
For those familiar with Mormon historiography, particularly in attempts to engage figures like Joseph Smith or Brigham Young, this problem hits very close to home. Take, for example, several biographies written about Mormon figures in the last decade: every one of them felt the need to “declare [their] allegiance at the start” concerning what kind of “Joseph” they would be presenting. While I am sure there are exceptions to some of the examples I give, I feel these are somewhat representative.
Perhaps one example that eagerly leaps off of the pages is Dan Vogel’s Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. In his introduction, Vogel makes clear what side of the debate he chooses to come down on. Characterizing Smith as “an individual who deceives in God’s name while holding sincere religious beliefs,” Vogel explains what he feels is the only rational solution to the “Prophet Puzzle.”
To my mind, the most obvious solution to Shipps’s conundrum is to suggest that Smith was a very well intentioned “pious deceiver” or, perhaps otherwise worded, a sincere fraud,” someone who prevaricated for “good” reasons. Admittedly, the terms are not entirely satisfying. Nevertheless, “pious” connotes genuine religious conviction, while I apply “fraud” or “deceiver” only to describe some of Smith’s activities. I believe that Smith believed he was called of God, yet occasionally engaged in fraudulent activities in order to preach God’s word as effectively as possible.”
Though clearly not as obvious, and put in a more respectable way, Richard Bushman also stakes his ground at the beginning of his biography on the Mormon prophet. After acknowledging the many different paths Mormon historians can take in regards to the prophet/fraud dichotomy, Bushman is brutally honest on the subject:
A believing historian like myself cannot hope to rise above these battles or pretend nothing personal is at stake. For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws…
A rhetorical problem vexes anyone who writes about the thought of Joseph Smith. Are his ideas to be attributed to him or to God?…There are reasons for not inserting a disclaimer every time a revelation is mentioned, no matter how the reader or writer feels about the ultimate source. The most important is that Joseph Smith did not think that way. The signal feature of his life was his sense of being guided by revelation…Joseph’s “marvelous experience,” as he called his revelations, came to him as experiential facts…To blur the distinction—to insist that Smith devised every revelation himself—obscures the very quality that made the Prophet powerful. To get inside the movement, we have to think of Smith as the early Mormons thought of him and as he thought of himself—as a revelator.”
D. Michael Quinn’s biography on J. Reuben Clark also presents a vivid example of this.
As a biographer, I admired many of J. Reuben Clark’s views as I became acquainted with them while researching his papers. I was unable to say in the draft written for official approval that I was also appalled by other ideas which he expressed frequently and emphatically.
I state my dissenting biases now…[this is followed by a two long paragraphs where Quinn lists the many, many things which he disagreed with Clark on.]
Many more examples could be given, including how it plays out when discussing specific themes rather than individuals. However, these should be enough to (hopefully) generate discussion. Do you find it necessary to “declare [your] allegiance” when writing about controversial matters?
Personally, I probably agree with most of you in saying that pure objectivity is a myth, and therefore we have to draw our lines somewhere. Choosing what kind of “type” your subject will be seems to be a necessary part of the biographer’s craft. However, what are the ethical boundaries—both concerning historical and moral/religious values?
 Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).
 Ibid, xvi.
 Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), viii.
 Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), xix, xxi. Bushman would later somewhat regret not taking a more defined “believer’s” perspective in the biography:
Instead of trying to keep the reader and myself in the same place, creating a common point of view amenable to believer and non-believer alike, I could have taken on the role of guide to a Mormon perspective on the Mormon prophet, acknowledging the differences and saying, This is how we look at it. The point of persuasion would be to show the benefits of examining Joseph from a believer’s perspective. What can you learn by looking at him through believing eyes that might be lost if you begin with the assumption he had to be a fraud?…Once again, candor is the best policy. Why didn’t I see that earlier? Live and learn.” Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 116-117.
 D. Michael Quinn, Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), xi. It should be noted in Quinn’s defense that he did offer this following remark:
From the outset, however, my scholarly perceptions and personal opinions were NOT the emphasis in this biography. I did not regard it as the historian’s role to tell readers what to think or what value judgments to make. Nor did I regard it as honest for a biographer to quote his protagonist only when he agreed with his statements or actions. Nor is it appropriate for an author to argue against ideas expressed by the protagonist or to ignore instances where he expressed views that seemed contradictory or when he acted in ways that seemed to contradict previously expressed views.” (xi-xii)
 For example, Compton’s introduction to his book on Joseph Smith’s plural wives includes this disclaimer: “…my central thesis is that Mormon polygamy was characterized by a tragic ambiguity…day-to-day practical polygamous living, for many women, was less than monogamous marriage—it was a social system that simply did not work in nineteenth century America.” Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), xiii.
 “Upon completion of his study of Charles Francis Adams, Martin Duberman noted that biographers ultimately must decide whether their subject tends toward the heroic or the craven, that being the nature of biographical study.” Peter Field, “Review of American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism,” H-Net Reviews.