The Historical Methodology of John Tracy Ellis
Gollar, C. Walker, The Catholic Historical Review
John Tracy Ellis, the dean of American Catholic historians of the mid- to late-twentieth century, never published a treatise on historical methodology, but did write about the subject when faced with the most difficult challenge of his academic career. In 1960, David Francis Sweeney, Ellis's student at The Catholic University of America, unearthed allegations that John Lancaster Spalding, bishop of Peoria, had conducted a sexual affair for nearly twenty years. In numerous letters, Ellis and Sweeney agonized about how to handle this information. Neither Ellis nor Sweeney believed the accusation was true, but both recognized that it had influenced Spalding's career, which was the focus of Sweeney's dissertation. Ellis concluded that Spalding's story should not be told in full, yet set the stage for future historians not only to revisit Spalding's career but also to explore Ellis's deliberations, and thus to reconsider what he routinely had encouraged-telling the whole truth.
Keywords: Ellis, Monsignor John Tracy; Spalding, Bishop John Lancaster; Sweeney, David Francis, O.F.M.
In spring 1950 John Tracy Ellis met David Francis Sweeney. A fortyfour-year-old priest from the Diocese of Winona, Minnesota, Ellis had been teaching American Catholic history for about eight years at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. A twenty-eightyear-old Franciscan priest, Sweeney had just completed his MA in library science from Holy Name College in Washington, DC, and was working at the reference desk at Catholic University's Mullen Library. Ellis encouraged Sweeney to enroll in Catholic University's doctoral program in church history. That summer Sweeney sent a copy of his master's thesis, "A Survey of Catholic Americana and Catholic Book Publishing in the United States, 1831-1840," to Ellis. The attached cover letter was the first of more than 300 pieces of correspondence that these men would exchange over the next forty years.
Sweeney began doctoral studies in fall 1950 under Ellis's direction. By the time of Sweeney's graduation, Ellis had become, as he is now widely acclaimed to be, the dean of American Catholic historians of the mid- to late-twentieth century. Ellis certainly was a prolific writer and a popular speaker. Above and beyond his many publications, however, Ellis's fundamental approach to history might be better revealed in his private correspondence. The vast majority of the Ellis-Sweeney letters wrestled with what Ellis called the most difficult challenge of his academic career - namely, the treatment of some delicate material that Sweeney had unearthed concerning the life of John Lancaster Spalding, bishop of Peoria. This article is not primarily about Spalding or that delicate material, but focuses instead on the deliberations around that delicate material. Especially when situated amidst the broader context of Ellis's career, these deliberations reveal how one extremely prominent and influential historian approached history.1
Spalding, Peoria's first bishop, inspired Ellis from an early age. Spalding suffered a career-ending stroke in August 1905 and passed away in 1916. Born on July 30, 1905, in Seneca, located in the Diocese of Peoria, Ellis never saw Spalding in person. Yet Ellis's mother, who had been confirmed by Spalding, commonly spoke of him, as did many neighbors of the Ellis family. Spalding also was widely acclaimed at St. Viator's Academy and College in nearby Bourbonnais, Illinois. Ellis studied there from 1921 to 1927. Ellis learned more about Spalding at Catholic University, which granted Ellis a PhD in medieval history in 1930. Ellis then taught briefly at St. Viator's College before he took a position in 1932 at the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minnesota.
Although busy teaching various courses at the College of St.Teresa, Ellis published one short yet significant article at this time that revealed his early approach to history. While other Catholics, including Pope Pius XI, were commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIITs 1891 social encyclical, Ellis in late 1933 also drew attention to "Another Anniversary. …