Thursday, January 27, 2011

What Kind of Fallout?

It is hardly news any more that author Thomas Lowry has admitted, and then recanted, that he lied about discovering an Abraham Lincoln pardon after having changed the date on the document himself. By changing the year on the pardon he made it seem as if the pardon were written on the day of Lincoln's assassination. All of this was done not on a fake document but on a holding of the National Archives. Bloggers everywhere have been commenting on this. Some of the most thorough that I have seen belong to Brooks Simpson at Crossroads and also to Harry Smeltzer at Bull Runnings where there is a great, and somewhat heated at times, exchange between Brooks and Harry. On these blogs you'll find links to others if you are so inclined.

Who's to blame? Well, it sure looks bad for the Lowry's. If you read through the National Archives press release it would be hard to find otherwise. As far as prosecution goes the statute of limitations has expired so Lowry is off the hook. Legally that is. His reputation is shot and he has been barred from all NARA facilities. As far as book sales, well we'll have to see.

The main issues on this are to be debated by men and women smarter and more involved than myself. I have large concerns about this though that I haven't really seen addressed though please let me know if I have missed this elsewhere. What will episodes like this do to those of us who are not scholars, academics, or grad students with reference letters from professionals? If a well known (at least to many NARA employees) researcher can manage to sneak a fountain pen in against all rules and damage an Abraham Lincoln document what do they think a small time blogger who hasn't published anything might try to do. Will damage such as this cause NARA to rethink it's policies regarding archive usage? And what of the thousands of other repositories, whether a state archive, a local historical society or what have you? Will they take this as a sign that they need to tighten access? Sure, your local county historical society is unlikely to have a Presidential pardon signed by Abraham Lincoln but what they do have is just as priceless and important to them.

Let's hope this concern is all for naught. In many ways it probably is. Once the furor of this dies down, and it will, historical research will go on. While there may always be a bad seed, whether it be a forger, plagiarist, or scoundrel looking to get his name in lights, the large amount of historians out there are good people who would no more think of changing the date on an Abraham Lincoln pardon than they would hitting themselves with a hammer. Most historians want to present the truth though we may not always agree with their interpretation. Let's just hope this one bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch for historians.

1 comment:

  1. The seem like fair comments to me, but I would suspect there may be more strict security measures and some documents might be replaced with scanned copies (like the Murphy pardon going forward - no one will get to hold the original again)

    If this incident can help other depositories make their treasures more secure, then that's not altogether bad even if it causes some more inconvenience to those trying to access these documents.