Monday, January 24, 2011

National Archives Reveals Altered Lincoln Document

Today, the National Archives announced that it had determined one of the signed Abraham Lincoln items in its collection, a pardon for Private Patrick Murphy (which appears above), had been physically altered. One digit in the original written date was altered, so that Lincoln's endorsement of April 14, 1864 appeared to be signed on April 14, 1865 (closeup below). This implied that the pardon was granted on the day Lincoln was shot, making it one of his final acts in office.

While Lincoln's frequent use of pardons and amnesty to prevent many soldiers from being executed is well documented, the image of Lincoln sparing the life of a poor soldier -- who likely would have been executed by firing squad -- on the very day that Lincoln himself would fall victim to an assassin's bullet is filled with irony and pathos.

The storytelling potential -- and the economic benefit of publishing the story -- appear to be the motive for the alteration. The National Archives announced that Thomas Lowry, who authored a book on Lincoln and cases of military justice featuring this story of an April 14, 1865 pardon of Murphy, has confessed to altering the document with a pen he smuggled into the National Archives during his research. (Lowry is evidently claiming, through newspaper reports, that the confession was given under duress, though the image of National Archives investigators using oppressive techniques to obtain a confession for a crime which cannot be charged seems rather incredible -- the statute of limitations has expired on this crime.)

The news seems to be prompting national attention, with full stories already by The New York Times and The Washington Post (and probably others). It also has been appearing on other blogs, including Kevin Levin's popular Civil War History and The Abraham Lincoln Blog. Across all of them, the tone is one of outrage -- on a spectrum from veiled to blatant -- at Lowry's alleged act. In addition, there is a sense that a false history has been corrected, with a "too good to be true" tale of one final pardon being disproved after over a decade.

Craig Symonds, who won the Lincoln Prize for his book Lincoln and His Admirals, rightly implies in The New York Times that this change is unimportant, given the overwhelming evidence of Lincoln's involvement in granting such pardons. One could go further and state the obvious -- Lincoln still issued this pardon while President, meaning that the only value that has been changed is not historical, but emotional. Lincoln's final day is still filled with plenty of emotional moments -- breakfast with his full family, interactions with many of his favorite staff, a carriage ride with his wife. It also has the issue of pardon and amnesty, given that reconstruction was almost certainly discussed at that day's meeting of the Cabinet.

I find the story unsettling, though in different ways than the initial reports. In a country where many primary source documents are available for viewing by anyone who requests such a privilege, it seems likely that this breach of trust occurs more than we'd like to imagine. If a crude alteration can escape notice for a period of years, what if a skillful forger were involved? Should most of our primary source documents be more suspect?

This signature could have been discovered much sooner if anyone had thought to consult The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which has annotated transcriptions of most of Lincoln's writings, including almost all of it in the National Archives and Library of Congress. All of the documents are listed chronologically in the Collected Works, so it would have taken a sharp eye to find this specific endorsement, dated April 14, 1864 "To Joseph Holt." Still, someone should have asked the obvious question -- how was this document missed by editor Roy Basler and his team? This question should have raised a red flag, which would have brought closer physical inspection of the document itself. (In recent years, the Collected Works have been fully searchable online, which would have made such cross-checking even quicker, especially given that Pvt. Murphy's name is mentioned in the annotation.)

More troubling is the implicit slur against Lowry's professional standing, or lack thereof, perhaps as a means to explain how this action could occur. Lowry is referred to as an "amateur historian" in both the Post and the Times -- the National Archives refers to him as "a long-time Lincoln researcher." An "amateur historian" is suspect, given that they do not have the academic credentials, or reputation, to back up their research.

In the video embedded in the National Archives' press release, there is a more subtle indictment of Lowry. Trevor Plante, the Acting Chief of Reference at the National Archives, who is credited with raising questions about the pronounced "5" in the document's date, says in an interview, "It's very galling and upsetting to me, as a trained historian, that someone would change a document..." [emphasis mine].

Is it too flippant to admit that I find that comment galling, along with the innuendo in the news articles? Given that the history of the field of history is heavily reliant on non-academically trained historians, the implication that the actions and findings of such "amateur historians" are suspect is ridiculous. (As is the term "amateur historians," given that large numbers of such authors were paid for their writing.) Academic training has little bearing on whether someone is willing to commit forgery or to desecrate an historical artifact -- though one could argue that such training may influence whether the perpetrator of fraud will be caught.

There is no plausible defense for the likely partial destruction of this document (the National Archives says it will attempt to restore the original "4" of the date). But I find it more troubling that trained historians failed to identify the forgery sooner, given their presumed expertise in dealing with primary documents (still as much art as science) and the professional encouragement for peer review and cross referencing. (A questioning of the guild of historians, especially Lincoln historians, will have to wait for another day, except to note that there is occasional evidence that even "trained historians" take shortcuts in completing their work.)

This critique of the professional historical community is not merely an idle act of poking fun -- after all, I could likely be included in such a community given my collegiate and graduate education. This incident -- and others like it -- reminds us of the need for all historians to be critical, even when dealing with documents that are presumed to be authentic originals. As another Lincoln Prize winner, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, proved in her book Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, the wealth of information in primary documents must be contextualized to be understood and appreciated. The context for the pardon, such as the fact that army records should have indicated Lincoln's decision, or even the general observation that Lincoln usually went through several military capital cases at a time, meaning that there should be decisions in multiple such cases on the date of any granted pardon, seems to have been overlooked, or even ignored.

Ignoring context, skipping over cross-referencing, forgetting to be curious whenever a story seems too good to be true -- these are greater threats to historical accuracy than someone sneaking an ink pen into a repository of documents. Bad history began with an unfortunate hoax and a forgery, but it was perpetuated by others who failed to ask the right questions -- and it was unchecked until someone asked the right question.