Many media outlets have been aflutter the recent story about the amateur historian, Thomas Lowry, who confessed to altering the date of a presidential pardon for a Union soldier named Patrick Murphy penned by Abraham Lincoln. Using a fountain pen smuggled into the National Archives, Lowry changed April 14, 1864 into April 14, 1865 transforming a routine pardon for a Civil War deserter into Lincoln’s last official act before his assassination at Ford’s Theater later that night.
More importantly, this act turned him into the discoverer of a significant historical document, which earned him some, but probably not all the publicity that he desired. On February 26, 1998, Lowry was on Bob Edward’s Morning Edition talking about his recent discovery. The pardon in question was also featured in an exhibit at the National Archives. According to a Monday press release by the National Archives, Lowry cited his 1998 handiwork in his book, Don’t Shoot That Boy: Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice that hit the shelves in 1999.
All this recent media coverage has exposed the public (if only briefly) to the power that archival records possess. Lowry’s misbehavior ultimately demonstrates the fragility of the documentary record. Changing one number in a document can have significant effects on the way we understand history. On a much smaller scale, think of the possible effects of a similar alteration of your own records and how future relatives would understand your life. (After I wrote the last line my mind automatically drifted to time-traveling science fiction movies like Back to the Future where someone changes the past thus altering the future, for better or worse.)
This story also illustrates nature of the study of history. History is neither static nor the result of absolute consensus. Sources (like Murphy’s pardon) are constantly being revisited and reassessed. Granted, most source material does not usually change, but interpretations of that source material certainly do. If everyone agreed on one historical interpretation, history would be a pretty boring profession with few historians and even fewer books and articles. Revisiting the sources from the past is part of what historians do, changing them, however, is not.
More than what it suggests about the nature of history, historians, and the documentary record, this story illustrates that the urge for discovery in archives is extremely strong. The thrill of the hunt and the glory of the find are part and parcel of archival research. Without encouraging precocity, archivists usually try to cultivate this urge among the general public. It’s one of the selling points of doing archival research and working with primary sources. The idea of historical treasures and discovery (and helping others discover) probably helped many of us get into the profession in the first place. In this particular case, however, the urge overwhelmed Lowry, driving him to alter the pardon and rewrite history for his own gain. Luckily, this type of thing doesn’t happen too often.
Though a review of Lowry’s 1999 book on the website CivilWar.org reads as laughable in light of recent events, it accurately captures the sentimentality that researchers often possess about archival material.
“One can imagine their awe as they touched the papers Lincoln touched, and discovered Lincoln’s words exactly as he left them over 130 years ago; as notes in the margins of bureaucratic forms, some written hurriedly, some firmly and boldly. The role of amateur historians cannot be underestimated. After discovering these 543 original Lincoln notations, the Lowrys aren’t amateurs any more.”
One of the questions asked of Archivist of the United States David Ferriero in a recent live web discussion on the Washington Post’s website was why Lowry was given access to “priceless” documents. Ferriero’s response that these documents are available to everyone (baring any preservation concerns) probably surprised many readers.
The final point brought out by this story is how the archival profession has been portrayed. I’m happy that the media hasn’t focused on issues of security, shifting the blame to the National Archives for their lack of security in a time without security cameras. Quite to the contrary, archivist Trevor Plante has assumed the role of the hero in this story by cracking the case and triggering the investigation. The Washington Post reports that Plante found a book published by Roy P. Basler in the 1950s that reprinted the same pardon of Murphy with the original April 14, 1864 date.
So what’s the net effect of Lowry’s act? Unfortunately, the statute of limitations has passed for charging him with a crime. He will be banned from the National Archives. Lowry’s books might fly off the shelves or just languish and collect dust (he actually has a new book set for release next week, so we won’t have to wait long to find out the result). Chances are he’ll still continue to write. I’ve seen comments (where I completely forget) that asked whether they should remove his books from library shelves. That seems a bit much, but a healthy skepticism to anything he has written or writes is probably apt.
Murphy’s pardon will permanently bear the mark of Lowry’s mischief. The National Archives should exploit this incident and turn it into an educational opportunity. The question and answer session mentioned though brief (30 minutes) was extremely helpful in dispelling some myths about archives and informing the public. He fielded common questions about security cameras and the question that archivists get a lot: “why can’t you digitize everything?” Clearly, Ferriero took an active role in crafting this story and did it very well. Even beyond the end of this news cycle, there is an opportunity to exploit this incident to teach the public about archives and history. It could be an opportunity to create a new exhibit about forgeries and tampering with historical records at the National Archives.