Asking Questions of the National Archives

Yesterday in Bull Runnings Harry Smeltzer shared some of his thoughts about the evolution of the Lowry affair and its implications.  Reminding readers that he had once been a corporate internal auditor, he added that he conceived of his job as “one who wants to find out how an act can in the first place be committed and in the second go undetected” (I’m sure there’s a word or two missing here that Harry would put in upon revision, but I’m quoting, and I understand his message).  He then described how he had contacted various friends who were (or had been) associated with the National Archives (NARA) in one way or another over the years.  How did someone sneak a pen into the Archives?  Was it because the Lowrys had gained people’s trust, and so they were not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as would someone just coming in the Archives for the first time?  And why did the Archives announce the “find” in 1998 with a press release, and then highlight the document in years to come, only now to ask questions about it?

It is the last question that interests me (and other people I know who are highly respected in the world of Lincoln scholarship and documents are also interested).  After all, items such as pens escape detection all the time, and that’s not because the pen’s possessor was trying to pull a fast one.  Long before events of the past decade led to heightened security efforts, one passed through several security checkpoints during a visit to the research facilities of both the National Archives and the Library of Congress’s Manuscripts Room, including entry and exit checks at the main entrance and additional measures in rooms where one read documents.  So I’m familiar with the level of security practiced by the National Archives at the time of this incident.  I’m sure that new measures are being considered or being put in place to deal with what happened in terms of researchers handling documents to ensure they are not misused, altered, or stolen.  Moreover, one can well understand how NARA staff would have trusted long-time researchers who were frequently present such as the Lowrys.  They had no reason to suspect otherwise.  So none of that really troubles me as someone who’s done his share of archival research and who’s done research in the National Archives (including access to the stacks during my time in documentary editing).

It is the way that NARA staff authenticated the “discovery” in 1998 that bothers me a great deal.  Much of what followed can be explained in part by the trust scholars place in the National Archives.  Here’s what Harry Smeltzer concluded:

Also, as trusted researchers, when they [the Lowrys] declared their discovery it was taken at face value – NARA likely didn’t feel the need to verify prior to making the announcement of what some there believed a major find.  That a trusted researcher might tamper with a document signed by Lincoln, a sacred document, may have been unthinkable.  Perhaps precedent also came into play – no other Civil War document alteration has come to light at NARA in 150 years.

The National Archives was established in 1934, so one can’t hold it accountable for what might have happened to records before that date.  But one need not have suspected tampering in order to authenticate a document.  One should authenticate it as a matter of course.  Historians, archivists, and documentary editors all do that (just as we are asked to weigh in on the authenticity of quotes, for example, something we’ll be discussing soon).  Indeed, there is much overlap between the skills of historians, archivists, and documentary editors, and I’ve served in all three capacities during my professional life (recall this post?).  What would have been the easiest way in 1998 to authenticate the find of a new Lincoln document?  You would think the first place one would have gone would have been the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler and company, and published forty-five years before the Lowrys made their “discovery.”  Now, one would not have found the endorsement in the last volume, covering the last months of Lincoln’s life, but one would have found Patrick Murphy’s name in the index to the Collected Works, and that would have directed the researcher to its proper date … April 14, 1864.

And that’s where this should have ended.  This was no new document at all.  Investigators then could have pursued the problem of the date on the document, and the story would have unfolded along that path.

Clearly the NARA did not exercise due diligence here.  Instead, it issued a press release drawing attention to a find it did not verify or authenticate.  For all of the attention directed toward the Lowrys or toward Lincoln scholars or whomever, one comes back, time and again, to the conclusion that the NARA’s practice (and perhaps its procedures) contributed significantly to what happened.  Yet I don’t see a lot of interest in looking more closely at what the NARA did in 1998.  Instead, on Monday the NARA presented another release, showing how personnel at the NARA, including archivist Trevor Plante, uncovered a fraud … with little emphasis on how the NARA bears some of the responsibility for presenting the fraud as authentic.

I also confess to remaining puzzled as to why the NARA was interested in how many people pulled the file in question subsequent to the Lowrys’ “discovery.”  As the report in the Washington Post put it,  “Since his discovery, few other researchers had signed out the pardon, they said.”  How would that have any bearing on the matter?  What I would want to know is whether there are any records of who accessed the files between the time Basler’s team examined them and the time when the Lowrys reported their “discovery.”

Sometimes it’s not enough to ask questions: it’s important to ask the right ones, and to figure out the right questions to ask in the first place.

The Lowrys have raised other questions about the behavior of National Archives personnel.  I don’t happen to think their allegations hold water, but those people who have expressed faith in the Lowrys’ version of events are implicitly agreeing with their allegations, which should be taken quite seriously.  While I am questioning matters of procedure and practice, their charges point to corruption and cover up.  Maybe someone can explain to me how they can believe the Lowrys’ side of the story without agreeing with their allegations.

There are efforts underway to check the authenticity of documents related to Lincoln’s actions on April 14, 1865.  My own take is that Lincoln did pardon people that day, although not Patrick Murphy.  But I’ll await the outcome of these inquiries before offering a more informed opinion.  However, with what’s before me at present, the alteration of the Lincoln endorsement on the Murphy documents seems more and more unnecessary, and leads me to ask why someone would do this.  And let’s make this much clear: someone did.  You can believe Thomas Lowry’s confession, or you can believe his recanting of that confession.  All I ask is that you don’t stop there, because more questions remain to be answered.

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5 thoughts on “Asking Questions of the National Archives

  1. Good questions, and good catch on the math – no alteration of a similar CW document since NARA’s founding is correct.

    As a single incident, in the absence of another on the same day, Lowry’s motivation is apparent considering NARA’s resulting PR effort. But in the presence of another, presumably genuine pardon, it’s wacky. Unless he ran across it after the fact, which makes the act ironic indeed.

    • Harry, in light of our exchanges, I thought you would enjoy this:

      http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/26/a-blot-on-lincoln-historians/?src=fbcivilwar

      And my reply, which I’ve shared on the FB page of the blog in question:

      Harold Holzer would like all Lincoln scholars to take the blame. Actually, it’s worse: “The entire historical profession should be ashamed for heralding Dr. Lowry without doing a moment’s worth of due diligence.”

      That’s ridiculous. The entire historical profession did not herald Lowry’s work. I would have no problem in saying that those scholars who were aware of the Murphy claim and accepted it as true without question might have some explaining to do, and if that includes Harold Holzer as well as his friends Frank Williams and John Y. Simon (both of whom blurbed the work in question), then Harold Holzer’s welcome to speak about them.

      Name names, Harold. If you feel responsible, then speak for yourself. Address those groups who had Thomas Lowry as a speaker, and look for what they have to say. Don’t drag everyone else down with you — especially those who were unaware of this “find” until this week.

  2. Yes, I already updated my most recent Lowry post with a link to Holzer. And I also struck through the 150 years bit to correct it to 1934.
    Back to the pardon – I can’t imagine what went through Lowry’s head if after he changed the document (assuming he did) and it was publicized, he came across a genuine pardon on 4/14/64? Hollywood stuff.

  3. “Sometimes it’s not enough to ask questions: it’s important to ask the right ones, and to figure out the right questions to ask in the first place.”

    That’s probably the best statement I’ve seen on the various blogs/comment sections/other sites about this situation, and, really, about studying history and sharing thoughts or insight about it. For some reason, that line really stood out to me when I read it (though I’m sure I’ve seen it before) and I’ll have to keep that in mind from now on.

    Thanks

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