Falsifying the Historical Record: Thomas P. Lowry

Back in 1985 I visited the Illinois State Historical Library, then located in the basement of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois.  I was doing research on my dissertation.  There, in a back room, combing through documents related to Ulysses S. Grant, I came upon a letter from Robert E. Lee to Grant, dated June 13, 1865.  Lee was writing Grant to inquire as to whether the terms he had signed at Appomattox protected him from being prosecuted for treason: he had just learned that he had been indicted for treason by a grand jury sitting at Norfolk, Virginia.  He enclosed a request for pardon in compliance with President Andrew Johnson’s proclamation of May 29, 1865.  Grant endorsed the letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, declaring that the Appomattox terms protected Lee from prosecution, adding that Abraham Lincoln had approved the terms.

This document is a treasure.  It was part of a critical moment in the restoration of peace in 1865.  It showed Grant, as a man of his word, looking to protect Lee from prosecution to preserve the peace just won.  Moreover, it is one of the few pieces of paper in existence signed by both Grant and Lee.   The Appomattox terms were an exchange of letters, not a commonly-drafted or signed document.  And I was privileged enough to be looking directly at the document itself (with the usual protections in place … archives have procedures to protect their documents … although, as we’re about to see, they don’t always work).

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Lincoln and the Corwin Amendment

In the great secession winter of 1860-61, many members of Congress worked to frame compromise proposals which they hoped would save the union and forestall or short-circuit secession, much as there had been other compromise efforts before.  One product of these discussions was a set of six proposals collectively known as the Crittenden Compromise.  Each of those proposals addressed slavery in some way, but the compromise failed to gain sufficient support to be passed.  Not so with another, far simpler proposal offered by Ohio congressman Thomas Corwin.  The wording of the proposed amendment was to the point:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.

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