Well, it’s been just over a day since the news broke that the National Archives accused Thomas P. Lowry of altering a document in order to claim that Abraham Lincoln composed the endorsement on the day John Wilkes Booth shot him. Where are we now, and what have we learned?
First, Lowry claims that he’s innocent. He asserts that the confession he signed was coerced, and that NARA officials assured him that it would not be made public. His wife claims that a former NARA employee committed the act (said employee is unnamed in reports).
I don’t believe them.
Why would someone confess to committing a crime he did not commit, when confessing to that crime would strike at the heart of his professional credibility? Why would that person not seek legal representation and challenge the NARA, complete with specific charges about who committed the crime? Why would he not defend his reputation? And why would he not simply admit that upon further examination, his original claim was in error, and that it was due to someone else’s actions? Are we to believe that he signed the confession as part of a deal whereby his confession would not be publicized, and the statute of limitations had expired? That would not seem to be the course of action that a self-described “man of honor” would take.
Investigators contacted Lowry long before their recent visit to his house. As the story in the Washington Post puts it, “During the course of the e-mail correspondence, Lowry became more reticent, and they became more suspicious. Since his discovery, few other researchers had signed out the pardon, they said. They eventually decided to make an unannounced visit to Lowry’s home.” Of course, there’s something off about this as well, because one would want to identify who had signed out the pardon before Lowry’s “discovery” of an endorsement printed some 45 years previously in a standard reference source. And what is one to make of Beverly Lowry’s insistence that a NARA employee altered the endorsement? Here logic fails to support her case. After all, an employee could not have altered the date subsequent to the “discovery,” because otherwise there would have been no earth-shaking “discovery.” So the employee would have had to have made the change prior to the “discovery,” and, if Mrs. Lowry (and presumably her husband) knew that, why didn’t they go public, with Dr. Lowry retracting his claims? Is not Mrs. Lowry’s charge implicitly an admission of complicity in historical fraud?
Second, there have been some other statements that don’t quite stand scrutiny, including this remark by NARA archivist Trevor Plante, who challenged the authenticity of the date: “The story of this pardon has been told over and over for the past 13 years. It’s everywhere in Civil War history.” Not really. Neither Michael Burlingame’s recent biography of Lincoln nor William C. Harris’s study of Lincoln’s last months in office mention it. Lowry’s claim made it into the work of Edward Steers and Joshua Wolf Shenk, which is bad enough.
Third, we’ve have responses to the original post on this blog from Theodore Savas, who published the book in question, and Daniel W. Stowell, editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, and their comments are worth reading.
Fourth, we’ve had some commentary wondering out loud how this could have happened and why no one noticed until now. As I’ve suggested, not all scholars were aware of Lowry’s claims: we tend to forget that information traveled differently in 1998 than it does now. Nor are all scholars, even Lincoln scholars (however one comes by that definition) terribly interested in finding out more details of Lincoln’s last day on earth, especially when they don’t add to a story most of us already know (show me new information about the last cabinet meeting, for example; or remind me of my own use of Hamilton Fish’s diary to document Grant’s own displeasure with Mrs. Lincoln’s behavior on April 13, 1865, which contributed to his decision not to attend Ford’s Theater the following night, something not usually discussed prior to 1991 [Let Us Have Peace, p. 91]). Oddly enough, it’s the non-professional and non-academic historians who usually find such detail more compelling, so perhaps the question should be asked of them. Yes, I think the National Archives should have done some research when the “discovery” was first made in 1998. Yes, I think some of the people who identified themselves as devoted Lincoln scholars who paid attention to detail (and here I would include blurbers Frank J. Williams and the late John Y. Simon) should have given this more scrutiny, but it evaded their notice, much as it seems to have escaped the attention of people who bought Lowry’s books or heard him speak (and sometimes paid for the privilege). As for Ted Savas, I think it’s fair to say that a publisher trusts his author until told otherwise by other scholars, and so I see him as a victim in this process, betrayed by an author he trusted. How many of you had heard about this particular “discovery” before yesterday? (Yes, the news of the uncovering of endorsements by the Lowrys was more widely known, but I’m talking about this particular case involving Patrick Murphy.) Again, if you’re going to make accusations, name names.
Elsewhere in the blogosphere one sees traces of the usual finger-pointing and efforts by a few to drag this into the old arguments about who’s a historian, professionals versus non-professionals, and so on. The logic here seems faulty, and the dividing lines dubious. The first dividing line is not between professional and amateur historians (or however you want to craft your binary division), but between historians (of any stripe) who had heard Lowry make this particular claim and those who had not. The assertions made by some people that Lowry’s 1998 “discovery” was soon incorporated in scholarship all over the place or that it was a major find that revolutionized our understanding of Lincoln is simply hogwash. If it had gotten as much attention as some people claim it did, then the odds are that it would have been revealed as problematic rather quickly, if someone had taken an interest in the matter (which seems to me to be a key consideration). Instead, someone claimed to make a discovery, the NARA confirmed it (with a press release), and some scholars took Lowry (and the NARA) at their word. Other people simply didn’t hear about it or pay attention to it. The discrediting of the “discovery” has received far more attention than did the “discovery” itself. What I’ve seen in the last day is that some people are really smart after the fact … or at least they think they are. That’s why they call it hindsight.
Finally, to blast professional scholars for not poking away at Lowry’s findings seems to overlook the fact that an archivist did poke away at them. Lowry’s actions are reprehensible, but what’s ironic is that the people who found his findings compelling tended to be those folks who pay a lot of attention to the details of the life of Abraham Lincoln as opposed to the larger themes and significance of his life and times. After all, did Lowry’s “discovery” really change how anyone thought about or understood Lincoln? Really?
So let’s look ahead. Archives across the land will put in place even stricter measures to address these issues (it isn’t as if there weren’t security safeguards in place before). There will be discussions of the credibility of historians as a whole, of professional and academic historians, and of amateur historians, all of which promises to turn nasty and divisive so long as people want to use this event to grind an axe or take potshots. I find that almost as infuriating as Lowry’s act of dishonest deception and his convoluted denial, and I’ve already seen signs of it in certain quarters. Apparently the immediate denunciation of the act and a reminder that Lowry remains responsible for his own behavior (without drawing any insidious divisions among practicing historians) isn’t enough. In the future someone who doesn’t like what they read might simply suggest that maybe a historian has doctored the documents again, and pile that on top of plagiarism charges and so on. One bad apple may not spoil the whole bunch, but it doesn’t take too many such instances of malpractice to create a crisis of credibility.
Thomas P. Lowry’s actions have irreparably damaged his own career and reputation. What is left to be determined is whether the damage stops there.
UPDATE: 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.