7 thoughts on “Post Mortems on the Lincoln Pardon Controversy

  1. Daniel W. Stowell February 1, 2011 / 9:46 am

    I could not agree more with Sean Trainor’s post. I reviewed Lowry’s Don’t Shoot That Boy! for Civil War History in 2000. I was impressed with the quantity of research Lowry had done, but I was critical of his decision to write the book without having reviewed all of the files, his odd organization of materials, and his failure to offer any comparisons to the pardoning patterns of Jefferson Davis in the Confederacy or James K. Polk in America’s most recent war. I have lost no sleep over my “failure” to check the validity of his assertions regarding the Murphy pardon, which occupies one paragraph (about half a page) in 278 pages of text. Lowry cites more than 500 pardon files, all from RG 153. I did not check any of them to make certain he got the details right.
    Critics might argue that because of the importance of the alleged date of Murphy’s pardon, a reviewer might be more careful, but this argument reflects a misunderstanding of a reviewer’s role. As Trainor suggests, fellow historians review the arguments and persuasiveness of a particular author’s work; they do not fact-check it. The only reasons I would have to go back to the original source on the Murphy pardon are if I were conducting research on Murphy himself or if I were conducting a minute examination of every piece of paper Lincoln touched on his last day alive.
    In my view, this whole episode does not reflect a failure on the part of the historical profession nor, I would argue, on the part of the National Archives. It reflects a failure of moral judgment on the part of a single researcher.
    Although I have had occasion to disagree with policies at the National Archives and to be critical of them, I find most criticisms over the past week to be gratuitous sniping rather than constructive criticism.

    Let me add two pieces of information for those who hold out hope that Lowry did not alter the document and that perhaps even Lincoln changed the date. First, my colleagues working at the National Archives tell me that another researcher has examined Murphy’s compiled service record and that it includes no mention of his court-martial or pardon. Second, another colleague working at Archives II has pulled a register of pardon actions by the president from RG 130: Records of the White House. There is an entry for Patrick Murphy, and he was indeed pardoned and discharged by President Lincoln on April 14, 1864.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 1, 2011 / 10:52 am

      I think the NARA remains open to criticism in two areas. First, there was a failure to authenticate the document. If you’re going to make the claim that it’s a new document, you owe it to everyone to check at least the Collected Works first. Second, the claim that Lowry’s “find” immediately became part of Civil War lore, known by everyone, and incorporated across the board in historical accounts, is demonstrably false and misleading. That, in turn, fed into the ridiculous “shame on all of us” cry last week, about which I’ve already had my say.

      As for what else I’ve heard and read, from an implicit endorsement of the Lowrys’ unconvincing retraction to various observations about policy and practices, I’d attribute that to the wisdom of hindsight. It’s easy to find fault with a process once you know what you’re looking for.

  2. Daniel W. Stowell February 1, 2011 / 9:55 am

    P.S. I cannot help but smile at the irony of the last sentence of Lowry’s description of the Murphy pardon in Don’t Shoot That Boy!: “Fame comes to men in many strange ways.”

  3. Bob Huddleston February 1, 2011 / 10:49 am

    One problem is that most historians are not archivists. I had lunch the other day with a friend who is a retired dealer in Civil War stuff, from guns and swords to letters and documents. We started talking about Lowry. Bob is not involved in blogs, etc. Heavens, he has a dial up internet connection! He said when he saw an article in the Denver Post on Lowry, he did go on line and take a look. His immediate comment: I have seen and handled enough CW paper that the “5” jumped right out. Obviously it was altered! Bob could not write a review on the book but David would not have caught the fraud, even if he saw the original. Two different jobs: David is paid to know history and Bob was paid to make certain that documents were not forged.

  4. Matt McKeon February 1, 2011 / 1:00 pm

    That’s a weakness in the historical review process. The outright fraud can slide by for years, because while reviewers engage the arguments, they don’t replicate the research. David Irving’s reputation was not mortally damaged until someone paid a professional to check his sources.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 1, 2011 / 1:11 pm

      Were the review process to incorporate that level of source checking, very little would be published and the cost of such publications would be astronomical.

      The fact is that when something doesn’t sound right or sounds remarkably different, someone usually does do a little poking around to check the source. But in most cases that’s not known until publication, and even in the refereeing process I’ve had advice ignored by author and publisher (to their later regret).

      I maintain that in this case, those people who heard about Lowry’s claim trusted the NARA. Many people didn’t hear about it, and others paid no attention to it, because it really didn’t change anything. That’s why the ramifications of this are rather large … because of what people think should have happened. It really doesn’t help when the NARA continues to exaggerate the impact of the “find” upon scholarship, and when a leading Lincoln scholar goes way overboard (one wonders whether that was one way of obscuring who indeed did embrace Lowry by implying that everyone did). That’s one reason I was so unhappy about the story … because I had an inkling of how the discussions would develop, with many participants much wiser after the fact.

  5. Sean Trainor February 7, 2011 / 9:55 am

    I’m glad you liked my post; thanks for the link!
    -ST

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