The Lincoln Pardon Fiasco: Lowry and the NARA

Here we are, over a month since the National Archives issued a press release that Dr. Thomas P. Lowry confessed to tampering with a Lincoln  document to make it appear that the president signed the document on April 14, 1865 … followed a day later by Lowry’s recanting the confession.  While others have weighed in on this issue in various ways, I prefer to focus on the behavior of the two principal actors, neither of whom seems willing to take the actions that would bring us closer to a resolution of the controversy and an understanding of what really happened.

Take the National Archives.  It had no problem putting out a polished press release, suitable for internet distribution (complete with video and images to distribute), and it was eager to make available the person credited with uncovering the tampering, archivist Trevor Plante.  Since then, aside from a newspaper report on the archives’ continuing efforts to “recover missing treasures,” prepared by one of the Washington Post reporters who reported on the original incident … nothing.  No comment.  No willingness to answer questions.  No explanation as to how this happened in the first place.  No response to Dr. Lowry’s February 8 statement (although he keeps on updating that statement, presenting something of a moving target).  No effort to produce the e-mail correspondence that Dr. Lowry claims does not exist.

I’m not impressed.  That the NARA, which was so eager to share its story so long as it controlled it, has now fallen silent suggests that for some reason the folks there don’t want to subject their own actions in this affair to any scrutiny.  One can but ask, why?  What do they have to fear from being as open now as they were then?

And then there’s Dr. Thomas P. Lowry.  He sought to augment his initial denial with a single-entry blog dated February 8, 2011, although he has added to it since then.  Let’s set aside the melodrama and misunderstanding of the legal process as well as his speculation about the motives of the NARA in acting as it did, because, frankly, those are distractions.  Let’s boil it down to what should concern us: his accusation that a federal agency entrusted with the care of the nation’s official government records lied and through coercion and deception extracted a false confession from a researcher.

What has Dr. Lowry done to clear his name?  Not much.  Oh, he’s taken a lie detector test, but I don’t give much weight to that, because the test was not administered by a neutral third party but his own handpicked tester.  You would think he’d put up those results on the web for all to see (he says he’ll e-mail them to you).  He claims to have had someone examine a document that’s already been pulled from circulation by the National Archives: without access to the document itself, those findings don’t impress me.  A small group of supporters have popped up on several blogs, but, for all their passion, they don’t offer any testimony that would sway anyone’s opinion (rather, we read variations of the same old rant).  Even when Dr. Lowry files a FOI request for the e-mails he insists don’t exist, he’s already claimed that if such e-mails are produced, they would be the result of even more tampering with the record.  Meanwhile, he doesn’t seem to want to answer any questions, especially ones raised here, although we all now know that he reads this blog.

I’m not impressed.  You would think that Dr. Lowry would do something more than depend on the very “blogging jackals” he derides to spread his story (that any bloggers link to his account contradicts his portrayal of them, because bloggers are the only people willing to publicize his account, something he seems unable to do otherwise).  After all, security measures at the National Archives have come under congressional scrutiny.  Surely the nation’s lawmakers would be interested in this tale (Senator Charles Grassley [R-Iowa] seems a likely contact, given his previous role in looking into security issues at the NARA and his request that the GAO investigate it).  And Dr. Lowry knows a well-known historian who has called him a “gifted scholar” and who highlights his contacts with people in high places, so why not approach that person and ask for help?  Surely that historian would want justice done, if for no other reason than because he lambasted the “entire historical profession” for being duped.

In short, Dr. Lowry to date seems unwilling to take the very actions which one would expect a wrongly accused man to take to clear his name and point the spotlight at a story of government corruption, malfeasance, and a cover-up.  Then again, he’s admitted to confessing to a crime he did not commit, so perhaps he employs a different logic to address his situation.

And there, dear readers, is where I propose to leave this mess, pending future developments.  Both principals have been accused of corrupt behavior, and neither seems willing to take any real steps to defend themselves.  The NARA seems intent on hoping this all goes away and that it doesn’t have to answer questions; Dr. Lowry’s defense inspires no confidence in his ability to advance his claims; the reporters who wrote on this story for several days have moved on.  [Want to contact the Washington Post reporters who have written on this story?  How about the New York Times reporter?  Now you can.]  One wonders what each side is unwilling to reveal, and what they have to hide (and if that seems unfair, just remember why someone can raise these questions in the first place … because of the failure of the principals on either side to take decisive steps to clear their name).

So long as these questions remain unanswered, you can be sure that neither party will again enjoy people’s complete trust.  In the case of Thomas P. Lowry, that’s a tragic story, one due in part to his own act in signing a confession he now retracts.  In the case of the NARA, that’s even more troubling, because it is a government agency that’s supposed to serve the public interest, not betray it.

5 thoughts on “The Lincoln Pardon Fiasco: Lowry and the NARA

  1. Dick Stanley March 1, 2011 / 5:17 am

    A government agency that’s betrayed the public interest? Heh. How novel.

  2. James F. Epperson March 1, 2011 / 8:50 am

    NARA’s embarrassment is obvious: They trumpeted the find and failed to do the obvious and check published materials (Basler). So there is much egg on their faces.

    • Tony Gunter March 1, 2011 / 9:02 am

      Actually, Lowry’s rebuttal gives NARA a little slack for this … Basler expressly excluded pardon documents from his compilation, so it’s a mystery why this particular pardon was included in Basler and there should have been no real expectation to find this pardon in Basler.

      • Brooks D. Simpson March 1, 2011 / 11:06 am

        Anyone claiming to find a “new” Lincoln document would first check that claim against the published record. That’s routine, standard operating procedure. The entire pardon was not included, just a calendered note summarizing it. Basler in his foreword said he would not include pardons “unless particular significance of content or circumstances seems to demand their presence” [volume one, page ix], and clearly the Murphy endorsement seems to have fallen under that category. You can debate whether Lowry should have understood that, but the NARA failed in exercising due diligence, and all the gnashing of teeth about what Lincoln scholars should or should not have known needs to be seen in light of the NARA’s certifying Lowry’s “find.”

  3. James F. Epperson March 1, 2011 / 12:32 pm

    Even if there was reason to suspect Basler would have no information,. NARA should have checked the soldier’s CSR to see what it said.

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