Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Because There Is No Statute Of Limitations On Truth

You may have missed this piece in the Washington Post yesterday about the historian accused of altering a document signed by President Abraham Lincoln. I work in an archive and I know that among historians and archivists, altering historic documents is just plain wrong. After all,

The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. (Luke 16:10)

The document in question was that of a Presidential pardon for a Union soldier who had been court-martialed and sentenced to be executed for desertion. The accused historian is Thomas P. Lowry, M.D., a psychiatrist by trade and an amateur historian who "discovered" this document 13 years ago while on a visit to the National Archives in Washington D.C.

Dr. Lowry, for a reason that only he knows, altered the document so that the date would read 1865 instead of 1864. He has admitted this, but he can't be prosecuted. The statute of limitations for his crime is only 5 years, and that has long passed by. As the Washington Post article explains, Dr. Lowry became famous for the find of this last charitable act President Lincoln accomplished before he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. You can read the Post article for yourself and watch the video on YouTube (see below) as well.

After this "find", Dr. Lowry proceeded to write a bunch of books about the Civil War, all mostly from the seamier side of the event. After all, as any Madison Avenue executive will attest to, "sex sells." Check out the titles,

Love and Lust: Private and Amorous Letters of the Civil War- Thomas P. Lowry

Sexual Misbehavior in the Civil War- Thomas P. Lowry

Curmudgeons, Drunkards, and Outright Fools: The Courts-Martial of Civil War Union Colonels- Thomas P. Lowry

Tarnished Eagles: The Court-Martial of Fifty Union Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels- Thomas P. Lowry

Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition- Thomas P. Lowry

The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War- Thomas P. Lowry

Tarnished Scalpels: The Court-Martial’s of Fifty Union Surgeons- Thomas P. Lowry

The Civil War Bawdy Houses of Washington, D.C.: Including a Map of Their Former Locations and a Reprint of the Souvenir Sporting Guide for the Chicago, Illinois, G.A.R. 1895, Reunion- Thomas P. Hardy

Utterly Worthless: One Thousand Delinquent Union Officers Unworthy of a Court-Martial- Thomas P. Lowry

Confederate Heroines: 120 Southern Women Convicted by Union Military Justice- Thomas P. Lowry

The Attack on Taranto: Blueprint for Pearl Harbor- Thomas P. Lowry

The Clitoris- Thomas P. Lowry

The last book on this list possibly was his first effort, prior to the "find," and was published back in 1976. A catchy title.

The outrage of this act, the changing of a "4" into a "5" has produced over 120 comments on the article at the Post. Comments such as,

the issue for historians is the duty we have to be ethical and beyond reproach when we access and utilize archival a moment of ethical weakness he altered a historical document for personal gain.

And this one from my own place of employment,

Here's a story of a noted researcher who changed an important Lincoln document at the National Archives to make it more historically significant so he could advance his career. Now, everything he has done must be called into doubt and his reputation is ruined.

And as one of my friends opined,

Tampering with history is something I'll never understand. It's like desecrating something sacred.

Which is exactly why am I writing about this. Because the bottom-line is we, as people, don't trust those of us who alter historical documents to serve their own purposes. We know that this is just flat wrong. Which is why when I found out that Martin Luther added the word "alone" after "faith" in his German translation of Romans 3:28, my "this guy is a stinker" alarm went off.

Good news though! Even Martin Luther didn't change the original manuscripts of the Sacred Scriptures, because he was working off a copy anyway. But still, a guy who adds a word, or two to his translation to make a point is someone I'm leery of. Especially when he also physically removes seven (7!) books from the Canon of Holy Scriptures altogether. The Canon had stood sacrosanct for over 1100 years before he decided to remove a few documents. In an archive, just like anywhere else, that is stealing. Even the original King James Version of the Bible contained the books Luther eventually removed.

Again, I’m not saying I’m perfect (Heaven knows I’m not) but I’m definitely not lining up behind the guy who added words and pitched books from the Bible that didn’t meet his own specifications either. You may say, "So what if these books had been in the Canon and had even been in the Jewish Canon when Christ pitched His tent among us. So what! Luther ain’t Lowry, and Lowry ain’t Luther."

Well often times, actions speak louder than words, don't they? And sometimes people with underlying motives in a hurry cut corners, or fabricate things in order to push their own agenda. Charles Péguy said it well when he stated,

He who does not bellow the truth when he knows the truth makes himself the accomplice of liars and forgers.

Good advice, that. Thankfully, there is no statute of limitations on truth.