The Limits of History

As a historian of people who left very little written record behind, I know the frustration that comes with depending mainly on the written word to make sense of the past.  We use other things than the written word to create a full picture of the past: images and archeological finds come to mind.  But above all, we use text.  This is the great limit of history – it can be discovered where it was recorded in words.

That is why historians and archivists flip their lid when they see or hear about stories like this:

Just hours before Abraham Lincoln “put on his hat and headed for Ford’s Theater,” on April 14, 1865, the president is said to have spared a mentally incompetent Army private the death penalty for desertion.

The legendary act of compassion was revealed by Thomas Lowry, an amateur historian, who said he found the pardon among hundreds of untapped Lincoln documents in the National Archives in 1998 and described it in a book the following year. His discovery was hailed by scholars as one of the biggest findings of Lincoln memorabilia in the 20th century.

But on Monday, the National Archives disclosed that Dr. Lowry had altered the date on the original pardon to promote his book, changing the year to 1865 from 1864, possibly to make it look as if the pardon was one of the president’s final acts — and thus historic. […]

“He indicated that he snuck a pen in — a Pelikan pen — and he marked the document and changed the date for the simple reason of getting some notoriety,” said Mitchell Yockelson, an investigator for the National Archives.

Dr. Lowry insisted in an interview Monday that the alteration was not his doing.

“It’s against my code of ethics,” he said. “I got leaned on for two hours with a mixture of pressure and false promises. While they weren’t driving splinters under my fingernails, they said I wouldn’t hear from them again.”

Well, he has gone from famous to infamous.  He’ll be remembered, that is for sure.

There just isn’t that much stuff left behind, even when we are talking about big important white dudes.  Yes, when writing a dissertation, it feels like there are unending documents.  But in truth, it is a finite number.  There is very little on which to construct our knowledge of the past.  So, please, don’t go around messing up what we do have and then lying about it.  Sheesh.

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