This morning I lectured about Benjamin Butler and slave contraband in the comforts of my classroom in Charlottesville. By the middle of the afternoon I was walking around Fortress Monroe for the first time. Now I am ensconced in my comfortable hotel room getting ready to give a talk tomorrow morning. Before I do so, however, I’ve got a few thoughts to share about the Lowry scandal.
Thomas Lowry will now take his place on the wall of shame next to Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Bellesiles, and Joseph Ellis. [I highly recommend Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect for a thoughtful analysis of these recent examples of unethical behavior.] It’s an impressive list of some of the strangest transgressions in the field and yet there is something about Lowry’s deed that up til now I’ve had trouble coming to terms with. It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach that somehow won’t go away and that begs for explanation.
One the one hand the decision to alter the historical record makes little sense. As my wife pointed out to me yesterday, it’s not as if it changes anything we can claim to know about Lincoln’s attitude toward military justice. And even if the date was correct it’s not as if Lincoln knew that he would be dead by the next morning. It’s a cheap and meaningless thrill at best.
I actually have less trouble coming to terms (even sympathizing) with the list of characters mentioned above. Yes, they deceived their families, friends, as well as the general public, but the damage was corrected and the guilty parties were punished and forced to come to terms with the consequences of their actions. Lowry will have to face all of this, but his actions went further down that moral road that is clearly marked, “No Return.” In tampering with this piece of history Lowry treated the document itself and the parties involved as a means to an end. As historians we have a moral responsibility to do our best to get the story right because in practicing our craft we establish a moral relationship with those who came before us. That’s right, we have a moral obligation to treat historical figures as ends in themselves and not as a means to an end. Whatever biases we bring to the table and regardless of whether we get it right we intend to tell a true story about the past. When Lowry altered this document he wasn’t thinking about Lincoln or Murphy. He was thinking about himself.
This is what the slightly darkened number five represents to me.