Monday, January 31, 2011

Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Lies

Heather Cox Richardson

Why is so much press coverage going to the news that an amateur researcher altered the date on a pardon issued by President Lincoln? Retired psychiatrist Thomas Lowry, who, together with his wife, has spent his retirement studying Civil War materials in the National Archives, apparently changed the date on the original piece of paper from April 14, 1864, to April 14, 1865. If the latter date had been true, the pardon of a soldier would have been one of Lincoln’s last acts before his assassination.

Defacing a historic document is certainly appalling. But this particular change has had very little effect on our understanding of either the president or the war. The true date has always been in Roy P. Basler’s The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which remains the standard book of Lincoln documents for scholars. And, really, how important is this one scribbled note, anyway, in the scheme of Lincoln’s life or the Civil War?

I can’t help but contrast the flurry over this story with the relative silence over the truly astounding news that Stephen Ambrose had made up—MADE UP!—his famous interviews with Dwight Eisenhower. Ambrose’s biography was considered definitive, and held the field for decades, because no other historian could compete with his apparent deep knowledge of the man, gleaned through numerous private interviews he claimed he had had with President Eisenhower. Those interviews, it turns out, almost certainly never happened. Our entire understanding of the Eisenhower years—relatively important years, one might argue, since they cover 1890 to 1969—has been warped through Ambrose’s imaginings. This seems to me the biggest news story involving history in the past year.

So why did the press largely ignore it? And why are newspapers picking up the Lincoln story, when such a huge story went untouched?

Is it that Lincoln himself is always a draw for readers? (Although Eisenhower is getting far more news coverage this year than he has in the past three decades.)

Is it that the unknown Dr. Lowry is an easier target than the well-known Ambrose family?

Is it, perhaps, that the Eisenhower lie was just too big, and too embarrassing, for anyone to take on?

My fear is that, while all of these might be true, the latter is the most important reason. And what does that say about the parameters of public debate? The little things—the numeral changed by an unimportant figure on a relatively unimportant document—can be attacked. But the really, really big things—a fabricated life of a major figure by a famous historian—must be ignored.

Not a great way to conduct business.


Unknown said...

It might also be that people who are younger in the profession or lower on the food chain are waiting for someone of Ambrose's (former) stature to stand up and say something. Or for some group that purports to represent the profession to say something. We know how we feel, but even I (with my general lack of restraint about saying things in public) don't feel it's my place to speak for historians. Yet.

Unknown said...

So thanks for saying something, Heather.

Jonathan Dresner said...

I do think the Lincoln v. Eisenhower thing has something to do with it. I have mixed feelings about the question, because fabricating evidence is one thing, and altering existing evidence is something else entirely. I don't have mixed feelings about Ambrose: what he did really was bizarre and beyond the pale, and if a scholar in my field had done that, I'd be removing their books from my syllabi and checking my own footnotes to make sure I didn't rely on anything they'd written. Lowry's sin seems lesser, somehow, because it was done for dramatic effect and added or subtracted very little to the historical record. But alteration of an existing document is still horrendous.

Dave Stone said...

I'm not so sure Ambrose's falsification has been quite so quiet. A google search on "ambrose eisenhower falsification interviews" gets 60,000 hits.

In addition, Ambrose's scholarly reputation was already in tatters. Many of his major works were dogged by accusations of shoddy scholarship, plagiarism, or cheerleading long before the Eisenhower revelations.

J.R. Clark said...

I wouldn't be surprised if one of Ambrose's high-profile proteges is soon dogged by a similar scandal. Just sayin'.