It is a historian’s dream to walk into an archive and look at primary source documentation that no one has touched in hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of years. Making that discovery, that connection that no one else has made before—brings a level of credibility that elevates.
But if that dream is based on a lie….would it be worth it?
I’m talking about, of course, the startling revelation a few days ago that a civil war historian brought a fountain pen into the National Archives, some thirteen years ago, and edited one of President Abraham Lincoln’s pardons. Just a small change…..after all, what does it matter if the pardon was signed in 1864 instead of 1865. Just one year from April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865—and viola, in a blink of an eye that single pardon, becomes the final act of a presidency, for that night Abraham Lincoln made his way to Ford’s Theatre and the end of his life.
At all levels of education we talk often about the lure of plagiarism, of taking the easy way out—because the ends justify the means—but in the end you lost more than you’ve gained. Credibility. You may have gained it on an external level, but some part of you will always know that it wasn’t deserved. That discovery, that connection—that priceless document does not belong to you, because history is not something that the historian owns. We do not have the right to change what we see before us on a whim—since in the end that discovery, that connection is for more than just you.
As students we discuss the meaning of truth, and how sometimes truth in history can be as amorphous and intangible as a foggy night. That finding the truth and determining a historical fact are, for the historian, an aspiration. We can know that the bombing of Pearl Harbor happened on a particular day, but it won’t be possible to know what was going through the minds of those who died. Our fact, our truth, is only as good as the sources left behind.
So the question I have for our forger, our so-called historian, is—who do you think history serves?
All of this came to a head on a particularly difficult two days—one which, as I wrote most of this, included a loss of electricity thanks to the heavy snow coming down here in Northern VA.
For my M.A. in history I attended American University where I concentrated on a subfield called public history. One such professor was Robert Griffith—who as my department chair represented the epitome of what a historian is. In the university setting he was supportive and engaging to every student that came through his office. Between my first and second years of graduate school I found myself attending a three month internship in London at the British Museum. As part of that internship I got to work with the Lifelong Learning Program—the education division dedicated to adult learning. My project for the summer was to develop a way to exhibit the work of a group of older adults who had come to the museum, looked at objects, and developed a walking tour for visitors. This small, poster exhibition was going to be on display in the education center for all to see—but unfortunately well after I had returned to the states.
Between advisors, I went to Dr. Griffith and he immediately gave me information to facilitate a trip back to the UK to see the project come to its fruition. It was a small act of support, but that is what made being a student of Robert Griffith so great.
On Tuesday afternoon I learned that Dr. Griffith passed away. I, for one, will miss him.
I think his death was especially hard as it was preceded by knowledge of a fellow graduate student from AU—a friend on Facebook now, but someone who I had spent those long hours before, during, and after class with. I hadn’t kept in as much touch after graduation, but learning about his passing made me remember just how wonderful a person he was.
And then there is David Larsen, a vision in the field of interpretation–someone who I never had direct contact with, but who you heard about from time to time. I don’t think I would do a good job describing his contribution to the historical world and the field of public history—so I urge you to head over to the memorial page on Facebook to learn more.
I guess my point is that all three of these individuals left a mark on the world, with their family, fellow students, and profession. All three of them, in their lives, exemplify that the study of history is about more than just the act of discovery. We will miss them all.
Edit: Here is the memorial page for Dr. Griffith.