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The walking wounded

In genealogy blogs across the United States and elsewhere today, many writers will be taking up their pens to discuss one subject: access to records. And whenever that subject comes up, there’s a saying that lurks in the back of The Legal Genealogist‘s mind.

It’s a saying that’s often been misattributed, to everyone from the Greek dramatist Aeschylus to Senator Hiram Johnson, a member of the U.S. Senate from California.1 The first recorded use of the phrase was in the introduction to E.D. Morel’s Truth and the War.2

The saying goes like this: “In war, truth is the first casualty.”

In this day and age of assaults on access to information coming from every side — not just for genealogists but for everyone — it’s hard not to think of that saying. Because it seems so often that those of us who want to know the truth are in a war with those who — for reasons of their own — don’t want us to ask hard questions and seek that truth… no matter what the truth may be.

And unless all of us to whom the truth is important band together and work together, it’s a war we could well lose. Already, in so many ways, the truth is the walking wounded. And it’s so very vital that we not allow it to be further injured.

For most of us as genealogists, the truth comes in small packages. Two parents’ names entered on an application for a Social Security card — and not disclosed because some bureaucrat has decided that someone whose child was born 90 years ago might possibly still be alive and might object. The record of a death in some states where even a grandchild isn’t a close enough relative to get a copy until years and years have passed since the event. In the state where I live, the cause of death… ever… unless you’re the parent, the child or the legal representative of the deceased.

But records access and the assault on records access is so much bigger of an issue than these small packages. The records we want as genealogists, and the denials we are seeing, are the tip of the iceberg — the canary in the coal mine. We’re the ones who are sitting up first and noticing, but it’s not just our access to our small packages of information that’s at stake.

When an entire state archives can be threatened with closure, the way the Georgia Archives was (and is — no matter what the Governor there said, don’t think that fight is over until the money has actually been budgeted and allocated to keep the Archives open), every citizen’s right to insist that government be held accountable for its actions is threatened.

When library hours are cut, books not purchased, databases rendered inaccessible, and records destroyed because there’s no place to keep them and no people to tend to them, every citizen’s right to access information is threatened.

When bureaucrats make decisions about what information will and won’t be disclosed, without public rulemaking, without public comment and — by far the worst — without public outcry, every citizen’s right to seek answers is threatened.

In short, when access to information is in jeopardy, every citizen’s right to try to determine the truth is threatened.

The free flow of information results in open, transparent, accountable and citizen-driven government. Whether it is knowing about a government action today or in the past, or about our own family history and how it has brought us to where we are today, access to information is not a privilege, which government can choose to grant or deny for light or trivial reasons, but a right we all should be able to exercise in our individual searches for the truth.

We all understand that some information cannot be disclosed for many reasons ranging from national security to individual privacy. But the casual denial of access because it’s inconvenient or expensive is a battle we have got to win, not just as genealogists but as citizens.

We can’t afford to allow the walking wounded to become the fallen.


  1. Wikiquote (, “Aeschylus,” rev. 19 Aug 2012.
  2. Philip Snowdon, “Introduction,” in E.D. Morel, Truth and the War (London : National Labor Press, 1916).
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