The first casualty

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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20 Responses to The first casualty

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Judy. This morning, I was fortunate enough to get to ask the panel at NARA’s Records Administration Conference about the State of Georgia’s Archives. The Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, answered the question himself. Or, more importantly, DIDN’T answer the question. He stated, “while Governor Deal indicated the Archives would remain open, he didn’t check with Mr. Kemp, so we’re going to wait and see.” He’s alluding to Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, and his statement after the Governor indicated the Archives would stay open, that the Governor would have to fund the Archives for them to remain open. This may very well be a political ploy, but the fact remains that the Archives are still scheduled to be closed on November 1st.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      This absolutely is one of those “it ain’t over til the fat lady sings” deals, Laura. Until the money is actually allocated to the Archives, this fight must go on.

  2. Beth Griffin says:

    I think it *is* a political ploy and detest that these people are just playing chicken with our rights! Kemp and Deal need to man up and quit acting liking spoiled brats and do the right thing!! I don’t care if Kemp is running for governor in a couple of years or if Deal is trying to exert his power over Kemp, for chrissakes just don’t make this debacle part of your legacy. Arggghhh!!!

  3. Betsy Miller says:

    A rally is being planned at the Capitol by FOGAH (Friends of Georgia Archives and History).
    Wed., Oct. 3, noon-1 p.m.
    Location: Capitol South Wing (inside)

    Keep up with details at

  4. Martin Hollick says:

    This is all a matter of money. I’m truly amazed by how stupid Americans are. If you ask them if they want a new school, they say yes. Do you want a new hospital? Yes. Do you want to pay higher taxes? No. There’s this extreme disconnect about what services are available and paying taxes. Somehow they believe that you can lower taxes and just “cut out the waste in government” and all those services will still keep right on coming. Well, it doesn’t work that way. You get what you pay for in this world. And all of us are in for a decade or two of a rude awakening.

    Thanks to two pointless and expensive foreign wars, the unfunded Medicare B Act, the Bush tax cuts, and the worst economic collapse in 80 years, we have a federal government that will have no choice but to cut back on services. They will also cut back on state funding so that state governments will have to cut back on services as well. If the choice is Social Security, Medicare, or the National Archives, what do you think is going to happen?

    There are going to be many battles for that rare tax dollar in the coming years. And I for one, think that genealogists don’t have much of a chance, and perhaps shouldn’t have much of a chance. I work in social services for the impoverished. If the Governor came to me and said, I’ll double your budget, but I will have to close the archives to do it, I would say: goodbye archives. It’s a no brainer. If a child is going hungry tonight and we’re spending that money on access to vital records, then we should be ashamed of ourselves.

    Perhaps there is world were there is funding for both. But that means paying taxes (and probably more in taxes).

  5. Judy, you see the issues clearly and have argued the case so well! At stake is no less than the truth, no less than every citizen’s right to seek answers. In these days of “dark money” supporting political candidates, and fact-free political arguments, many powerful interests would like to restrict access to the facts and the investigation of history.

    Every day on TV I see some politician or interest group trying to rewrite history, only to be contradicted by a videotape or other record that someone has ingeniously discovered. Orwell warned us, in his book 1984, that tyranny results when the powerful are able to rewrite history. When I read Orwell’s book decades ago, I thought that “rewriting history” was a gross exaggeration of what could happen. But later, I learned of those who would deny the Holocaust or minimize slavery in America. And now I see that “rewriting” impulse all around me, today called “spin” or “denial” or “misstatement,” and too many citizens are gullible enough to be fooled.

    Of course we can afford access, as a country. We have numerous untapped sources of great wealth. Paying for access is a question of our political will, not our ability. For example, one year’s government subsidy (welfare) for one big oil company could probably support all state archives for that year … and more.

    Without the right to access historical information (yes, a right and not a privilege), we are at the mercy of the re-writers. If we can’t know history, we can’t learn from history. As the canaries in the coal mine, genealogists should cheep at top volume.

  6. Skip Murray says:

    With a tear in my eye and a quivering lip, I’m telling you from my heart, THANK-YOU for writing this.

  7. Please sign Georgians Against Closing State Archives’ petition! You don’t have to be a resident of Georgia to sign page: Thank you! — Elizabeth Dill

  8. Debra LaMel says:

    Ok Politicians

    First you hurt us by raising the cost of our ancestors SS Records, then the trying to take or delay the pay of veterans (how many of you have ever served and given you the right to be where you are), and now us genealogist.

    I am appalled at you of even thinking to take away access to public records to make our life even more difficult cause we want to know where we come from.

    Lower your pay and see how the rest of us American’s live.

    We have a right to access to public records as Americans. Sometimes you just have to set your priorities right.

    Ok Genealogist (new or us veterans) accross the globe “We need to stick together” or other states will follow.

  9. Judy,

    When government decides what we should or should not know, how can we be truly free to decide for ourselves? Further, how can we be sure that the “facts” we uncover are really factual? Thank you for this ver important information.

    William Gary Garnes

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