Although we might prefer to keep our private lives secret, they constitute an important part of the historical record.
One fine day in 1881, in a quiet New Zealand town, a former Methodist minister left his home and family, boarded a ship, and disappeared. That man was my great-great-grandfather, and his fate remained a lingering mystery for several decades. His story is one I have been thinking about as I work on recording our family history – not so much what happened to him, but how his story should be told and who has the right to tell it.
Historians face many ethical questions when writing biographies, and in this blog post I’d like to consider the following one: do individuals have a right to dictate which parts of their life are private even after they are gone? Serena explored how we can create and curate our own image while we are living. But what happens when we have died? Do we get to take our secrets to the grave? Or, once we are buried, do the skeletons in the closet get unearthed?
The quintessential example of this in Canadian history is Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and his personal diary. King died in 1950, leaving behind a diary that he had written in daily for decades. He directed the executors of his will to “destroy all of my diaries except those parts which I have indicated are and shall be available for publication or use.” King had intended for the parts of his diaries that concerned public affairs to be used by biographers, and for the rest to remain private. But the problem was that he did not specify these sections before his death.
On the one hand, we have King’s desire for privacy. On the other hand, we have an exceptionally rich historical resource that documents how, as Canada’s longest serving prime minister, he steered the country through the Roaring Twenties, part of the Great Depression, and the Second World War. The diaries provide an intimate glimpse into his personal and public life, and a valuable insight into Canadian social and political life.
Ultimately, the executors decided to preserve the complete diary. Not only that, the volumes were made publicly accessible in their entirety. They are available online through Library and Archives Canada (and are even word searchable!).
Countless historians have relied on these documents for their research on Canadian history, expanding the scholarship in this field. That is why it is essential to preserve the most complete historical record possible. There is no denying that the more colourful aspects of King’s character are revealed in his diaries; he is now perhaps as recognizable for his belief in the supernatural as for his political career. But rather than overshadowing his achievements, the diaries provide us with a more complete understanding of King and country.