Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the presidency of the United States popularized the phrase “fake news.”
Time and again, President Trump has declared news stories, videos and photographs to be “fake news” if he didn’t like their message, and soon other politicians began using the phrase. This is hardly a new idea. Politicians of both parties have long blamed “the media” for their woes when they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar or up a woman’s skirt; “fake news” likely will soon replace “the media blowing it out of proportion” as the phrase of choice among elected officials.
But for real “fake news”—and, yes, I’m aware that sounds like an oxymoron—go back to 1863–64 during the run-up to Abraham Lincoln’s reelection. Both parties were so busy getting their agents and friendly newspapers to concoct stories demonizing their opponents that James Gordon Bennett wrote in his New York Herald (a Democratic newspaper) “never were roorbacks so tremendous, frauds so plentiful, fabrications so numerous, delusions so popular, humbugs so transparent and falsehoods so generally circulated.”
“Roorback” is a word that, sadly, has fallen out of use. My copy of Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary defines it as “a defamatory falsehood published for political effect,” and says it originated in 1855 but had its beginnings in the 1844 presidential election when an attack on candidate James Polk used a quote “from an invented book by Baron von Roorback.”
The 1844 election may have seen the use of a fictional quote from a book that didn’t exist, but the Lincoln reelection campaign introduced what may have been the roorback of all roorbacks.
A new word – ‘miscegenation’
Two young staffers at the anti-Lincoln New York World, David Goodman Croly and George Wakeman, penned a 72-page pamphlet that appeared in bookstores shortly before Christmas 1863. It was titled Miscegenation; The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the White Man and the Negro.
First of all, they had to explain to readers what the word “miscegenation” meant, because they had made it up all by themselves, combining the Latin words “miscere” (to mix) and “genus” (race). Always remember, kiddies, if you’re going to make up a word, pull from Latin or Greek to give that word classical authority.
A new word was needed, the pamphlet’s introduction said, because the existing word for mixing the blood of the races, amalgamation, “is a poor word, since it properly refers to the union of metals with quicksilver, and was, in fact, only borrowed for an emergency.” Though they didn’t say so, “miscegenation” could trigger subconscious associations with such words as “mistake” and “misbegotten.”
Purportedly, the pamphlet was the work of a single author who chose not to put his name on the cover because, “he prefers that a great truth should spread by the force of its own momentum against the heart of the world.”
And what was that great truth? Was it the one espoused by the Southern Confederacy’s vice-president Alexander Stephens, the “great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery to the superior race is his natural and moral condition”? That is what would be expected in a pamphlet designed to defeat Lincoln and the “black Republican” Party in the next year’s elections.
Defeat the abolitionists by praising them
Ah, but Croly and Wakeman were much too shrewd for that. Nay, their pamphlet had all the appearances of an abolitionist publication, expressing an extreme abolitionist position at that. It argued that “miscegenation,” the mixing of the races, was the only hope for America’s future greatness. Drawing upon science, religion, and literature they put forth a series of arguments in chapters such as “The Blending of Diverse Bloods essential to American Progress” and “All Religions derived from the Dark Races” to make that point.
And why, prithee, would they do this? Because amalgamation was one of the great bugaboos of 19th-century America. For years pro-slavery forces had dragged this monster out of the closet to yell “Boo!” at anyone who might be wavering on the slavery question. In speeches, newspapers and pulpits they warned the abolition of slavery inevitably would lead to racial equality, which would leave white women at the mercy of the “half-barbaric African.” White men would be forced to marry negro wives, they insisted. And while this rhetoric was commonplace in the slaveholding South, sex between the races was an abhorrent notion to the majority of white Americans everywhere at the time.
By publishing a pamphlet espousing what many Americans despised and linking its message to the anti-slavery forces, Croly and Wakeman hoped readers would believe miscegenation would be the result of Lincoln’s reelection. And just in case that implication wasn’t clear enough, on page 18 they wrote, “It is idle to maintain that this present war is not a war for the negro. It is a war for the negro. Not simply for his personal right or his physical freedom—it is a war if you please, of amalgamation, so called—a war looking, as its final fruit, to the blending of the white and black.” In the pamphlet they presented this as a good thing, of course, in keeping with their propaganda’s intentions.
They were aware pro-Union Americans were getting war-weary. The year that was ending had seen massive amounts of blood shed at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Despite major Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, the Confederacy fought on. Ever since Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation, which had taken effect at the beginning of that bloody year, there had been many rumblings in the North that the war to preserve the Union had been perverted into a war to free the negro; the summer had seen the worst riots in U.S. history when anti-draft riots in New York City rapidly became anti-negro riots.
Seeking Lincoln’s endorsement
To link Lincoln even more firmly to the “great truths” in Miscegenation, the authors sent him a copy with a letter asking for permission to dedicate their pamphlet to “your excellency” and stated, “I am sure that you in common with the foremost men of our age and time can see no other solution of the negro problem than the gradual and certain blending of the two races.” The still-anonymous “author” expressed hope that the next four years would find “the freemen possessed of all the rights of citizenship”—another idea that didn’t set well with many pro-Union Americans. Even in the abolitionist stronghold of New England the people of Connecticut hadn’t seen fit to permit negroes to vote.
(If you’re wondering how Lincoln was supposed to respond to an anonymous author, the letter had a postscript instructing him to reply in care of “American News Company, 121 Nassau st., New York.” An article on The Lucile Project site of the University of Iowa says American News Company was organized in 1864 at 119–121 Nassau Street for the “quick, efficient and regularly timed distribution of periodicals” and adds that “soon after the company was founded, the directors wisely voted a resolution that ‘we do not engage in publishing,’ and this policy was never changed”).
Lincoln was no dummy. He saw clearly how any endorsement of the pamphlet would be political suicide. He pasted the letter onto the inside cover of Miscegenation and put the book away. It was discovered in 1947 when historians were finally permitted to open the papers Lincoln’s son Robert had donated to the Library of Congress. You can read the letter and the entire pamphlet on the Library of Congress website.
The true identity of the authors of Miscegenation was only proven late in the 19th century when Croly’s wife, Jane Cunningham—who was a journalist herself under the name Jennie June—revealed the truth following her husband’s death, according to John C. Waugh’s Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency (Crown Publishers, 1997).
The red image above of the Fifth Ward Lincoln and Johnson Club is an 1864 campaign ribbon. Library of Congress, The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, Portfolio 17, no. 30.