As America girds its loins for the trench warfare of the upcoming presidential election, it’s good to remember that “fake news” – and dirty politics – are hardly new.
In fact, as Machiavelli taught us, they date back to the dawn of community life.
During the bitter presidential campaign of 1864, a pair of New York journalists sought to spread the false story that Abraham Lincoln planned a nationwide program of forced intermarriage between poor whites and freed black slaves.
Republicans had no such plans. Instead, they merely said that marriage was a private matter.
But Lincoln’s opponents wanted to prevent his reelection at any cost.
“Lincoln is a worse tyrant and more inhuman butcher than has existed since the days of Nero,” the Wisconsin newspaper editor Marcus M. Pomeroy fumed. “The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer…. And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good.”
As a result, some Democrat politicians announced that Republicans had a secret plan to solve America’s notorious racial problems through an ambitious campaign of interracial marriage that would result in a new American “super-race.”
Their proof: a pamphlet entitled, Miscegenation: A Theory of the Blending of the American White Man and Negro.
Supposedly written by a Republican, the pamphlet called on Republicans to make intermarriage between whites and blacks one of the central planks of Lincoln’s reelection platform.
The pro-slavery Democrat Rep. Samuel Cox of Ohio waved the pamphlet on the floor of the House, claiming he had dozens of letters from abolitionist Republicans supporting the pamphlet’s program of aggressive intermarriage.
There was only one problem. The pamphlet was a fake.
Sold at newsstands for 25 cents, the 72-page pamphlet was actually written by two journalists working for the New York World, a pro-slavery newspaper that supported the Democrats.
One of the journalists was David Goodman Croly, 32, the managing editor and father of the co-founder of The New Republic. The other journalist was a regular reporter named George Wakeman.
Abolitionists and Republicans had been frenetic pamphleteers before and during the Civil War, and the two journalists cleverly fashioned a pamphlet that sounded like something Republicans might write.
They even created the new term “miscegenation,” which sounded vaguely scientific. In the past, writers spoke of “amalgamation” between races.
“If any fact is well established in history, it is that the miscegenetic or mixed races are much superior, mentally, physically and morally, to those pure and unmixed,” the pamphlet asserted, in a deliberate effort to rile up readers.
Thanks to the Internet of the day – the telegraph – the hoax spread like wildfire across the country. Soon, Lincoln’s opponents were calling Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation the “Miscegenation Proclamation.”
Lincoln was smart enough to simply ignore the whole controversy, likely sensing it was all a set-up. Shortly thereafter, victories on the battlefield in 1864 secured Lincoln’s reelection.
As for Croly and Wakeman, their hoax was eventually exposed.
Ironically, it was a pro-Southern newspaper, The London Morning Herald, that revealed the truth on November 1, 1864, with the headline, “The Great Hoax of the Day.”
The British newspaper’s U.S. correspondents reported that the miscegenation pamphlet had really been written by two New York journalists “who wanted to trick the Republicans into making damaging admissions that would hurt them with the voters.”
Two weeks later, the New York World itself confirmed that the miscegenation story was indeed a hoax – neglecting to mention that its own managing editor and a World reporter had perpetrated it.
Americans and others who bemoan the current polarization in world politics, and the role of a biased news media in fanning the flames, should perhaps ponder this aspect of America’s media history.
Fake news and biased journalism are nothing new. The antidote is simply real news and unbiased journalism.
Robert J. Hutchinson is the author of many works of popular history, including, most recently, What Really Happened: The Lincoln Assassination (2020).