Fake News, Dirty Tricks, and Civil War Politics

Fake News, Dirty Tricks, and Civil War Politics

Today’s political discourse includes frequent talk of “fake news” (a term which seems to only occasionally mean actual trickery rather than simply unfavorable reporting). Meanwhile, partisan political concerns sometimes seem thick with racial hostility, appealing to voters’ irrational fears. None of this is new. During the Civil War a handful of efforts turned “fake news” into an art form and many partisan combatants proved shameless in appealing to white racism.

Near the close of 1863, as the two major parties were gearing up for the presidential election the following year, two journalists for the Democratic New York World concocted a bizarre and creative scheme. Shortly after the start of the new year, David Croly and George Wakeman anonymously published an ambitious 71-page pamphlet, entitled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White man and Negro.  Pretending to be a complex scientific treatise, Miscegenation described an idealized future where Blacks and Whites would intermingle without limitations, including unrestrained sexual relations across racial lines.[1]

The clever journalists – who even coined the word “miscegenation” for posterity – played a complex game. They hoped to convince White readers that abolitionist Republicans supported the pamphlet’s notions, even adding an Appendix with quotations from actual abolitionists, implying that those leaders had endorsed miscegenation. Binding their words directly to the upcoming election, Croly and Wakeman concluded that “whereas, the result of the last Presidential election [1860] has given the colored race on this continent its freedom, the next Presidential election should secure to every black man and woman the rest of their social and political rights.” Thus, a vote for Abraham Lincoln would be a vote for pure racial equality and enfettered racial intermingling.[2]  This rather brilliant piece of “fake news” attracted some attention in the national press and scored a huge victory for the forces of fraud when Ohio Democrat Sunset Cox – taken in by the fakery – delivered a speech before the House of Representatives denouncing the pamphlet.

Miscegenation constituted pure political trickery, engineered around an assumption about northern voters. Whatever northerners felt about the institution of slavery, Croly and Wakeman gambled that readers would recoil at the notion that Republicans envisioned a world of unrestricted racial integration.

Engraving of dancing Black and white adults at a formal event.
G.W. Bromley & Co, and Kimmel & Forster. Political caricature. No. 4, The miscegenation ball. New York City New York, 1864. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2008661682/.

That September, with the election around the corner, New York’s Republicans gathered for a gala ball at the Lincoln Central Campaign Club. Immediately thereafter, the World – New York’s loudest opposition newspaper – published and distributed a large lithograph called “The Miscegenation Ball.” That image portrayed a sea of well-dressed dancing couples at the September 22nd event, with a large portrait of Abraham Lincoln overlooking the proceedings. A banner declaring, “Universal Freedom / One Constitution / Our Destiny/ Abraham Lincoln, Prest” filled an upper corner of the image. But the frolicking dancers crowding the dance floor dominated the lithograph.  All the men were White, and all their happy partners were Black women. A lengthy (thoroughly dishonest) caption explained that this was an accurate portrayal of the September 22 Republican event. Both the World and the New York’s Journal of Commerce regaled their readers with fake tales of the bawdy interracial ball; Democratic newspapers across the nation reprinted versions of these stories, sometimes referring to the lithograph.[3]

Both examples of “fake news” in the run-up to the 1864 election played on northerners’ fears of the inclusion of Black women and men into their homogenous societies. Neither the lithograph or the pamphlet described real Republican ideas or actual events. But the gamble by these political operatives was that they could stoke irrational fears about race in white voters even while presenting complete illusions.

[1] David G. Croly and George Wakeman, Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White man and Negro (New York: H. Dexter, Hamilton & co., 1864).

[2] Croly and Wakeman, Miscegenation, p. 85.

[3] Forrest G. Wood, Black Scare (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), pp. 71-3, citing New York World, September 23, 26, 27, 28; New York Weekly Day Book, October 1, 8, 1864; Albany Atlas and Argus, October 1, 1864; Columbus Ohio Statesman, September 28, 1864, Wheeling (WV) Daily Register. September 29, 1864.

 

 

 

 

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