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America's First Political Dirty Trick

Credit: Smithsonian.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer and the New-York Historical Society. Copyright © 2013 by the New-York Historical Society.

Few Americans of the Civil War generation doubted that the 1864 presidential campaign -- often called the most important election in history -- would ultimately boil down to the incendiary issue of race, at least in the tinderbox of New York City. In the metropolis where a draft riot had escalated into a race riot just one year earlier, the pro-Democratic, anti-emancipation newspaper the New York World produced several pieces of provocative evidence to testify to this ugly race-based strategy for defeating Lincoln and the Republicans and hopefully overturning his 1863 proclamation.

Most newspapers of the day openly aligned with one political party or the other and made no secret of their orientation. There was never any question of the World’s antipathy toward Abraham Lincoln. The paper had opposed him editorially ever since the beginning of the Civil War, excoriating him as a dictator, challenging the constitutionality of the military draft, and reserving particularly virulent attacks for the president’s Emancipation Proclamation. Not long before his quest for re-election, Lincoln had further ensured the World’s enmity by personally ordering the paper shut down and its editor Manton Marble arrested. This occurred after the World published -- innocently, it always unconvincingly maintained -- an obviously forged presidential order calling for an additional 500,000 volunteers for the Union army. The administration believed that the hoax was calculated to ignite a run on stocks, after which insider traders, advised of the scheme in advance, would buy low and then profit enormously once prices recovered after the order for more troops was revealed as a fabrication. In other words, Lincoln believed the World had done more than act maliciously; it had acted fraudulently as well.

But the World had more than a persecution complex where Lincoln was concerned. In the view of its white supremacist editors, his re-election would do nothing less than undermine the rights of the country’s white majority. It would encourage Republicans to create a repugnantly integrated society and supposedly result in a humiliating loss of jobs and status for its loyal readers, many of them Irish American Catholics who had already made their fears violently manifest during the previous summer’s rioting. As the presidential campaign got under way, the World made its hatred for Lincoln clear enough in its editorial columns, charging the president with plotting to use a second term to establish a mixed-race society in which black men would be free to marry white women, and black masters would employ white servants. Even for this period of unprecedented partisanship, however, the World forged unusual alliances by campaigning against Lincoln through other genres, including book and picture publishing, that had long remained separate from the politically charged world of newspapers.

In one example, the World collaborated with a New York printmaker to issue a series of venomous cartoons that played to the racial fears of white voters. It is important to remember that most engravings and lithographs of the period, including politically inspired caricatures, were issued by nonpartisan entrepreneurs like Currier & Ives, who sought to profit from customers of all political persuasions. The racially charged series that appeared under the sponsorship of the World was unique. No one is absolutely certain how the resulting poster cartoons were displayed during the Civil War era. Too crude to adorn private homes like the concurrently mass-produced heroic portraits and battle scenes, these caricatures were probably toted in parades, affixed to outdoor walls, tacked up in political clubhouses, or laughed over in taverns. A broadside advertising them in 1864 emphasized their appeal to “the Democratic Social Circle” -- whatever that was. The anti-Lincoln World series focused almost exclusively on race and was meant in particular to arouse fears that black men would soon be engaging in sexual relations with white women -- just the kinds of charges that invariably triggered the most violent fear and hatred.

One particularly distasteful, but enormously revealing, example of the World’s unrepentantly racist anti-Lincoln campaign is a colorful lithograph in the Society’s collection, The Miscegenation Ball, published specifically for the presidential contest by the local firm of Bromley & Company. The result was more than a mere cartoon. This print purported to provide an accurate depiction of an event allegedly held at New York’s Lincoln Central Campaign Club on Broadway and Twenty-third Street on September 22, 1864 -- perhaps not accidentally the second anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The World had reported that after a brief official meeting at the club, organizers had cleared the room so Lincoln supporters, including “prominent men,” could cavort with black women at a scandalous “negro ball.” Quoting the paper’s toxic coverage of the alleged event, the print’s caption assured viewers: “This fact WE CERTIFY, that on the floor during the progress of the ball were many of the accredited leaders of the Black Republican party, thus testifying their faith by their work in the hall and headquarters of their political gathering. There were Republican OFFICE-HOLDERS and prominent men of various degrees, and at least one PRESIDENTIAL ELECTOR ON THE REPUBLICAN TICKET.” The lithograph portrayed mixed-race couples dancing or embracing indecently on the sidelines, while astonished white eyewitnesses peer onto the shocking scene from a skylight above. Gracing the hall in the distance is a portrait of Lincoln himself -- his image here meant to imply he had somehow blessed the outrageous affair.

The Miscegenation Ball was but one of a series of Bromley & Company campaign lithographs issued that autumn in an effort to incite voter Negrophobia. In one similar attack, Lincoln was shown bowing to a mixed-race couple on the street and, in yet another, being thrown from a train wreck labeled “The Abolition Catastrophe” after crashing into the “obstructions of Emancipation, Confiscation, [and] Public Debt,” according to an advertisement of the day also in the New-York Historical Society collection. Alone among these prints, The Miscegenation Ball was designed by a truly gifted printmaking outfit: the Canal Street firm of Kimmel & Forster, specialists in sporting and genre scenes, whose participation probably reflected no political bias -- only a strong profit motive. A typical printmaker for hire, Kimmel & Forster issued pro-Lincoln lithographs as well. The Miscegenation Ball was an exception in its otherwise bland, though proficient, catalog. It was a picture meant to inflame racial tensions at the expense of truth -- the equivalent of a twenty-first-century unfounded blog or tweet, except that a major daily newspaper masterminded it.

Around the same time the Miscegenation Ball calumny took hold, it should be noted, a brave black woman from New York made her own dramatic gesture toward equality. Mrs. Ellen Anderson, a Sabbath school teacher, got word in June 1864 that her husband, William, had been killed in action while serving as a sergeant in the 26th Colored Regiment. A few days later, Mrs. Anderson attempted to ride in the whites-only car of the Eighth Avenue railroad. A policeman was summoned to remove her, but Mrs. Anderson asked to be left where she was: she had just lost her husband, she explained, and she was “sick and wished” only “to ride up home.” When the police officer insisted she leave at once, Mrs. Anderson tried pointing out that she had paid her fare and “had a right to ride anywhere.” Unconvinced, the officer tried hauling her out of her seat, but Mrs. Anderson grabbed a strap and hung on. Not until a second officer was summoned was she dragged from the train as a crowd of apathetic spectators looked on. Mrs. Anderson ultimately retained counsel and pursued the matter legally; her courage helped desegregate New York’s transit system. And it forcibly demonstrated that blacks would resist discrimination even if papers like the New York World tried to deflect their movement with diversions like the so-called scandal of the purported “miscegenation ball.”

But the threatening idea of integration proved hard to eradicate. Surely the most hideous testimony to its intractable hold on the public imagination is evident in the form of another World-inspired product from the 1864 campaign: a seventy-two-page booklet titled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro, published that same year by the Manhattan firm of H. Dexter, Hamilton. Crafted as a wholly serious political document in an age in which pamphlets were regarded as important devices for the advancement of political philosophy, Miscegenation openly advocated the “blending of the white and black races on this continent” to achieve a fairer society. An innocent reader perusing its pages would be greeted with a laborious, if earnest, defense of what was for its time a radical fringe idea -- racial equality -- without ever realizing that it was designed as a deadpan, tongue-in-cheek farce. Scientific facts were presented along with supportive data from history and quotations from Shakespeare. The publication not only advocated racial amalgamation -- in other words, interracial sex -- which most whites of the day found appalling; it first proposed the entirely new word to describe it: “miscegenation,” from the Latin miscere (to mix) and genus (race).

Most readers never realized that the uncredited pamphlet was actually the work of the New York World correspondents David G. Croly and George Wakeman, whom London’s Morning Herald once described, in something of an understatement, as “obstinate Democrats in politics.” Not content with merely perpetrating the hoax, the authors dispatched complimentary copies anonymously to a number of the country’s leading black and white antislavery men, accompanied by letters encouraging their endorsements -- or what modern publishers call blurbs.

Signing their letters only “Author of ‘Miscegenation,’ ” Croly and Wakeman actually sent one copy to Abraham Lincoln at the White House, reporting to him that the book had already sold thousands of copies and that its “leading ideas” had been “warmly endorsed by the progressive men of the country.” Now the correspondents brazenly asked the president for permission to “dedicate it to your excellency.”

“I am aware that the subject creates prejudice among depraved and ignoble minds,” the audacious cover letter continued, “but 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 letter ended by flattering Lincoln for “giving liberty to four millions of human beings” during his first term and expressing the hope “that the next four years may find these freedmen possessed of all the rights of citizenship and recognized as one of the elements that will enter into the emancipation of the future American race.” The perpetrators of the Miscegenation caper clearly hoped that Lincoln would fall for the scheme and reply with an acknowledgment they could reprint and circulate widely to prove to voters that the president indeed harbored integrationist sympathies. Such a charge could doom his reelection chances.

But Lincoln apparently saw through the hoax and remained silent. “This ‘dodge’ will hardly succeed,” London’s Morning Herald reported when it learned about the affair, proceeding to boast—in an insensitive acknowledgment of the racial prejudices reigning even among the president’s supporters -- “Mr. Lincoln is shrewd enough to say nothing on the unsavory subject.”

Abraham Lincoln never commented on the episode publicly. Instead, he pasted the endorsement request onto the inside cover of his copy of Miscegenation and simply filed it away. His copy was discovered years later among the Lincoln papers donated by the president’s son to the Library of Congress and not opened to historians until 1947.

Whether the New-York Historical Society’s copy was one of the “thousands” actually sold to unsuspecting 1864 voters or an archival copy deposited as a curiosity is not known. But it remains one of the earliest examples of the political “dirty trick” in the collection -- or on record -- the ancestor of today’s anonymous negative political advertising on television. It serves also as a reminder that while Civil War battles continued to rage, politics and race were never out of the national conversation.

Abraham Lincoln won reelection in November 1864. But he was overwhelmingly defeated in New York City.