The race-mixing hoax that dogged Lincoln

Story highlights

  • Philip Kadish: It's the 150th anniversary of a huge political hoax in United States
  • News spread of Lincoln's plan to "blend the races" to create a new "American race"
  • Kadish: Evidence was a pamphlet, the blog of its day, written by pro-slavery editor
  • Kadish: Hoax put the made-up word "miscegenation" in the culture, and it exists to this day
This year is the 150th anniversary of one of the greatest and least remembered political media hoaxes in American history, one with startling parallels to 21st century politics and the Internet age. It involved Abraham Lincoln, covert governmental programs for interracial sex, pro-slavery politicians and scheming newspaper editors.
On Februrary 17, 1864, a shocking scandal erupted early in Lincoln's re-election campaign: "proof" that Lincoln had a secret plan to solve America's "race problem" with a campaign of interracial sexual relations that would create a new "American race."
This was the bombshell that pro-slavery Ohio Rep. Samuel Cox claimed to have uncovered.
Philip Kadish
His evidence was a pamphlet titled "Miscegenation: A Theory of the Blending of the American White Man and Negro," whose anonymous author urged Republicans -- then the abolitionist party -- to openly confess their desire for race mixing by adding it to their official political platform for the upcoming presidential election.
Speaking before Congress, Cox brandished letters of support the pamphleteer received from a handful of abolitionist newspaper editors, which Cox claimed proved the pamphlet's "disgusting theories," which "seem so novel to us, have been a part of the gospel of abolition for years."
Foreshadowing the fictitious "death panels" with which today's Republicans recently tried to kill Obama's health care proposals, Cox's conjured apocalyptic visions of a "department for the hybrids" empowered to achieve miscegenation's "practical realization by a bureau," indicting the Freedmen's Bureau recently established to aid the formerly enslaved.
The ensuing controversy dogged Lincoln for the remainder of the election campaign, and "miscegenation," this new word for race mixing coined by the pamphleteer, was widely adopted in place of "amalgamation," its predecessor. The hot-button issue of race mixing could now no longer be discussed without invoking Lincoln's supposed enthusiasm for this cultural taboo.
Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1860, the year he was elected president.
The president's re-election hopes had been dim enough with the war dragging on with no end in sight, and this new trumped up scandal didn't help matters.
Lincoln's political enemies in the North couldn't have been more pleased with the scandal if they'd designed it themselves.
In fact, one of them had done just that.
The "Miscegenation" pamphlet was a forgery, and the entire scandal an artfully managed hoax. It was the work of New Yorker David Goodman Croly, managing editor of The World, the leading Democratic-aligned, pro-slavery newspaper in the North, and George Wakeman, one of his reporters.
Croly's first brilliant move was crafting an amalgamation scandal without saying "amalgamation," replacing a word that set abolitionists immediately on guard with the innocuously unfamiliar "miscegenation."
The word miscegenation's derivation -- from misc- ("mixed") and genus ("species") -- awaited only the endorsement of Lincoln's allies to, Croly hoped, ignite the powder keg of Northern racism.
Croly shrewdly presented his poison pill as a pamphlet, a favorite format of anti-slavery writers. Pamphlets were essentially the blogs of their day. Made cheap and easy to produce by technological improvements, pamphlets had democratized access to the tools of mass communication, spreading the views of radicals, cranks, hucksters and crusaders.
The ruse worked. Once a handful of gullible abolitionists replied to the copies of "Miscegenation" that Croly had mailed them, the hoaxer promptly delivered the material to Cox and sat back and watched.
Thanks to a news cycle sped-up by new technology -- everything from tel