Illustration from the front cover of Featherstonhaugh's Excursion Through the Slave States, depicting the encounter between the traveler and a gang of slave traders.
On August 21, 1844, the Ithaca Chronicle
published an extract from a book titled Roorback's Tour Through the Western and Southern States in 1836
written by Baron Roorback. The extract, it said, had been sent to them by a correspondent who called himself "An Abolitionist."
Part of the extract described an encounter between Roorback and a gang of slaves led by slave traders on the Duck River in Tennessee. It contained the following passage:
Forty of these unfortunate beings had been purchased, I was informed, of the Hon. J. K. Polk, the present speaker of the house of representatives; the mark of the branding iron, with the initials of his name on their shoulders distinguishing them from the rest.
James Polk was, in 1844, running for President of the United States as the Democratic candidate. In the context of the times, the claim that Polk was a slaveowner was not particularly shocking. In fact, Polk did own a small number of slaves on his plantation in Mississippi. His opponent, Clay, owned a far greater number. Far more inflammatory was the suggestion that Polk branded his slaves. In reality, this was a practice almost never used by slaveowners, not only because it was cruel, but also because the sale of branded slaves was extremely difficult.
The idea that Polk would treat his slaves so viciously shocked voters, and the Whig press was quick to disseminate the claim. It was first republished by the Albany Evening Journal and then by Whig newspapers throughout the Northern states.
However, the Democratic press soon exposed the extract from Roorback's book as a falsehood. In reality, there was no such person as Baron Roorback, nor any book by him. The extract had been lifted and loosely adapted from a recent travel memoir by George W. Featherstonhaugh, Excursion Through the Slave States
. Featherstonhaugh had described meeting a gang of slave traders in Virginia. However, he had never mentioned the owner of the slaves. In fact, he never mentioned Polk's name at all. These details had been invented.
The Whig Response
The exposure of the hoax embarrassed the Whigs. However, while they admitted fault for uncritically accepting the slander, they denied inventing it. The Ithaca Chronicle claimed that the extract had been submitted to them by a local democrat, William Linn. In other words, the Whigs argued that they were the victims of the hoax, that it was a dirty trick designed to embarrass them.
Daniel McKinney, a young Whig, published a statement to this regard:
"This is to certify, that on or about the 19th day of August, 1844, Wm. Linn. Esq., called on me with an article purporting to be an extract from Roorback's Tour through the Western and Southern States, requesting me to copy the same and hand it in to the Editor of the Chronicle for publication, stating as a reason for this request, that there was a Locofoco printer in that office, who was acquainted with his chirography. I complied with his request, without the slightest suspicion that it was not a genuine extract from a veritable book."
As it turned out, the Roorback hoax was not the only smear tactic used by the Whigs (assuming it was the Whigs who invented the story) during the 1844 campaign. A lie also circulated suggesting that Polk's father had been a Tory during the American Revolution. His father had actually been an early supporter of independence.
Why might the Whigs have resorted to such tactics? Historian James Rogers suggests that it stemmed from the unpopularity of Clay's position on the issue of the expansion of the Union. The Democrats were in favor of promptly annexing Texas and Oregon. Clay, however, advocated delaying any decision. Rogers writes:
The Roorback Hoax appears to be a desperate Whig attempt to move the electoral debate to some other issue, especially in key states like New York. If they could insert a change in subject to one that focused on character and morality, maybe the Whigs could regain the campaign initiative and emphasize economic policy.
The Whig tactics proved unsuccessful, and Polk won the election.
"Roorback" subsequently became a term used to describe any fictitious claim invented to smear a political opponent, i.e. a political dirty trick.. It was popular throughout the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. In 1940 the Chicago Tribune
offered this definition:
"A roorback is a false report about some alleged misdeed in a candidate's past, often based on forged evidence, circulated in the final days of a campaign. It is timed for climactic effect when the candidate will not be able to expose the fraud before the voters go to the polls."
However, it has now dropped from popular usage.
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