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The Roorback Hoax, 1844
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:
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:
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 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:
However, it has now dropped from popular usage.
Links and References
- "Roorback: what it is and where it got its name disclosed." (Apr 12, 1938). Chicago Daily Tribune. pg. 2.
- "Beware of Baron Roorback." (Oct 23, 1940). Chicago Daily Tribune. pg. 14.
- Rogers, J.L. (Sep 2002). "The Roorback Hoax: A Curious Incident in the Election of 1844." Annotation. 30(3): 16-17.
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