[Legal papers relating to the Roorback Forgery.]. Samuel Blatchford.
[Legal papers relating to the Roorback Forgery.]
[Legal papers relating to the Roorback Forgery.]
[Legal papers relating to the Roorback Forgery.]
[Legal papers relating to the Roorback Forgery.]

[Legal papers relating to the Roorback Forgery.]

New York, 1845. 4to (12.5” x 8”), bound at stop with red ribbon. 25 pp. of manuscript. Docketed at verso as sent by Samuel Blatchford Esq., attorney for Thurlow Weed, to Benjamin Galbraith Esq., attorney for James Gordon Bennett, on Aug. 28, 1845. [with] 2 essentially identical 4to (12” x 7.5”) papers. 6 pp. of manuscript. New York, 1845. Both docketed at verso. Defendant’s Points.

A compelling lot of legal papers relating to the 1844 libel case of Thurlow Weed vs. James G. Bennett, which concerned the widely-printed allegation—known as the Roorback forgery or hoax—that then-presidential-hopeful James K. Polk had branded his slaves and sold them to slave traders.

In the lead-up to the 1844 U.S. presidential election, both major party candidates Henry Clay and James K. Polk were subject to various smears—the most damaging being leveled at Democratic candidate Polk. In Aug. 1844, the Ithaca Chronicle published a supposed excerpt from a non-existent book by one Baron von Roorback, a fabricated German nobleman, detailing his travels through the South. The published passage included a description of an encounter with forty slaves branded by Polk with his initials and then sold to slave traders who were taking them to Natchez, Mississippi for resale. As quoted in the papers offered here, the passage read (in part): “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.” As James L. Rogers details, “the claim that Polk was a slave owner was not particularly shocking. … Far more inflammatory was the suggestion that Polk branded his slaves. In reality, this was a practice almost never used by slave owners, not only because it was cruel, but also because the sale of branded slaves was extremely difficult.”

The scandal was compounded when Thurlow Weed’s pro-Whig Albany Evening Journal republished the article, which was soon published by other Whig publications in critical electoral battleground states. When the New York Herald’s editor James G. Bennett accused Thurlow Weed of fabricating the story for political purposes, Weed sued him for libel. The result was the legal battle—represented by the present papers—between two political and journalistic heavyweights; Weed a Whig and Bennett a Democrat. When the Democrats challenged and decisively discredited the article, the Whig press withdrew it.

The principal document offered here is a copy of the brief submitted by Weed’s attorney Samuel Blatchford to the Superior Court of the City of New York, sent by Blatchford to Bennett’s attorney Benjamin Galbraith. Blatchford’s argument reads in part as follows:

The said plaintiff as such editor as aforesaid copied from the Albany Patriot a newspaper also published at Albany aforesaid and caused to be published in the said newspaper called the “Albany Evening Journal” the following article as an extract from a supposed Book supposed to have been entitled “Roorbacks tour through the Western and Southern states in 1836.” … the said supposed Book and the said article being so caused to be published by the said plaintiff as aforesaid in the full belief that there was such a Book as the said supposed extract was an extract therefrom.—”Just as we reached the Duck River in the early gray of the morning we came up with a singular spectacle…It was a camp of negro slave drivers just packing up to start. They had about three hundred slaves with them who had bivouacked the preceding night in chains in the woods…it resembled one of those coffles of slaves spoken of my Mungo Park…

Also included here are two copies of the Defendant’s Points, stating in part:

The plaintiff’s Declaration is insufficient because although the first count contains an averment that the plaintiff as editor of the Albany Evening Journal copied from the Albany Patriot and caused to be published in the Albany Evening journal a certain article as an extract from a supposed book supposed to have been entitled “Roorback’s Tour Through the Western and Southern States in 1836,”…yet the said count contains no colloqium or averment precedent that the alleged libel was written of and concerning the extract therein mentioned…

Aftermath of the “Roorback Forgery”:

Walter Borneman argues the hoax actually backfired on Polk's opponents, as it reminded voters that Henry Clay was a slaveholder as well. Elsewhere, John Eisenhower has noted that the smear came too late to be effectively refuted—likely costing Polk the state of Ohio. Polk communicated to newspapers that the only slaves he owned were inherited or purchased from needy relatives in financial distress. However, this was not true, as Polk had bought over thirty slaves—both from relatives and others—chiefly to work his Mississippi cotton plantation. Notwithstanding the controversy, Polk won the election, becoming the first president lose his home state in an election (Tennessee), as well as his birth state (North Carolina).

An important group of documents relating to an extraordinary attempt to manipulate the sentiment surrounding slavery to influence a U.S. presidential election.

REFERENCES: Borneman, Walter R. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America (New York: Random House, 2008); Eisenhower, John S. D. "The Election of James K. Polk, 1844." Tennessee Historical Quarterly. 53 (2): 74–87; Rogers, James L. "The Roorback Hoax." Annotation Vol. 30.3 (September 2002), pp. 16-17.

CONDITION: Some damp-stains to Defendant’s Points mss, but generally good.

Item #5894

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