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Fake news almost destroyed Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was more than just a foe of slavery. He was also a mixed-race eugenicist, believing that the intermarriage of blacks and whites would yield an American super-race.

Or at least, that’s what newspapers in 1864 would have had you believe. The charge isn’t true. But this miscegenation hoax still “damn near sank Lincoln that year,” in a tough re-election campaign amidst a bloody civil war when he and his Republican party were blindsided.

The “leading Republican journal of the country is the unblushing advocate of ‘miscegenation,’ which it ranks with the highest questions of social and political philosophy,” wrote the New York World, a Democratic paper. The miscegenation pamphlet was perhaps American history’s most successful fake news campaign.

The parallels to today are easy to see. Back then, telegraphs and other technological changes let news spread swiftly and gave rise to more starkly partisan newspapers. Public trust in government was in tatters. With little consensus or authority over the truth, the purest gauge of veracity was gut feeling. And in an America so deeply divided—especially over differences about race—what tended to feel real were stories that confirmed fears and biases.

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