Thursday, April 28, 2011

BIRTHERS: Some creepy history, Part I.

Warren G. Harding in 1920.  Does he look African-American to you?  

How strangely pathetic it's been this week to watch the Birthers, that not-so-small segment of Americans so cynical of media and government that they seriously believe Barack Obama might not actually be an American-born citizen, making him constitutionally disqualified as president.  If true, this means a vast conspiracy to conceal the truth, covering decades and continents.   The fact that Obama himself two years ago had already released his Certification of Live Birth - the applicable legal proof of birth under Hawaii law --  seemed irrelevant to self-proclaimed skeptics like Donald Trump.  Instead, they insisted on seeing Obama's "long form" Certificate of Live Birth -- a more detailed document no longer used officially in Hawaii -- which the White House released yesterday.

The argument is literally over nothing -- unrelated to any actual issue facing the country and certain not to eject Obama from the White House.  And it is literally endless, given that it is logically impossible to prove a negative.  Already, new conspiracy theories abound.  (Click here for some of the latest.)   

Still, much of the country remains transfixed.  Why? Are we crazy? Are we racist?  Are we nuts?  Is this normal?

The fact is that, yes, conspiracy theories are as American as cherry pie.  [Full disclosure:  I still don't believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.]   Often, they are a force for good, a sign of healthy skepticism.  Watergate and many other scandals, for instance, might never have been uncovered without stubborn people rejecting pat answers.  But they seem to wax especially weird and ugly when applied to the trifecta of presidents, race, and birth.  

To put today's Birther into some perspective, here are a few similar manias from over the years:  

Warren G. Harding an African American?

Take a look at the photo above of US Senator Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio), Republican candidate for president in 1920.  Does he look African American to you?

Harding was well on his way that year to trouncing his Democratic opponent,  Ohio governor James Cox, when something strange popped up on the campaign trail.  Harding knew that much of the country hated him for being too friendly with black Americans and supporting anti-lynch laws.  The white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in 1920 had exploded to four million members, lynchings were common both north and south, and 1919 had seen over a dozen major anti-black race riots in northern cities including Chicago and Washington, D.C. 
Around this time, an obscure professor at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, named William Estabrook Chancellor, put together a one-page "Genealogy of Warren G. Harding."  In it, he claimed that several of Harding's ancestors, including two great-grantparents and a grandfather, had been African American.  As evidence, Chancellor cited affidavits from people in central and northern Ohio happy to repeat local gossip.  

This was damning stuff in 1920.  Racist Americans -- a much larger group of people back then than we like to admit -- believed that having even "one drop" of African blood made you "colored" or "hybrid" (or "octoroon," as Chancellor put it) -- that is, not white, and thus, to many, not qualified to be president.   

Suddenly, in October 1920, just weeks before Election Day, copies of Chancellor's paper began appearing all over the country, spread by opportunists and KKK-ers.  Postal officials in San Francisco discovered 250,000 of them in the mails - an expensive operation proving that someone was spending lots of money to fan the rumor.  Fist fights broke out in Chicago when people tried to hand them out on suburban commuter trains.  James Cox, the Ohio governer and Democratic candidate, ordered his staff not to use the paper, but he himself was caught telling voters in West Virginia that "either the grandmother or great-grandmother of Senator Harding was a Negress."  Newspapers too refused to print the story at first, but finally felt compelled to address it.

What was the truth?  Warren Harding -- much like Barack Obama today -  refused to dignify the story with a comment.  His campaign issued glowing testimonials to Harding's own pure-bred family tree.  "No family in the state (of Ohio) has a clearer, a more honorable record than the Hardings, a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania, the finest pioneer blood," said one pamphlet.  

But most famously, and to Harding's lasting credit, when confronted directly by a friendly reporter, he refused to deny the obvious fact that a few drops of African blood might be in his veins.  "How do I know, Jim?  One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence." 

Voters elected Warren Harding president in 1920 by a huge margin -- giving him 60.3 percent of the popular vote and 404 electoral votes.  Unfortunately, Harding would die in office in 1923, his reputation later smeared by the scandal known as Teapot Dome.  The "birther" issue of 1920 -- whether Harding may have had an African American ancestor - probably cost him votes, but was quickly forgotten.  Its main legacy was the ugly stain it left on the episode.

Andrew Jackson a bigamist?

Andrew Jackson had no greater love in his oft-violent life than Rachel Donelson, his future wife.   Rachel, however, beautiful and lively, had a checkered past.  As a teenager, she had married an older man named Captain Lewis Robards.  She quickly learned, however, that Robards was prone to temper tantrums, and in 1790 they separated and applied for divorce.  

Rachel Jackson.  A bigamist?
Around this time, in 1788, young Andrew Jackson -- then a 23 year-old frontier lawyer in Nashville -- came to live as a boarder with Rachel's parents.  Andrew and Rachel met and quickly fell in love.  In mid-1791, Jackson heard through friends that Rachel's divorce had been approved in Virginia and, that August, her married her.  

It came as a rude surprise, then, when Jackson learned much later that Rachel's divorce actually had not been finalized until September 1793.  His original information had been wrong.  This meant that, during the two year interim, she had been a bigamist and he an adulterer.  Andrew and Rachel quickly took their vows a second time, making the marriage legal and proper, but this didn't end the scandal.  Andrew Jackson's enemies would raise it repeatedly over the next thirty years.   Jackson would fight thirteen duels during his life, mostly over insults to Rachel.  

Then came the presidential election of 1828.  At the time, this contest was the dirtiest ever waged, full of smears, slanders, and cheating.  The candidates detested each other.  Jackson, the Democrat, viewed it as a grudge match against John Quincy Adams, the incumbent, who had beat him in 1824 in what Jackson called a "corrupt bargain."  [Jackson had won the 1824 popular vote, but he contest went to the US House of Representatives, where Adams joined forces with House Speaker Henry Clay to defeat him.  Adams then named Clay as his Secretary of State, suggesting they'd made a deal.]  

Jackson quickly appeared the likely winner.  He had much more support in the country and a better organization than Adams by far.  So the Adams side decided to sling mud -- at Rachel.   Slanders quickly multiplied on both sides.  Jackson's enemies accused him of "adultery, seduction, murder, theft, treason, and less strenuous crimes such as Sabbath-breaking, cock-fighting, horse racing, and swearing," notes historian Robert Remini.  For his part, Jackson accused Adams, among other things,  of arranging women for the Czar of Russia while stationed there as Ambassador.

Rachel took it all calmly, but Jackson himself grew increasingly thin-skinned during the campaign, bursting into rages and occasional tears over the assaults.   Election Day came, and he, like Warren Harding, won in a landslide.  But then tragedy struck.  On December 22, 1828, just days before she and Jackson planned to leave Tennessee for their journey to Washington and his inauguration, Rachel died of a heart attack.  

Andrew Jackson was devastated over his wife's sudden death, and blamed it on politics.   The pain and hard feelings would shadow his presidency and last a lifetime.  Did the political attacks actually kill Rachel Jackson?   Looking back from a distance of over 180 years, it is impossible to know.  The "birther issue of 1828"-- that Rachel Jackson was a bigamist and he an adulterer -- happened to be true.  Did that make it any less ugly and irrelevant? 

Click here for Part II, the Grover Cleveland bastards.

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