Autograph Letter Signed, two pages, quarto, Hermitage, November 30, 1844. To William Prescott, the American historian and conservative Whig, defending James K. Polk, the Democratic president-elect, against false accusations made by the Whigs concerning his slave holdings in Mississippi.
“Your letter of the 7th instant reached me under course of mail, and on its receipt, I sent it to Genl Gideon J. Pillow, Columbia Tenn.-a gentleman of high standing, of long acquaintance and neighbour of Col J. K Polk and enclose you his statement within, for the truth of the whole I vouch, as hundreds more can do, and stand ready to do. Col James K Polk’s moral character stands without a single blot upon it, and unimpeachable in truth. He is one of the most humane Masters that ever owned a slave. What must the people think of Mr. Abbott Lawrence, as a man of truth, after his statement, (as conveyed in your letter before me) that Mr. Polk was an ultra slave holder, that he had recently, say within six years purchased a large plantation in the state of Mississippi, and stacked it with negroes, that he had come into it up to his ears &c. And that this was no hearsay business, for he himself knew it to be so, he knew it to be a fact. Now my Dr. Sir, I pronounce the statement of Mr. Abbott Lawrence, as made of his own knowledge to be false & unfounded & a base calumny. Col. James K Polk has a plantation in the State of Mississippi and worked by his family slaves as stated by Genl Pillow in his letter I enclose you, therefore I pronounce again the statement as made by Mr. Abbott Lawrence as a base calumny and entitles him to the unenviable title of one of the Whigg Roorbacks of your state. How is it to be lamented that the morals of men recently are become so corrupt, that a man of his wealth and a high standing with the Federal Coon Whiggs should be guilty of such vile calumny for political effect. I must close-my debility and afflictions are great, & I write with much difficulty. You are at liberty to use my letter together with Genl Pillows in any way you please.”
At the Democratic national convention in 1844, Polk, a life-long supporter of Andrew Jackson, was selected over Martin Van Buren, on the ninth ballot because of Van Buren’s opposition to the annexation of Texas. The campaign of 1844 was one of many personal attacks. On one front, the Democrats denounced Whig candidate Henry Clay as a gambler and drunk, and as a shifty opportunist for the highest office in the land. On another, the Whigs branded Democratic candidate James K. Polk a puppet of Andrew Jackson and a coward for having once refused to take part in a duel. Polk had supported Jackson throughout his turbulent career with such consistency that he was nicknamed “Young Hickory.” In the election, which took place (in most states) on November 12th, Polk was victorious, winning the electoral votes of fifteen states.
Abbott Lawrence (1792-1855), whose statements Andrew Jackson considered to be “a base calumny,” was a merchant and statesman who founded and developed Lawrence, Massachusetts. An ardent Whig, he represented his district in Congress from 1834 to 1836 and 1838 to 1840, and attended the national convention in 1844 as a delegate. In 1848 he was a leading candidate for the vice-presidential nomination. General Gideon John Pillow (1806-1878), to whom Jackson forwarded Prescott’s letter, was a criminal lawyer in Columbia, Tennesse, who had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and was Polk’s partner for some time. He claimed for himself the major responsibility for the nomination of Polk for the Presidency in 1844. The term “Roorbach, a political canard (especially one that backfires), arose in the campaign of 1844, when the Ithaca (New York) Chronicle printed some alleged extracts from an imaginary book entitled Roorback’s Tour Through the Western and Southern States containing grotesque charges against J. K. Polk, then Democratic candidate for the presidency, and they were promptly copied by other Whig newspapers” [H. L. Mencken, The American Language].
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