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Thursday, May 15, 2008

FIFTY-FOUR FORTY OR FIGHT

I couldn't help wondering, when Senator Barak Obama first called for a “new” politics, why the politics we’ve been using for the last 2,500 years needs to be replaced. Okay, Shrub has sanctioned a "disconnect" with the American people over the last four years, the natural result of "wedge" politics.But maybe the real problem lies not with the lying, two faced, double dealing, back-stabbing, opportunistic, insincere politicians but with the idiots who vote for them: i.e. us. Check my math, please: politicians lie, politicians get elected; could there be a connection? Let me give you a little example from ancient history, so nobody feels insulted.
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James K. Polk was our eleventh President, serving from 1845 to 1849. He was, until Richard Nixon, our most secretive President. He didn’t even tell his own cabinet members what he was thinking. He was a Jackson Democrat and no matter what your history book tells you he did not campaign on the Fifty-Four Forty or Fight platform – that came up later. During the campaign, what Polk was most famous for was for not branding his slaves. And trust me, this smear was so good they still haven’t figured out who did it.
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The story was first published in the August 21, 1844 edition of the Ithaca New York Chronicle, (a Whig newspaper) and claimed to be a 3 paragraph extract from an unpublished book, “Roorback’s Tour Through the Western and Southern States…” It claimed to detail the author's (Baron Von Roorback) conversations with a group of slave traders on the Duck River in Tennessee. “Forty of these unfortunate beings had been purchased, I was informed, of the Honorable J.K. Polk…; the mark of a branding iron, with the initials of his name on their shoulders, distinguishing them from the rest.” Even in 1844 the idea of branding human beings, even those treated as slaves, was appalling to many people...in places where the economy hadn't been built on slavery.
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Which was why the story was picked up by the Albany Evening Journal, and other Whig newspapers, particularly in the 1844 “battleground states” of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Some voters in those three states were outraged that a man standing for President would do something so despicable as to brand human beings. To Whig politicians that story was almost too good to be true. And almost as quick as Republican Bloggers caught Dan Rather, the Democratic press found out there was no such book and no such Baron. The details about Polk had been inserted into a story from a real travel book, of a run in with some slave traders on Virginia’s New River. Polk’s farm was in Tennessee. And it was not common practice to brand slaves since, like whipping scars, they tended to reduce their price, like a car door a different shade than the other three. Slaves were certainly whipped and branded because it wasn’t illegal. Most people in 1844 America still believed slaves were property and would have been equally offended if some government offical tried to tell them how to treat their horses or how to slaughter their hogs.
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Still, embarrassed at being caught repeating what was so obviously a fabrication the Whigs pinned the whole thing on William Linn, a lawyer and a Democratic operative in Ithaca. But why would a Democrat smear his own candidate? Well, if I were a believer in conspiracy theories – and this may be one – an allegation that Polk branded his slaves was actually a fairly safe charge to make. Polk did own slaves, but his Whig opponent, Henry Clay, owned more. And it has been suggested by some historians that the “Roorback” story was a case of nineteenth century “wedge” politics. Abolitionism was still a minor issue in 1844, but abolitionists formed a solid voting block in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, those key battleground states. Convince enough abolitionists in at least two of those states that the Whigs were pulling a dirty trick on them and abolitionists voters might just choose Polk over Clay as the lesser of two evils. And the letter to the Ithaca Chronicle had been signed, “An Abolitionist”, thus adding insult to the injury.
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Well, maybe: the theory implies a level of sophisticated conspiracy that may not have existed in the simpler culture and times of 1844 – and probably didn’t exist in Athens in 415 B.C. when Alcibiades was accused of vandalizing statues of the God Hermes. Politicians have been gaming voters since voting was invented. And voters have been playing along, else the game would not have remained so popular for so long. And that is why, with all due respect to Senator Obama, when a politician tells me he is selling something new, my reaction is, “Pull the other one,” because when the American political system works (which it did not do in the last two presidential elections) it is been based upon pragmatism, as it was in the 1844 election results: Polk won 49.5% of the popular vote to Clay’s 48.1 %, and part of that razor thin margin was victories in New York and Pennsylvania - by less than 6,000 votes each. Those two states gave Polk 62 Electoral Votes, out of his sixty-five vote margin of victory (170 to 105). It seems that if the Roorback was a trick, it worked.
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Oh,... and “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” was actually invented by Ohio Senator William “Earthquake” Allen, well after the election. It was the Southern border (54 degrees & 40 minutes of latitude) claimed by Russia when they owned Alaska. A simple glance at a modern map will confirm that the actual border agreed upon by President Polk is at the 49th parallel. So much for the “…Or fight!” part of the slogan. Have you noticed how often politicians don’t actually mean what they seem to say? You might say they make a career out of it. And if Obama proves to be any good as a politician and a President, he will have to be good at it too.
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