Power  /  Comment

White Supremacy Is the Achilles Heel of American Democracy

Even in a high-tech era, fears about minority political agency are the most reliable way to destabilize the U.S. political system.
Library of Congress

Propaganda and hoaxes involving threats of violence and seizures of power by people of color were critical in shaping the early American state, in consolidating power over enslaved people, and in spurring the Civil War. As the historian Robert Parkinson has argued, they were even wielded rather liberally by the Founding Fathers. While serving as the American ambassador to France during the waning days of the Revolution in 1782, Benjamin Franklin conjured up an entire fake issue of the Independent Chronicle, which included a hoax about American Indian allies of King George scalping hundreds of white Americans, with the hope“to send these Scalps over the Water to the great King, that he may regard them and be refreshed.” He presented the work as a genuine article, and it subsequently popped up in real newspapers, presented as real news. A month later, Franklin boasted that“it is not only right to strike while the Iron is hot, but that it is very practicable to heat it by continual Striking.”

While Franklin’s propaganda was intended to demonize the British government in the eyes of the British people—and make it more susceptible to yield to pro-American terms at the close of the war—his fake news was later weaponized to rally white Americans against Native Americans. During the War of 1812, which is itself a part of the larger American Indian Wars, the imaginary mass scalping was invoked by several newspapers after Pottawatomi warriors and British forces annihilated a contingent of Kentuckian fighters. While the remainder of that war is remembered as a relatively minor series of engagements with few overall British and American casualties, 10,000 indigenous Americans died in the fighting, and it helped spark a long series of atrocities in the West against hundreds of tribes. Stories like those fabricated by Franklin helped prime white settlers for that violence.

The following eras would see numerous slanders, hoax plots blamed on both African Americans and Native Americans, and regular rumors of slave rebellions invoked in a continual process of consolidating both property and power for white hegemony. Indeed, as Terry Ann Knopf argues in Rumors, Race, and Riots, fake stories about slave rebellions inflamed pro-secessionist thought in the South. The common theme is one that newspaper editors and demagogues alike used repeatedly to their advantage: White citizens were uniquely susceptible to perceived threats to their power, both nonviolent and violent, and often responded by further suspending democracy.

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