The Phony Document that Almost Cost a President His Election (No, Not the CBS Bush Guard Memo)

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Mr. Gyory is author of Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

With just weeks to go before election day, a disputed document surfaces on a hot-button campaign issue. Critics charge forgery, experts examine signatures and punctuation, politicians trade charges—and the press eagerly reports every sordid detail. The recent fracas over the CBS “60 Minutes” account of George W. Bush’s national guard service? Or an incident from more than 120 years ago in the presidential race between Republican James A. Garfield and Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock? History appears to have repeated itself in a very bizarre way.

On October 20, 1880, a New York newspaper called the Truth published a letter allegedly written by Garfield to an H.L. Morey of Lynn, Massachusetts, the preceding January. Just three sentences long, this letter—written on congressional stationery—implied that Garfield fully favored Chinese immigration. Chinese immigrants accounted for a mere 0.21 percent of the U.S. population, but politicians had effectively exploited the racism and xenophobia of many white Americans, especially in the West where most Chinese immigrants had settled. So volatile was the issue that both party platforms endorsed Chinese immigration restriction, and Garfield even highlighted the issue in his letter of acceptance. Were the “Morey letter” genuine, it would expose the Republican candidate as a liar and hypocrite.

The Democrats wasted no time publicizing the letter. “The whole city was virtually flooded with copies,” one New Yorker observed, and “news stands every where … were loaded down with … the infamous sheet.” Nicknamed “Garfield’s death warrant,” party operatives distributed half a million copies in less than a week: They affixed posters of the letter on empty walls in town squares, hawked it on street corners, and handed out reprints to factory workers and school children. They even translated it for foreign-language voters and circulated badges featuring “a grinning Mongolian, who smiles at the encouragement the Republican party gives him through its leaders.”

As Democrats took to the streets, Garfield sat quietly in his home in Ohio. Although privately he called the letter “a base forgery,” he actually wasn’t sure that he hadn’t written it. Making no public comment, he dispatched his secretary to Washington to search his files to see if he had kept a record. Republicans, meanwhile, beseeched him to denounce the “bogus document.” “The Democrats are using it with effect against us,” wrote Chicago Tribune editor Joseph Medill, “and our ‘workers’ are feeling considerable uneasiness—indeed alarm.” Dismayed by Garfield’s silence, Republicans sprang into action. One supporter on Wall Street spent a day showing the letter to fifty “experts in handwriting irrespective of political opinion”—all of whom pronounced it a fake. But not all experts agreed, and editorials dissected Garfield’s penmanship, how he dotted his i’s, crossed his t’s, and inserted periods after the initials in his signature. “The democrats,” the New York Herald remarked, “put a great deal in the ‘dot’ matter.”

As experts scrutinized the stationery and high-level postal workers examined the envelope’s postmark, reporters raced to Lynn to track down Morey. But no one could find him. Some said he had died, others claimed he had never lived, and some claimed to know him—and conveniently produced several letters from him, which also came under scrutiny. The feeding frenzy mounting, one reporter located a woman named Clara S. Morey, who signed an affidavit claiming her son “H.L.” visited her frequently but that she hadn’t seen him lately. Then a Clara T. Morey came forward, claiming to have no son named H.L. Other Moreys surfaced in Lynn and made conflicting claims, provoking a family feud over the alleged letter recipient’s alleged existence.

As the rumors swirled, Garfield’s secretary wired him that no record of the letter existed in his files. Then Garfield finally received a copy of the Truth, which included a lithographic reproduction of the letter. Garfield felt certain it was not in his handwriting and at last denounced it as “specious.” He issued his own letter, which newspapers nationwide reprinted side-by-side with the Morey letter on October 26, allowing readers to compare the handwriting and judge for themselves.

Garfield’s delay almost proved his undoing, as the weeklong interval gave Democrats time to mount an offensive and use his silence as evidence of complicity. “We had this election, dead, two weeks ago,” one Republican sulked. “Now it is in great doubt, and all through the stupidity of our leaders.” Republicans moved swiftly to contain the spreading damage. They hired a “special train” in New York, loaded it with “the antidote”— Garfield’s denial—and sent it full speed to California. In towns everywhere, Republicans stood on street corners passing out handbills denying the letter’s authenticity and plastered over Democratic posters with the word “forgery.” One could not have opened a newspaper in the last weeks of the campaign or wandered far into any public square in America without encountering the Morey letter or its “antidote.”

Garfield’s belated denial failed to quell the controversy. “Every democratic stump speaker in the state,” one Pennsylvanian noted, “has been instructed to ring the charges on the sentiments expressed in the letter.” In large cities such as Washington, it “completely superseded all the other issues of the canvass,” and in small cities like Toledo, Ohio, the letter was “the sole topic of conversation.” The Morey letter “has suddenly forced the Chinese problem forward as the foremost argument in the campaign, overtopping, in interest, business, the tariff, and the solid South,” the Chicago Times observed. “Aside from the Chinese letter incident, there is not much that is exciting the campaign anywhere in the country.” At marches and rallies in the campaign’s final days, each party accused the other of being “soft” on Chinese immigration and purveying falsehood. Denouncing the “last Rebel lie,” Republicans resurrected the Civil War. “They appealed to the sword in 1860,” said one, “now they appeal to the pen.”

Whether the Morey letter ultimately had much impact on the outcome of the presidential election of 1880 is hard to say. Just as in 2004, both candidates were locked in a neck-and-neck battle. Just as in 2004, the preceding election had been mired in controversy, the winner had been determined by a single state’s electoral votes, and the outcome wasn’t decided until long after election day. Garfield won the electoral vote, 214 to 155, but the popular vote proved the closest in American history: Out of nine million ballots cast, Garfield surpassed Hancock by less than 2,000 votes (depending on which returns one accepts).

What the Morey letter incident shows clearly is that in the heat of a tight presidential campaign, emotional, gut issues—whether it be race or military service or character or patriotism—can excite both the media and voters and overwhelm matters of greater importance. And in a close election, one incident, one issue—real or contrived—can be decisive. When such an issue is compounded with a good, old-fashioned, cloak-and-dagger mystery, it can easily blot out stories of far vaster significance and complexity.

The Morey letter remains one of the smaller but intriguing political mysteries of the nineteenth century; to this day, no one knows who wrote it. Whether the first political mystery of the twenty-first century also remains unsolved will likely matter less than the unfortunate fact that it has overshadowed more substantive issues and deflected voters’ attention at a critical moment of the campaign. We too, to quote Joseph Medill, should “feel considerable uneasiness—indeed alarm.”

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