Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I Guess Dan Rather Was "Jonathan Russelled"

By 1822, a number of politicians were already surreptitiously jockeying for position in the race to succeed James Monroe as president. Among the contestants were Henry Clay of Kentucky and John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, who was then serving as President Monroe’s Secretary of State.

Clay and Adams had served together in 1814 as two of the five members of the American delegation that had negotiated the treaty with Great Britain, known as the Treaty of Ghent, that settled the War of 1812. During the negotiations, there had been some tensions among the American delegation. The British took the position that the War terminated American rights to fish off the Labrador coast; in return, the British were prepared to give up their right to navigate on the Mississippi River. Adams, a New Englander, was determined to press the Labrador fisheries issue, although he never advocated conceding the latter issue. Westerner Henry Clay adamantly saw the Mississippi River as an American stream and the paramount issue. Ultimately, the Treaty did not mention or settle either issue.

A third member of the American delegation at Ghent had been Jonathan Russell, who in the spring of 1822 was serving as a Representative from Massachusetts in the House. Although from Massachusetts, Russell was a Clay man in 1822, and he came up – either with or without Clay’s connivance – with an ingenious scheme to discredit Clay’s rival Adams.

Russell arranged for another member of the House to demand that the executive branch produce a letter – which Russell believed had been lost – that Ghent delegate Russell had written at the conclusion of the negotiations. Russell then produced a “true copy,” which portrayed Adams at Ghent as one who “would barter the patriotic blood of the West for blubber, and exchange ultra-Allegheny scalps for codfish.”

Adams, however, had the last laugh. He was able to locate the original letter and establish that the “copy” was nothing of the sort and had been fabricated years later. Adams’s destruction of Russell was so devastating that for a time a new phrase entered the language: “to be Jonathan Russelled.”

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