What if the history of the first century of the United States was plagued by a criminal conspiracy thanks to slavery? In the bloody year that preceded the defeat of confederate forces by the Union Army in the Civil War, Wall Street businessman John Smith Dye self-published a book called The Adder’s Den, or Secrets of the Great Conspiracy. It claimed just that.
At 128 pages, The Adder’s Den provides a sensational non-fiction account of the impact of slavery on the White House from the departure of first president George Washington in 1796 to the assassination of sixteenth president Abraham Lincoln in 1865. It outlines the careers of those presidents in broad brushstrokes in order to show how and why two slave politicians—John Calhoun & Jefferson Davis—murdered as many as four presidents—James Monroe, William Harrison, Zachary Taylor, & Abraham Lincoln—and made unsuccessful attempts on the lives of two more—Andrew Jackson & James Buchanan. Dye took his title from a passage in the Holy Bible: Isaiah 11.8; “and the child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” The phrase, familiar to bible-reading Americans at the time, referred to the fact that mankind was fated to fall victim to the serpentine betrayer from the Garden of Eden.
John Calhoun led the pro-slavery movement in Washington, D.C. for more than half a century, from 1811 to his death in 1850. His protégé Jefferson Davis, whom Calhoun wrote into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1824 and appointed to congress in 1848 (to replace Mississippi senator Jesse Speight—who died of a sudden fatal illness), took Calhoun’s place when he died in 1850 and led slave politicians until he was thrown in prison for orchestrating the murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The goal of the pair was selfish ambition: they wanted to expand slavery across America, use it to seize control of the U.S. government, and install themselves as de facto kings. Their so-called “slave power conspiracy,” which was widely rumored about in the decades leading to the Civil War, was considered credible by men as steady and sober as Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, and Salmon P. Chase.
Dye rushed his book to publication because he wanted make sure Americans knew their White House history well enough to make the right choice in the Election of 1864. Lincoln faced bitter criticism then for the unprecedented war casualties. No civilization on earth had seen such bloodshed. At the time, it seemed like the Midwest might turn against the “Great Emancipator” thanks to a false promise of peace floated by “Republican” newspaperman (and perpetual candidate for president) Horace Greeley. Dye believed he could persuade his fellow Americans to see through Greeley’s charade if he reminded them of their “good” and “bad” past presidents in order to demonstrate why they needed to reelect President Lincoln in the present.
The nation turned out for Lincoln in the landslide Election of 1864. America’s first Republican president racked up clear majorities, even in the border-states, thanks to the addition to Lincoln’s ticket Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee. However, the president’s gesture towards post-war reconciliation in his choice of vice president went up in smoke five months later when he was gunned down on April 14, 1865 during a Good Friday performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater.
Witnessing the “slave power conspiracy” hissing back to life only five days after Robert E. Lee’s peaceful Palm Sunday surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse, Dye doubled down on his dark murder history book by releasing an expanded edition. Dye jettisoned the original Sunday school title (which buried the lead) and replaced it with a more descriptive The History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy. By the time Dye’s revised book hit the streets in the summer of 1865, the Federal government had caught up with the confederate president and his secret service director. Jefferson Davis and Clement Clay were locked behind bars at Fortress Monroe—a U.S. military prison—where, for two years, the ex-U.S. senators awaited trial for masterminding Lincoln’s murder.
HISTORY OF PLOTS/CRIMES OF GREAT CONSPIRACY (LOC)
The History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy includes sworn testimony from U.S. Special Judge Advocate John Bingham, an Ohio lawmaker most famous today as the author of the 14th Amendment. Back in 1865, Bingham was one of three prosecuters tapped to lead the U.S. Conspiracy Court charged with bringing Lincoln’s murderers to justice. After hearing the evidence gathered for the case, Bingham had no doubt in his mind as to the man responsible for the crime:
Surely no word further need be spoken to show that John Wilkes Booth was in this conspiracy; that John Surratt was in this conspiracy; and that Jefferson Davis and his several agents named, in Canada, were in this conspiracy. Whatever may be the conviction of others, my own conviction is that Jefferson Davis is as clearly proven guilty of this conspiracy as John Wilkes Booth, by whose hand Jefferson Davis inflicted the mortal wound on Abraham Lincoln.
Besides the good words from Bingham, The History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy included sworn testimonials from New York banker John Thompson (1800-1891) and clergyman Charles Edwards Lester (1815-1890). Thompson was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and one of the most successful bankers in U.S. history (Thompson was the founder of the First National Bank of New York and Chase National Bank—the predecessor to Chase Manhattan). Charles Lester served with John C. Calhoun in the Tyler administration as the U.S. Consul to Genoa. Lester must not have liked what he saw in that pro-slavery politician’s White House because he abandoned those Democrats to become a clergyman who devoted the rest of his life to the anti-slavery cause of the Republicans.
Bingham, Thompson and Lester were not the only credible individuals of 1865 who praised Dye’s book. Dye also received a generally favorable reception in the periodical press. “No one who reads it can doubt his sincerity and zeal,” the February 5, 1866 Philadelphia Daily Evening Telegraph declared. A follow-up review claimed the book was a serious, if speculative, U.S. history:
It is the author’s object to give, in a small compass, a complete history of the political crimes originating with, or from, slavery. All the proofs are arranged with great care and nicety, and make a strong line of circumstantial evidence. From such materials, it was impossible that the author could fail to make an interesting work. Too prejudiced to be received with trusting confidence, it is too clearly evident to cause any misapprehension on the part of the reader. We are assured it has had an immense sale, and it is probable the demand for it will continue to increase the more its style and character are known.
Most reviews assumed Dye’s “unbelievable” facts would yield sensational demand. However, Dye never found a market for his works. In fact, over the century and a half that followed, copies of The Adder’s Den and The History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy disappeared from public view. Until Google Books was launched in 2002, the only places even a scholar could find Dye’s books were half a dozen rare book libraries. As a result, Dye is completely missing from U.S. history textbooks. He is seldom mentioned in graduate school seminars, let alone given a hearing in public high school classrooms—where his eye-opening account might wake students up to the marvels of U.S. history.
“No harm’s done to history by making it something someone would want to read,” argues popular historian David McCullough, who also knows “you can’t be a full participant in a democracy if you don’t know its history.” Unfortunately, such wisdom has been disregarded by a profession that continues to follow misleading Jim Crow footnotes instead of reading between the lines of Dye’s (nearly all-true) facts. Mainstream academics have branded Dye “unreliable,” “disreputable,” “scandal-ridden,” and even “criminal”. As a result Dye’s name is worse than Mudd—which is ironic because Samuel Mudd had a hand in the killing of the 16th president Dye sought to reelect.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. began the damning of Dye at Harvard University in the 1950s. It happened around the same time Hudson Strode, a cousin of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, wrote the definitive biography of the confederate president. Schlesinger called Dye a man of “scurrilous” or “dubious” reputation and his students followed in his path. Richard Hofstadter at Columbia University labeled Dye’s allegations a “conspiratorial fantasy” that plagued the Civil War period. For strange reason, David Brion Davis went even further at Yale University by publishing an anti-Dye book called The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (1969). The slavery scholar from Beverly Hills not only asserted without evidence that Dye was a paranoid, but also dismissed the facts in Dye’s books as fiction no different than conspiracy theories floated by slaveholders.
Given footnotes like these, getting to the truth about Dye is not easy, even with the power of the Internet. Dye was not famous, so pulling together the details of his life requires equal doses of detective work and imagination. Despite the challenges, one thing is clear. Facts about Dye that exist in the archives do not justify the ridicule and scorn heaped upon him by professional historians. Indeed, virtually all those sources say Dye was a patriot.
Dye was born sometime around the year 1822. He arrived in the world just a few blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia—America’s first capitol. Dye entered Washington College, the only institution of higher learning affiliated with George Washington during his lifetime, and from there embarked on a career as a currency detector. A currency detector helped banks and clients detect counterfeits, which were common at the time and which undermined confidence in the American economy.
To be successful in his chosen trade, Dye had to show his readers the difference between “good presidents” (the genuine currency) and “bad presidents” (the counterfeits). In other words, Dye’s vocation was showing Americans what presidential faces to trust. And in this regard, a surviving 1846 bank note bearing Dye’s name is strangely telling. The bill presents the Great Seal of America and has the engraving work of government-quality printing. Yet, instead of the likeness of a president, the note features the portraits of two women. One looks to be a spouse or housewife and the other a child, or perhaps a coquette, because the girl pulls her hair seductively. In between the pair sits an obedient dog—as if to signal all is tranquil in the “Banking House of John S. Dye” (words printed on the bill).
1846 ADVERTISING BILL PRINTED BY DYE
If Dye’s strange bank note was a biographical statement of sorts, perhaps a vanity piece or advertisement for his services, the Federal census taken four years later offers one imaginative explanation. 1850 was the first year the U.S. government began collecting metadata on its residents. Those official records say a 28-year old “Wall Street publisher” John Smith Dye kept a New York City apartment in lower Manhattan’s Ward 14 (Canal to 14th Street) with two other people: a 12-year old native New Yorker named John Welsh and a 23-year old woman from Ohio named Julia (last name is illegible).
If Julia was Dye’s mistress it would be the earliest evidence, Exhibit A, for the claim by the leading historians that Dye was a man of “scurrilous” or “dubious” reputation. Supporting the same argument, the 1850 census also lists John Smith Dye residing at the headwaters of the Ohio River (Morgan County, Ohio) as a married man. So Dye lived in Ohio, too, with his 27-year old spouse Mary and two sons, 7-year old Joseph and 4-year old John, Jr.
Two census entries for a single man seem suspicious. However, they make perfect sense for Dye. A currency detector had to be in Manhattan to print, publish, and sell his books at the same time he needed to be at the headwaters of the Ohio River where the nation’s currencies came together in circulation. That region of the country was the crossroads of America for the generation that headed west after the Revolutionary War on the nearby Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, the nation’s first Interstate highway. Not far from Dye’s house, those travelers and traders boarded river freighters, and headed down the Ohio River. A series of boomtowns grew up along the way to facilitate travel and trade. They appear on old antebellum maps like stops on an old subway route: Chillicothe, Maysville, Cincinnati, and Louisville on the Ohio River; Memphis, St. Louis, and Vicksburg on the Mississippi.
Below Vicksburg, at a town called Natchez, traders completed their business with New Orleans traders, burned riverboats they could not propel upriver, and returned to the headwaters of the Ohio by foot (or horse) along the famous Natchez Trace. When those businessmen arrived back on the banks of the Ohio River near Parkersburg, they exchanged the bank notes they obtained along the way, which were inevitably a mix of currencies both foreign and domestic. One common bill, the French Dix, meaning 10, was the source for the term “Dixie” (referring to the lower Mississippi region of the South).
Leading his double life, Dye was in the right places, at the right times, to build a successful currency catalog business. Dye was also fortunate to have partnered with one of the nation’s most famous engravers: Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson. Dye knew the man who ran Rawdon-Wright’s Ohio office in Cincinnati. Recruited from New Orleans, Tracy Edson went on to found the American Banknote Company and ultimately filed the patent rights for the green ink used in U.S. currency. Rawdon-Wright was the first private company in the U.S. to receive a contract from the Federal government to design postage stamps—the precursor to a national currency.
Firms like Edson and Rawdon-Wright, together with engravers such as Edson and fraud detectors such as Dye, helped the early American economy find its confidence. Published alongside works by Robert T. Bicknell, Sylvester J. Sylvester, and John Thompson, Dye’s bestseller, The Bank Mirror (1852), offered detailed reproductions of all the legitimate currencies one would expect to find inside a typical bank. Of course, to prevent bank fraud, Dye had to show his readers what the cunning dissemblers looked like, too, and that compelled Dye to reproduce examples of counterfeit currency (which was—is—a crime).
Dye was gathering examples of counterfeit notes to reproduce in one of his encyclopedias when he was arrested near his Ohio home in 1853. He was charged (not convicted) with “keeping an office for the redemption of fraudulent bank notes.” This is Exhibit B from the archives to support the contention that Dye was disreputable and perhaps even a criminal.
Reporters working for The Cincinnati Enquirer discovered one of Dye’s 1846 bills soon afterwards and the newspaper used the existence of the strange banknote to expose a conspiracy by Dye “to impose upon the people of the West a spurious and totally irresponsible currency.” This is Exhibit C for a “scurrilous” Dye even though it is hard to imagine a bank note featuring the faces of two women and a dog, bearing Dye’s own name, was meant to be taken seriously. What criminal mastermind crafty enough to lure the firm of Rawdon-Wright into being a co-conspirator dared print his legitimate business address on the counterfeit bill?
Regardless, The Cincinnati Enquirer declared, “The credit of Dye’s detecting is ruined.” Do not believe everything that appears in the press because facts say the opposite course of events actually occurred. Dye not only expanded his Bank Bulletin and Bank Mirror publications after his release from jail, but also added the Bank Note Plate Delineator, an ambitious book of engravings released through the New York office of Rawdon-Wright. Dye’s newest book was billed as a “mighty publication [that] contains perfect description of all the genuine bank bills circulating in the United States and British America.” One reviewer raved: “We have received a copy of the above named work published by John S. Dye, 172 Broadway, New York. We take pleasure in recommending it to all businessmen as a work of great value. No one need have a bad bill thrust upon them while they have a copy of Dye’s Delineator.”
While Dye’s detector business flourished in New York City, he ran into family problems back in Ohio. Dye became estranged from his wife and children, which is Exhibit D for the “scandal-ridden” Dye. Perhaps tired of her husband’s long absences, Dye’s wife returned to Pennsylvania. By the 1860 census Mary was living on her own near Pittsburgh with her oldest son Joseph (age 17). Meanwhile, her son John (age 11) was listed as a farm laborer at a house several doors down the same street. After that John, Joseph, and Mary disappear into the shrouds of unrecorded U.S. history—except for one final appearance decades later in a Civil War veteran’s directory. Wayne County in Indiana is where John, a farmer, and Joseph, a grocer, lived out their retirement years.
Back in Manhattan in the years leading to the Civil War, Dye expanded his printing business. He moved his press into a new building on Wall Street around the time Jefferson Davis launched the Civil War in 1861 by attacking Fort Sumter on Good Friday. Virtually nothing is known about Dye during the first three years of the Civil War except for one essential fact: records say 41-year old John Smith Dye registered for the draft in June of 1863. It is telling because Dye was too old to be drafted and possessed the means to purchase a substitute, which was common for successful New York businessmen at the time. Nevertheless, Dye signed up for active military service during the deadliest months of the Civil War, a murderous time in world history when the simultaneous July 4th ceasefires at Gettysburg and Vicksburg left 80,000 casualties on just those two battlefields.
Denied enlistment, probably because of his age, Dye undertook another service to his country. Worried that Lincoln might not be reelected in 1864 because of the intrigue caused by “Republican” journalist Horace Greeley’s specious Niagara Peace Conference, Dye researched and wrote a book of U.S. history that was so sensational it promised to propel voters to the voting booths to back Abraham Lincoln. For his jeremiad, Dye zeroed in on the story of two pro-slavery politicians who the annals of U.S. history said would do anything to win.
The first snake hailed from Abbeville, South Carolina. Wikipedia claims Abbeville (population less than 2,000) was the birthplace (“Secession Hill”) and deathbed (“Burt Mansion”) of the confederacy thanks to John Caldwell Calhoun. Raised in extreme privilege derived from accumulated wealth made possible by slaveholding, Calhoun grew up making annual summer trips to New England with his aunt. Biographers say Calhoun stopped by Monticello in Virginia to see Thomas Jefferson on those travels. If Calhoun acquired his renowned oratory skills from the Declaration author himself, it might explain how, as a freshman at Yale, he won a debate with his college president and went on to graduate as valedictorian.
The years Calhoun was in school were a pivotal time in American history. The nation’s Founding Father, a popular Revolutionary War hero and Virginia slave owner, said “no thank you” to an all but certain third term as the first president. Instead, 1st president George Washington handed the White House over to his loyal vice president, John Adams from Boston, a lifelong abolitionist. Courtesy of an error in the U.S. Constitution that was later corrected, 2nd president John Adams entered the White House alongside his pro-slavery rival from Virginia—Vice President Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson was a slaveholder who in his lifetime refused to free his slaves, some his own children, during his lifetime. Dye celebrates Thomas Jefferson for the role he played in declaring America’s freedom on July 4th in 1776—two days after the Continental Congress agreed to secede from Great Britain. However, Dye also remembers another July 4 in 1782 when Thomas Jefferson, serving as Virginia’s wartime governor, fled from British troops at Carter’s Mountain. Dye forgives Jefferson for his cowardice, but not for his selfish ambition, which was fired up following the American Revolution by his Declaration fame and wealth from slavery.
Jefferson devoted his first four years inside the White House undermining President Adams by sabotaging his anti-slavery efforts. Then Jefferson broke from Adams and ran against the president in his midterm election (Election of 1800) where he used his inside knowledge of the Adams administration (plus a scurrilous campaign in the press) to win the White House for himself. When 3rd president Thomas Jefferson threw his old boss out of the White House in 1801, Adams felt so betrayed he refused to attend Jefferson’s inauguration. The two men later reconciled and wrote each other famous letters. However, Adams never forgave or forgot Jefferson’s betrayal. The rivalry between the two burned until the death of both men—incredibly—on the same Fourth of July in 1826.
FIRST CENTURY OF AMERICAN PRESIDENTS: GEORGE WASHINGTON TO U.S. GRANT
JULY 4 FATAL ILLNESS MURDERED ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
Thanks to the fortuitous Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson was coasting into his second term of office when Calhoun graduated from Yale College in 1805. That is when Calhoun headed 100 miles inland to the forgotten Connecticut town that gave birth to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the minister’s daughter who became the author of the bestselling book of the 19th century (after the Bible). Calhoun took up residence a couple of houses down the street from the Beecher family in order to attend the best law school in the land, which in 1805 was neither Harvard nor Yale but tiny Litchfield Law School. It produced 102 congressmen, 29 senators, three Supreme Court justices, and two vice presidents.
After graduating, Calhoun returned to South Carolina where he easily won his first election to Congress in 1810—courtesy of support from local slaveholders. Thanks to his education, Calhoun had no trouble establishing himself as a competent bureaucrat. When the War of 1812 broke out, Calhoun’s skills caught the eye of 4th president James Madison.
The “author” of the U.S. Constitution needed more help than he could find at a desperate time in U.S. history. The British returned to their former colonies and set fire to all the public buildings in Washington, including the White House. Dolly Madison famously saved the most important object inside the Executive Mansion: Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne Portrait” of George Washington refusing a third term. Still the war came very close to destroying the new nation barely a generation into its existence.
Serving under President Madison as secretary of state and secretary of war, Battle of Valley Forge hero James Monroe was both overworked and empty-handed. Even the “Last of the Founding Fathers” could not run two parts of the U.S. government at the same time during a full-scale war. Overwhelmed, Monroe turned his war department over to the 37-year old Calhoun while he focused his attention on state.
The always-precocious Calhoun excelled as his stand-in bureaucrat. When Monroe followed Madison into the White House as the 5th president in 1817, Calhoun remained in his seat as Monroe’s secretary of war. It was a promotion made more out of need than by Monroe’s endorsement. Calhoun was the president’s sixth choice. Calhoun prevailed only because none of Monroe’s other nominees were willing to serve.
Calhoun was so ambitious he wanted to run for president as early as 1824. However, when John Quincy Adams entered the race, the pro-slavery bureaucrat realized he would never beat the son of a Founding Father, especially at a time when so many other civilized nations were abolishing slavery. So Calhoun joined Adams instead and campaigned for the Massachusetts politician in hopes of becoming his vice president. Adams went along with Calhoun because he needed some pro-slavery votes to prevail in the general election.
Adams entered the White House as America’s 6th president in 1825. Almost immediately, his vice president began to betray him just as Thomas Jefferson had done to his father. Worse, as the Election of 1828 approached, Calhoun completely abandoned the second Adams and promoted himself as a vice president candidate for Andrew Jackson instead. Famous as the War of 1812 hero who turned the British back at the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson overwhelmed Adams in the Election of 1828. Calhoun made U.S. history by becoming the only vice president to serve two different presidents.
Notwithstanding the political alliance, 7th president Andrew Jackson and Calhoun were rivals going back to the Monroe administration—when Calhoun ran the war department and Jackson was the nation’s most famous general. For that reason Calhoun schemed on how to replace Jackson in his midterm Election of 1832. To make that unlikely turn of events happen, a pro-slavery bureaucrat like Calhoun needed a big scandal to unseat the popular war hero president. Calhoun believed he had one with his inside knowledge of the U.S. invasion of Florida.
To sell his claim that General Jackson acted without orders from the White House when he seized Florida in 1817, Calhoun needed corroborating testimony from his old boss: James Monroe. For that reason, Calhoun wrote nearly a dozen letters to Monroe in the winter of 1831. Beginning with the first, Calhoun begged the retired president to support his version of events relating to Florida—namely that Jackson had not been authorized to invade the Spanish territory (e.g. Jackson went rogue).
Refusing to go to war with the popular sitting president, or perhaps knowing the character of Calhoun all too well, Monroe refused to back Jackson’s vice president. Monroe and Calhoun were arguing over the matter in letters that were passed through Monroe’s son-in-law when Monroe died abruptly on July 4, 1831. Monroe was sick going into his 74th summer. Still, the death of last Founding Father president on Independence Day made Monroe the third of America’s first five presidents to die on the Fourth of July. That is an extraordinary coincidence.
If Monroe’s death was hurried along to prevent him from revealing Calhoun’s plot to Jackson, it would have been an easy crime for Calhoun to commit. Arsenic was freely available on street corners and Calhoun had access to African-Americans who did not need to know about an unspeakable conspiracy in order to carry one out for a criminal politician. It sounds like pure “Hollywood” fiction. However, Calhoun’s last words to Monroe’s son-in-law were not at all reassuring: “He is approaching the period that naturally brings life to a termination. I feel assured that one of his firmness of mind who has passed through so honorable and useful a career will look at the approach of the period with perfect calmness.”
Monroe passed away before he could let Jackson know his vice president was betraying him, just as Calhoun had done to the 2nd Adams like Jefferson had done to the first. Still, the death of Monroe on July 4 in 1831 left Calhoun without the backstop he needed for his slander of Jackson. Calhoun tried to go forward on his own by releasing evidence of Jackson’s “wrongdoing” to the press. However, his legal arguments only confused people, and, by going public, Calhoun exposed his plot to Jackson. The president sidelined his vice president, ultimately forcing him to resign, and Calhoun made U.S. history a second time by becoming one of only two vice presidents to resign from office (with Nixon’s man Spiro Agnew).
Famously, Jackson wanted Calhoun hung for treason. However, the threat did not stop Calhoun from reappearing in the U.S. Senate one day later—thanks to unflinching support from South Carolina slaveholders. For that reason, Calhoun was discharging his duties on Capitol Hill three years later when a lone gunman stepped up to President Jackson on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and tried to shoot him at point blank range. In what can only be described as a miracle, neither of the would-be assassin’s two pistols discharged. When police interviewed the unemployed housepainter behind the assassination attempt, he refused to finger the man who hired him. The assassin did note his favorite politician was John C. Calhoun.
Rumors of his involvement in the attempted assassination of Jackson kept Calhoun sidelined during the administration of 8th president Martin Van Buren, America’s only non-native speaking president (Van Buren’s first language was Dutch). Van Buren frustrated Calhoun’s efforts to rise up again, so Calhoun used the time to draft his unintelligible theory of nullification, or the fraudulent legal argument (cloaked in the principle of states rights) that the U.S. Constitution promotes rule by powerful minorities such as slave owners. Jefferson Davis would later use Calhoun’s specious doctrine to justify the secession of the southern states from the Union.
Ironically, Calhoun’s prospects improved after the Election of 1840 when Indiana politician William Harrison was made the 9th president on his promise to stand firm against the corruption of the slave politicians—only to die from a sudden fatal illness days later. History books blame the victim for delivering too long an inauguration speech on a cold day without a hat (the official cause of Harrison’s death was pneumonia). However, many Americans at the time believed the slave politicians poisoned Harrison because he hesitated to admit the slave republic of Texas.
To quash those rumors of conspiracy, Calhoun introduced his infamous “Gag Rule” on Capitol Hill. It prevented congressmen from raising any inflammatory questions relating to slavery. While Calhoun suppressed the facts, Harrison’s vice president, Virginia slaveholder John Tyler, was made the 10th president and “His Accidency” never filled his own shoes. Instead, Tyler left his office of vice president vacant and turned to Calhoun for advice. Tyler made Calhoun his secretary of state once the furor over Harrison’s suspicious death died down, and together the two slave politicians set about dramatically expanding the “peculiar institution” in America.
First they admitted the slave republic of Texas. Then they prepared to admit the pro-slavery dominion of Florida. When Tyler’s campaign for slavery began to flag and Tennessee slaveholder James Polk replaced “His Accidency” in the Election of 1844, Calhoun stuck around the Polk White House to help the new president admit Florida. Then, looking to expand slavery still further, 11th president James K. Polk ordered the invasion of the Republic of Mexico. Polk’s goal was to create still more slave states with New Mexico, Arizona, and (southern) California.
First-time congressman Abraham Lincoln stood up on Capitol Hill and declared Polk’s declaration of war in 1846 illegal and immoral. Zachary Taylor, the nation’s top general (and cousin of James Madison), joined Lincoln to condemn the invasion. Both future presidents paid a steep price for their bold stand: Lincoln went on to lose his reelection and President Polk demoted General Taylor. Taylor was put in charge of the ragtag volunteers that followed the U.S. Invasion Army into Mexico. One of those volunteers—because the U.S. Army (having court-martialed him twice) refused to take him—was Taylor’s estranged ex-son-in-law Jefferson Davis.
PRO-SLAVERY POLITICIAN JOHN C. CALHOUN (1782-1850) CALHOUN’S DISCIPLE: JEFFERSON DAVIS (1808-1889)
The American people decided they had seen enough of the slave politicians after the brutality of the Mexican War. In the Election of 1848 they elected a U.S. Army general they knew would stand up to the corruption of the slave politicians because he had already done so at great cost to his own career. When Zachary Taylor, who was ironically a slaveholder himself (the last in the White House in fact), became the 12th president in 1849, he wore a battered white sombrero on his horse rides around Washington, D.C. to remind those American people on which side of the Mexican War he really stood.
To make up for that unfortunate conflict, Taylor vowed to admit California—all of it—to the Union without slavery. More importantly, Taylor openly refused to compromise with the slave politicians. Nearly the size of Texas, but free of slavery thanks to Spain (which outlawed bondage in 1811) and Mexico (which outlawed slavery in 1824), California was an electoral gold mine for the abolitionists who were giving birth to the Republican Party around this time. The mass migration of free people into the Golden State because of the gold rush promised to end slavery forever.
Meanwhile, the fires of ambition still raged inside a dying Calhoun, whose final fight against history produced what Jim Crow historians called the greatest collection of speeches ever delivered on Capitol Hill. Those presenters were called the Great Triumvirate because John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster each represented their different views on slavery. However, the 2-1 lineup for slavery distorts the genuine numbers at the time, which were 3-2 against slavery because William Seward and John Hale backed Webster with abolitionist speeches that were equally compelling.
Despite the illustrious rhetoric, the battle for California came down to the final words of Calhoun, who was dying of tuberculosis, and the defiant 12th president who stood in his way. Calhoun was so near death in the spring of 1850 that Virginia slave politician John Mason, the author of the odious Fugitive Slave Act, was presented with the “honor” of reading Calhoun’s final speech. When Calhoun died days later, the even greater “honor” of serving as Grand Master of his funeral in Charleston, South Carolina was given to Calhoun’s protégé Jefferson Davis.
Following in his mentor’s footsteps, Jefferson Davis returned to Washington, D.C. in May of 1850 and demanded his ex-father-in-law compromise with the slave politicians. In June, Davis threatened to lead a cabal of southern states out of the Union if President Taylor refused to compromise on California. In the first days of July, Taylor discovered Davis was involved in a plot to invade Cuba (for a slave state to offset Taylor’s free California) and threatened to hang his ex-son-in-law for treason.
“Let it rise,” were Taylor’s last words to his people on America’s 74th Fourth of July in 1850. The 12th president referred to California statehood, the bill for which had just passed the U.S. Senate, and the Washington Monument, which Taylor dedicated that day. Then the president suddenly fell fatally ill, the result, according to U.S. history books, of eating bad cherries. Never mentioned is the fact that Davis, his wife, and his slave (Pemberton) attended to Taylor’s bedside inside the White House during the five long days it took “Old Rough and Ready” to vomit, twist, and die.
After the death of Taylor on July 9, 1850, Dye chronicles the rise of Davis and the road to the Civil War. First, Taylor’s vice president, unlucky 13th president Millard Fillmore, fearing a civil war, reversed Taylor’s course of action on California. His compromise with the slave politicians resulted in, among other nefarious consequences, the passage of Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act, which motivated newlywed Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the most popular book of the 19th century (besides the Bible). Lincoln credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with bringing about the Civil War with her fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, the man truly responsible for bringing about the Civil War quietly left the U.S. Senate in 1851 amid rumors he was involved in his ex-father-in-law’s sudden death.
Davis returned to Mississippi where he ran, unsuccessfully, for governor. When that attempt at a political comeback failed, Davis retired to Vicksburg where he plotted with his brother Joseph, an experienced lawyer twenty-years his senior and owner of one of the largest plantations in the South (with 200+ slaves). The Davis brothers schemed with a likely family relation, Massachusetts’s politician Caleb Cushing, to come up with a plan to put their own president inside the White House.
The dark horse candidate they selected was New Hampshire Democrat Franklin Pierce, an ambitious “Dough Face” (slavery sympathizer from the North) politician rumored to be a Mexican War drinking buddy of Davis. Thanks to the campaigning in the North by Cushing and in the South by the Davis brothers, plus a slippery campaign biography of Pierce written by his far more famous college classmate (Nathaniel Hawthorne), Pierce emerged from obscurity to win the Election of 1852.
Pierce chose a well-known Alabama politician, Rufus King, as his running mate to reassure voters. However, Vice President King fell fatally ill just days after the 14th president was inaugurated and Pierce followed slave politician precedent by not filling his shoes. Instead, Pierce turned to Davis and Cushing for advice, making both men the de facto leaders of his cabinet. Davis followed in the path of his political mentor and became the head of the war department where Pierce gave him unprecedented powers. At one point, Secretary Davis controlled 1/3 of the budget for the entire Federal government.
President-elect Pierce suffered a horrible tragedy on his way to his White House. His train derailed outside Andover, Massachusetts and his child was decapitated in front of his wife. Jane Pierce believed the accident was divine punishment for her husband’s ambition, so she refused to serve as the First Lady. The spouse of Pierce’s ambitious Secretary of War stepped in, and Mrs. Varina Davis hosted hundreds of social gatherings for the president.
The collapse of the American economy and a civil war in Kansas, both caused by Pierce, doomed any chance of a second term for the 14th president in the Election of 1856. Looking to restore prosperity and peace, the American people decided to replace their neophyte (Pierce) with the most experienced politician at the time, Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan. Members of the Pierce cabinet were still vacating the White House offices when president-elect Buchanan arrived with his delegation at the National Hotel in Washington, D.C. and was poisoned. Buchanan along with members of his staff (and hundreds of others) fell ill in a strange epidemic called the “National Hotel Disease.” In its aftermath, dozens died, including a beloved Buchanan family member.
The official explanation for the tragedy was bad plumbing at the hotel, which was accepted by Jim Crow historians and forgotten today. However, at the time the New York (Daily) Times called the National Hotel poisonings a “failed attempt at mass murder designed to elevate a president by succession.” Reporters at other newspapers suggested that arsenic was sprinkled into refined sugar bowls, which affected mostly Northern drinkers because Southerners typically used pulverized sugar in their tea. Dye summarized those reports: “about 38 died from the effects of the poison, but not a single southern man was affected.”
The sugar bit sounds like pure Tinseltown fiction. Nevertheless, 15th president James Buchanan was convinced the National Hotel poisonings were a plot designed to elevate his vice president, who happened to be a Kentucky schoolmate of outgoing Secretary of War Davis. For two years after the poisonings Buchanan outright refused to speak a word to his vice president John Breckinridge. Indeed, Breckinridge was so excluded from the Buchanan White House he returned home and served the American people from Kentucky—if scheming with Buchanan’s untrustworthy secretaries of interior (Jacob Thompson), treasury (Howell Cobb), and war (John Floyd) to arm the southern states for Davis could be called public service.
Lincoln won the Election of 1860 by an overwhelming nationwide margin. Still, Davis became the confederate president two weeks before 16th President Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861. Breckinridge left the U.S. government to conspire with Davis. Four years later Breckinridge was collaborating with Davis as his confederate secretary of war, exchanging communications with ex-U.S. Senator Clement Clay (who headed up the confederate secret service) when Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth five days after the peaceful surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
DAVIS AND HIS SECRET SERVICE WANTED FOR THE MURDER OF LINCOLN IN 1865
Besides condemning Booth’s conspirators, all of whom were hung, evidence gathered for the U.S. Conspiracy Court revealed a Davis spy named George Sanders prepared John Wilkes Booth for Lincoln’s assassination in Canada. However, that damning fact was never exposed to the public in a trial. Instead, the “Republican” behind the fraudulent Niagara Peace Conference, Horace Greeley, launched a campaign to free Davis in his New York newspaper in order to promote his own bid for the presidency. Encouraged by his fellow Democrats, the 17th President used Greeley’s cover to replace Lincoln’s attorney general James Speed with his own man Henry Stanbery. Before he resigned to defend Johnson from impeachment as counsel for the president, Stanbery freed Davis and deported him to Canada. Escaping impeachment by one vote, Johnson then got away with pardoning all the Davis collaborators except Sanders.
To conclude: Dye’s history of the White House, which is more or less factually correct, or as accurate as one might expect given Dye was an amateur historian writing at the height of the Civil War with limited access to libraries and archives, presents a damning circumstantial case that Calhoun and Davis were serial murderers. Which is to say, and there is no easy way to say this, two prominent 19th century American politicians orchestrated the demise of as many as four presidents [James Monroe in 1831 and William Harrison in 1840 by Calhoun plus Zachary Taylor in 1850 and Abraham Lincoln in 1865 by Davis] plus the attempted assassinations of two more commanders in chief [Jackson in 1836 by Calhoun and Buchanan in 1857 by Davis].
These are stunning charges. Still, when Dye published them, they barely caused a stir. Was the nation too shell-shocked to go through the facts? Or were those truths commonly believed and therefore ignored? Dye’s stature did not suffer any as a result of his incredible allegations. Indeed, his reputation as a “detector” only grew. In fact, the leaders of the Republican Party were so taken by Dye’s skills as a presidential historian they asked him to write a campaign biography for Ulysses S. Grant. Dye’s biography of the 18th President U.S. Grant went through 10 editions and helped Grant get elected in 1868.
Just in time, too, because things were so dire inside the U.S. government in the two years after the Civil War that Lincoln’s “Rock on the Beach” (Secretary of War Edwin Stanton) was forced to defend America’s military headquarters by himself with a loaded pistol—the reason, besides letting Davis go, Johnson was nearly (by one vote) impeached. Despite such lingering conspiracy, the general who led the United States to victory in the Civil War did not fail to win again and again and again. Grant reunited the nation by serving two terms. He undertook and successfully completed a controversial Reconstruction. He prevented Davis and his insiders from rising up again in Kentucky. Finally, he snuffed out the paramilitary Ku Klux Klan, which did not appear again on American soil until 1915.
Feeling much better about his country with Grant in the White House, Dye published Humanity: Its Fountain and Stream in 1870. Once again printed from his own press, the book was Dye’s attempt to synthesize the history of civilization from the slave kings of Ancient Rome to America’s Ulysses. Dye postulated in Humanity that mankind was originally red in color and that black and white races emerged as variations as humans dispersed across the globe. It was not a crazy theory, as far as 19th century thinking about race went. It was an attempt by a devout man to bridge the wonders of religion and science: the miracles of God uncovered by Darwin.
Still, Humanity is not the kind of publication that enhances the credibility of a writer today, Exhibit E for an unreliable Dye. Dye’s standing is also diminished by his alliterative nom de guerre for the book, Deacon Dye, because there is no evidence Dye was ordained for the ministry. This is Exhibit F for a disreputable Dye. It is possible Dye used the religious name to sell books. However, it is just as likely Dye was referencing a conventional meaning of deacon (“through the dust”) as an honorific to his creator, as in the dirt kicked up by a humble messenger devoted to God.
America was celebrating its centennial when Dye moved back to his birthplace of Philadelphia in 1876. Dye ran his detector business out of a building at 1338 Chestnut Street—which sat across from the nation’s second oldest mint, just down the street from “Ye Old Mint” (the first). Inspired by the new location, Dye expanded his product line by publishing images of “good” and “bad” coins to go with his books of “good” and “bad” bills. Dye’s new catalogs featured the genuine presidents made from gold, silver, and copper. Dye also included the impostors made from lead and some of those confederate coins bore the face of Davis.
Newspapers were still describing Dye as a “Treasury expert in immediate communication with the Secret Service bureau at Washington” as late as 1880. One such clipping states, with emphasis: “What he says is reliable.” Dye also got a second chance at having a family. The 1880 census reported Dye living in a townhouse between the Schuylkill River and Girard College, just a few blocks from the Philadelphia Art Museum. A government enumerator found the 58-year old residing with his 33-year old second wife Emma Hearing. The couple lived with Emma’s mother and four children from Emma’s first marriage, ages 4, 9, 11, and 18. The 11-year old were listed as a clerk in his stepfather’s “Publishing Office.”
Sadly, Dye passed away less than a year later on the Sabbath. Fittingly, his family buried him at Mount Vernon Cemetery in Philadelphia. Dye was a successful businessman and author of several important books. Indeed, all evidence about Dye I could find in the archives besides Exhibits A-F above, plus unfounded accusations made by historians going back to Jim Crow, says Dye was a true patriot.
(Top)–PREFACE FOR THE ADDER’S DEN (1864)