Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


Oberlin commenst this war!

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

“Oberlin commenst this war.  Oberlin wuz the prime cause uv all the trubble.”  Thus spoke the Reverend Petroleum V. Nasby, one of the most well-known American cartoon characters of the Civil War era.  Nasby’s uncouth, semi-illiterate letters enjoyed nationwide newspaper circulation (in the North, at least) and appeared in several books, and were read with great amusement by President Abraham Lincoln.  And since Nasby enjoyed ranting about Oberlin, I thought it would be fun to do a blog about him and his creator, the journalist and political satirist David R. Locke.

David Ross Locke

David Ross Locke

At the time Locke started writing the Nasby letters in 1862, he was 29 years old and the editor of the Jeffersonian, a Republican newspaper in Findlay, Ohio.  At that time, newspapers often had political affiliations, and Locke, a staunch anti-slavery Republican, had been editing Republican newspapers since the founding of the party several years earlier.  Locke was also an outspoken advocate of racial equality, which was extremely unusual at that time, even among opponents of slavery.  In 1854 he wrote an editorial lashing out at the Ohio Senate for refusing to allow an African American journalist, William Howard Day (an 1847 graduate of Oberlin College), to report on their proceedings.  He called Day “a young man of striking ability” and the action of the Ohio Senate “one of the most contemptible actions on record.”

Locke also had close ties to the leadership of the Republican Party.  In 1855 he entered a brief newspaper partnership with Roeliff Brinkerhoff, a major Ohio Republican Party operative and a future legal consultant to the Oberlin-Wellington rescuers.  Locke was an enthusiastic supporter of Abraham Lincoln, who he first met during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois in 1858.  When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Locke volunteered for enlistment, was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, and raised a company of 100 men.  But when he got to Columbus, Ohio’s Republican Governor, William Dennison, convinced him that his unique journalistic skills would do more good for the Union cause than military service.  So Locke relinquished his command and took ownership of the Jeffersonian.

Ironically, the Jeffersonian was distributed in Hancock County, a strongly Democratic county in mostly Republican Ohio.  Locke was incensed at some of the extremely racist and pro-Confederate attitudes he encountered in Hancock County among a group of men known as “Copperheads” – anti-war, pro-slavery Democrats led by Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham.  One Hancock County man in particular had been circulating a petition throughout the county to expel African Americans from Ohio.  But Locke, who said “I can kill more error by exaggerating vice than by abusing it”, had a ready-made answer for this.  For years his journalistic writings had been dabbling in satire, letters from fictitious characters, and a form of writing that was popular in that era that included wild misspellings and malapropisms.  He would now combine the three to create a parody of the man distributing the petition, and use it to lampoon the Copperheads and the Democratic Party (often called “the Democracy” in that era).

Thus on April 25, 1862, Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby was born – an unscrupulous, ignorant, uncouth, blatantly racist, Copperhead Democrat.  On that day a letter appeared in the Jeffersonian, signed by Nasby, under the heading “Letter from a Straight Democrat”.  (When Locke later published a book of his Nasby letters, this letter would appear as the third entry, under the title “Negro Emancipation”.)  In this letter he railed against the growing black population in the region: “I am bekomin alarmed, for, ef they inkreese at this rate, in suthin over sixty years they’ll hev a majority in the town, and may, ef they git mean enuff, tyrannize over us, even ez we air tyrannizin over them.  The danger is imminent!… Fellow-whites arouse!  The enemy is onto us!  Our harths is in danger!… Ameriky for white men!”

Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby

Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (illustrated by cartoonist Thomas Nast)

The letter got nationwide distribution through a journalistic process of the time called the “exchange”, and became an instant hit.   President Lincoln was so amused by it that he committed passages  to memory and would frequently recite them.  But Locke was only getting started.  Nasby would pump out letters for the next 20 years.

Two months after his first letter, Locke used Nasby to focus on the issue of abolitionism.  It was a common sentiment among the Copperhead Democrats that the abolitionists were the cause of the Civil War.   Lincoln’s predecessor in the Presidency, Democrat James Buchanan, voiced this sentiment in his last annual message to Congress, when he denounced abolitionist “agitation”:

…This agitation has ever since been continued by the public press, by the proceedings of State and county conventions and by abolition sermons and lectures. The time of Congress has been occupied in violent speeches on this never-ending subject, and appeals, in pamphlet and other forms, indorsed by distinguished names, have been sent forth from this central point and spread broadcast over the Union.

How easy would it be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever and to restore peace and harmony to this distracted country! They, and they alone, can do it. All that is necessary to accomplish the object, and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way…

And so, in June, 1862, Locke lampooned the philosophy of former President Buchanan, who he had previously called “the most odious dough face in the north”.  He did this by having Nasby harangue the abolitionists, in a letter that would later be published in his book under the title  “Annihilates an Oberlinite”.  In this letter, Nasby writes about his encounter with a fellow traveler on a passenger train.  When he finds out the man is from Oberlin, Nasby erupts:

[Warning – the  following passages contain blatantly racist language and sentiments.  They are exaggerations of attitudes that were prevalent among a large portion of the population at the time, and are presented here uncensored for their historical value]

“Oberlin!” shreekt I.  “Oberlin! wher Ablishnism runs rampant – wher a nigger is 100 per cent better nor a white man – wher a mulatto is a objik uv pity on account uv hevin white blood!  Oberlin! that stonest the Dimekratik prophets, and woodent be gathered under Vallandygum’s wings as a hen-hawk gathereth chickens, at no price!  Oberlin, that gives all the profits uv her college to the support uv the underground railroad —“

“But—” sez he.

“Oberlin,” continyood I, “that reskoos niggers, and sets at defiance the benificent laws for takin on em back to their kind and hevenly-minded masters!  Oberlin! —“

“My jentle frend,” sez he, “Oberlin don’t do nuthin uv the kind.  Yoo’ve bin misinformd.  Oberlin respex the laws, and hez now a body uv her gallant sons in the feeld a fightin to maintane the Constooshn.”

“A fightin to maintane the Constooshn,” retortid I.  “My frend” (and I spoke impressivly), “no Oberlin man is a doin any such thing.  Oberlin commenst this war.  Oberlin wuz the prime cause uv all the trubble.  What wuz the beginning uv it?  Our Suthrin brethrin wantid the territories – Oberlin objectid.  They wantid Kansas for ther blessid instooshn – Oberlin agin objecks.  They sent colonies with muskits and sich, to hold the territory – Oberlin sent two thousand armed with Bibles and Sharp’s rifles – two instooshns Dimokrasy cood never stand afore – and druv em out.  They wantid Breckenridge fer President.  Oberlin refused, and elektid Linkin.  Then they seceded; and why is it that they still hold out?”

He made no anser.

“Becoz,” continyood I, transfixin him with my penetratin gaze, “Oberlin won’t submit.  We might to-day hev peese ef Oberlin wood say to Linkin, ‘Resine!’ and to Geff Davis, ‘Come up higher!’  When I say Oberlin, understand it ez figgerative for the entire Ablishn party, wich Oberlin is the fountinhead.  There’s wher the trouble is.  Our Suthrin brethren wuz reasonable.  So long as the Dimokrasy controlled things, and they got all they wanted, they wuz peeceable.  Oberlin ariz – the Dimokrasy wuz beet down, and they riz up agin it.”

(This letter became the inspiration for the title of journalist Nat Brandt’s outstanding book about antebellum Oberlin, The Town that Started the Civil War, available at the Oberlin Heritage Center.)

In Washington, President Lincoln “read every letter as it appeared”, and enjoyed them so much that he kept a folder of them on his desk, and would frequently read passages from them to visitors “with infinite zest, while his melancholy features grew bright.”  He even read them at cabinet meetings, much to the exasperation of the ever serious-minded Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.  On multiple occasions the President expressed the sentiment that “for the genius to write such things” he would gladly “swap places” with Locke.  At the end of the war, Lincoln sent Locke a letter thanking him for his services.

But the end of the war and the assassination of President Lincoln didn’t stop Locke – or Nasby.  The issue of Reconstruction became a new cause.  Locke was initially a solid supporter of President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor.  Although Locke was firmly in favor of equal rights for blacks, he appreciated President Johnson’s conservative and reconciliatory approach to Reconstruction, as opposed to the harsher policies of the Radical Republicans in Congress.  But as Johnson and the Radical Republicans battled it out and the rift between them grew wider, Locke began to feel that Johnson moved too far towards the Copperhead Democrats.  Then in April 1866, Johnson issued a proclamation declaring the insurrection “at an end” in ten of the seceded states, thereby effectively ending Johnson’s Reconstruction plan and returning control of their affairs entirely to their state governments.  Locke felt that this was a premature “breach of faith” and that “absolute equality in everything pertaining to person and property should be placed above the caprices of the State Legislatures.”   He now saw Johnson as a Copperhead himself and vented his full satirical fury against him (which is to say that Nasby now came out in favor of him).  In one letter, Nasby announces that President Johnson has personally assigned him the task of touring the country and removing all the Radical Republican postmasters (at that time, the Post Office was a major department of the federal government).  One of the towns he visited in the process was – you guessed it – Oberlin:

It wuz a crooel necessity, after all, wich druv me into the servis uv His Eggslency A. Johnson.  Crooel, I say; for whenever he hez a partikelerly mean piece uv work to perform, suthin so inexpressibly sneakin that Seward nor Randall won’t undertake it, they alluz send for me…

The biznis required uv me wuz statid by Seward in his usual loocid style.  It wuz merely to cirkelate incognito (wich is Latin for sneakin) among the recently appinted offis-holders, and assertain ther views upon general politikle topics, but more espeshally ther feelins toward the President and Sekretary uv State…

In Ohio, the first place I stopt at wuz Oberlin, the place where the nigger college is located at.  I regret to say that the Postmaster at that pint is a rantin Ablishnist; and in the two hours I wuz ther, I coodent find a Conservative Republikin who wood take it…  I don’t investigate ez fully ez I might, for ther ain’t a drop uv likker sold ther; and ez my flask give out, I felt that doo considerashen for my health woodent permit my stayin another hour.  I recommend the abolishen uv the office, or the establishment uv a grosery, with a bar in the back room, ez a nukleus around wich the Dimocrisy kin rally…

Locke would eventually advocate  the impeachment of President Johnson and would support the Radical Republicans in Congress when they overrode the President and implemented their own Reconstruction plan under new and harsher terms.  He even advocated the appointment of African American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Oberlin’s John Mercer Langston to cabinet level posts.  (Locke himself would decline the offer of an ambassadorship during U.S. Grant’s Presidency.)

Locke went on to enjoy great success in the years following the war.  His Nasby letters continued to bring him fame and fortune, but he also wrote plays, novels, short stories, poems and hymns, and became a successful lecturer and entrepreneuer, and a real estate mogul in Toledo, Ohio.  He became a close friend of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).  He never lost his interest in politics or social activism, and became an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage and temperance (the latter somewhat ironically, as Locke himself was a heavy drinker for most of his life).  But in the public mind he was always Nasby, which eventually led him to express regret that he had ever created the character.

Locke died in 1888 of tuberculosis, at the age of only 54 years.  One of his many Ohio Republican friends, ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes (a former Civil War general and Underground Railroad conductor), wrote in eulogy:

With his pen Mr. Locke gained for himself a conspicuous and honorable place among those who fought the good fight in the critical years of the anti-slavery conflict before the war.  During the war and after it, he was surpassed by no writer in the extent and value of his influence in the march of events until its great results were substantially secured.  He had the satisfaction of receiving from Mr. Lincoln himself the first meed of praise for his matchless service in the hour of this country’s trial.

Sources consulted:

David Ross Locke, The Struggles (Social, Financial and Political) of Petroleum V. Nasby

John M. Harrison, The Man Who Made Nasby, David Ross Locke

President James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Message” (December 3, 1860)

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

Carl Sandburg,   Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years & the War Years

Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century

Oberlin College Archives, “RG 5/4/3 – Minority Student Records

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