Ohio History Journal

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The Ohio Election of 1838: A Study in

the Historical Method?


Historians are not immune from occasionally making minor errors

such as misreading the results of a state election. Unfortunately, due

to the nature of the craft, one historian's lapse may assume the status

of historical "fact" once it finds its way into the secondary literature,

where the original slip suddenly takes on a life of its own. Through

sheer repetition by other scholars, a historical myth is created that

is extremely difficult to refute for the burden of proof now shifts to

the naysayer, though the original claim may have had little to recom-

mend it in the first place. The way historians have interpreted the

importance of abolitionist voters to the results of the 1838 state elec-

tion in Ohio is one such example.

Perhaps the first mistake historians made in treating the Ohio elec-

tion of 1838 was to exaggerate its drama. According to turn-of-the-

century historian Theodore Clarke Smith, news of the election-eve

arrest of John B. Mahan "thrilled through Ohio like an electric

shock" and especially brought "every abolitionist to a high pitch of

excitement."1 Mahan was a Brown County Methodist preacher

charged by Kentucky authorities with aiding the escape of fugitive

slaves. Shortly before Ohio voters went to the polls in October 1838,

Governor Joseph Vance acceded to Kentucky's request and "deliv-

ered up" Mahan to be placed in jail across the Ohio River. Public

outcry over the Mahan affair, Ohio historian Francis P. Weisenburger

affirmed, "reacted against the popularity of Vance."2





Vernon L. Volpe is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of



1. Theodore Clarke Smith, The Liberty and Free Soil Parties in the Northwest (New

York, 1897), 30. Smith named the Cincinnati Philanthropist as his source, apparently

without considering the stake the abolitionist paper held in the matter. See the discus-

sion below.

2. Francis P. Weisenburger, The Passing of the Frontier, Vol. 3 of The History of the

State of Ohio, Carl Wittke, ed. (Columbus, 1941), 350. As it turned out, Mahan had not

been in Kentucky recently and thus could not be held. The judge's charge to the jury