Oh, the pouty foot stomping, the endless whining, the petty name calling. The boastful lies, cries of “he did it first” and playground bullying. No, it’s not the school kids at recess or even the tweenies in the back seat. Think meaner. Yup, you guessed it, it's another Presidential Campaign!
You might reasonably think, being in the middle of it, that this behavior is just a modern phenomenon, exacerbated by the advent of social media and the 24 hour news cycle. Surely behavior was more civil "in the old days" right? Unfortunately, however, campaign behavior was never civil, even in the old days.
Don’t believe it? Just search “dirty presidential elections” and you’ll get a slew of articles and books, scholarly and popular, documenting the tortured history of our nation’s elections. Every election cycle seemed to be more outrageous than the last with louder accusations, damning doublespeak, and polished half-truths. Certainly, there were some quieter, less contentious elections, but as you will see below, not many.
So how did we get here? Well, when I said it’s in our history, I meant it. Some of the ugliest mudslinging and downright meanness in campaigning occurred back in the beginning, when American partisan politics first gained a foothold. For this, we have to go way back to the days and nights of our beloved founding fathers. Yeah, those guys. The ones who gave us the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and, of course, the Electoral College. That last one should've been a clue.
The Presidential Election of 1800
The year was 1800 and Thomas Jefferson found himself running against his Vice President, John Adams, for the Presidency. In those days, although there were state electors, each who could vote twice for President, there were no “political conventions”, primaries or delegates as we know them today. There were also no presidential “tickets”. Each man ran on his own (Note #1: yes, technically Aaron Burr was Jefferson’s Republican “running mate” in 1800, but it just complicates matters due to the two vote thing and not really the issue here so let’s just move on). Basically, he who got the most votes became the President and second place became the Vice President. Thus, a President could find himself running against his own Vice President for re-election. (Note #2: this fundamental flaw in the original version of the Electoral College was cured by the passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804, yet another tortured story.).
All would have been well in 1800 (and perhaps onward) if gentlemen had remained gentlemen. Alas, no. While political differences and philosophical tensions had always existed under the surface of a unified front against Britain, the truce was tenuous. Without a common enemy, the Federalists and Republicans (main parties of the time), fought openly amongst themselves for the philosophical direction of the fledgling nation. The Republicans wanted limited federal involvement whereas the Federalists believed in more centralized control.
While Jefferson (Republican) and Adams (Federalist) had political differences, they were great personal friends, sharing an interest not only in the young nation and its future, but also gardening (Note#3: Yes, gardening. All the founding fathers were avid gardeners, see Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf). However, there’s nothing like a good dirty campaign to tear a friendship apart, even when the candidates don’t personally do the campaigning. Unlike today, the candidates spent much of the actual campaign at their respective residences letting others sling the mud for them.
For example, one Adams’ loyalist, the President of Yale University, publicly opined that a Jefferson victory, “would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution” while another Adams backer, a popular Connecticut newspaper, proclaimed that a Jefferson victory would make this nation a place where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” (Forbes, The Dirtiest Presidential Campaign Ever? Not Even Close!, August 20, 2012, http://onforb.es/Otxpx3 )
Not to be outdone, Jefferson hired a ruthless publicist/campaign manager who made the Watergate folks look almost amateurish. James Callendar was the perfect hitman for Jefferson. Callendar, a journalist previously jailed by Adams for violations of the Sedition Act, hated Adams so he imbued his pro-Jefferson pamphlets with particularly vicious vitriol. Callendar even claimed that Adams wanted to invade France, which was completely untrue. Further, Callendar wrote that Adams was “a rageful, lying, warmongering fellow; a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite” who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.” (Forbes, supra) Adams felt he was above the fray, so he did nothing on his own to counter the attacks. As a result, Jefferson’s hired hatchet tactics helped win the day.
Callendar, unbelievable perhaps by today’s standards, was actually jailed for his political slander against Adams. When released, Jefferson disassociated himself from Callendar and refused to help him. This 'betrayal' prompted Callendar to seek revenge against Jefferson by revealing the Sally Hemings/Thomas Jefferson connection. The Founding Fathers’ Dirty Campaigns,8/22/2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/wayoflife/08/22/mf.campaign.slurs.slogans.
The Presidential Election of 1828
So the election of 1800 started the nasty partisan politics snowball rolling downhill. Unfortunately, it has never stopped. Take the 1828 campaign between “Founding Son” John Quincy Adams and War Hero Andrew Jackson, considered by many to be one of the dirtiest campaigns of all time.
Both Adams and Jackson employed supportive newspapers (the only real large scale media at the time), directing them how to counter the other's negative campaigning. The results included blazing, blatantly untrue headlines. For example, the pro-Jackson media called Adams a pimp while the pro-Adams media called Jackson’s wife a bigamist and slut.
Incumbent Adams was already considered an usurper by how he'd won the 1824 election. In 1824, Jackson won the popular vote, while Adams won the electoral college. The election was eventually decided by Congress, but it was alleged that Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, used his influence to sway the House of Representatives. When Adams received a surprising victory and Clay became Adams' Secretary of State, Jackson referred to this as the "Corrupt Bargain".
And the Debauchery Goes On:
Since 1828, it’s just been one appalling election after another. The following are highlights from a few. These have been labeled as “some of the most vicious, outrageous and frequently ridiculous slams, slanders and ploys (for the respective eras) used throughout American history to try and gain the White House”:
1836: Martin Van Buren prevailed despite Whig candidate William Henry Harrison’s backers hammering the aristocratic Van Buren’s style of refined dress. “Van Buren is laced up in corsets, such as a woman in town wear,” read one hit piece.
1844: Henry Clay tried to up the tally from the sizeable Irish population in New York City by falsely claiming that he was also an immigrant whose real name was “Patrick O’Clay” . Polk still won.
1856: James Buchanan, afflicted with a congenital palsy that caused his head to tilt slightly to the left, was accused by opponent John Frémont’s supporters of once trying to hang himself (hence the head tilt).
1860: The Charleston Mercury newspaper, backers of Democratic foe Stephen Douglas, called Abe Lincoln a “horrid-looking wretch” who was “sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper, and the nightman.”
1876: Democrats spread the rumor that Rutherford Hayes shot his own mother “in a fit of insanity” after a night of drinking in Ohio. Sophia Birchard Hayes was deceased, so she couldn’t deny the claim. Hayes still defeated Samuel Tilden, though narrowly.
1896: The New York Times, in endorsing Republican William McKinley, published an article about his opponent William Jennings Bryan with the headline: “Is Mr. Bryan Crazy?” The piece interviewed so-called experts from the psychiatric field that concluded he suffered from megalomania, delusions of grandeur and quarrulent logorrhea,which is basically complaining too much. One expert said, “I should like to examine him as a degenerate.”
1908: A Midwestern paper published the following on William Taft, a Unitarian: “Think of the United States with a president who does not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but looks upon our immaculate Savior as common bastard and low, cunning imposter.”
1928: Speaking of playing the religious card, Herbert Hoover’s backers said Democrat Al Smith, a Catholic, engaged in “card-playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces,novels, stuffy rooms, evolution . . . nude art, prize-fighting, actors,greyhound racing and modernism.”
1952: A pro-Eisenhower leaflet distributed in the US heartland claimed that Adlai Stevenson had once killed a young girl “in a jealous rage.” Stevenson lost.
1964: In Lyndon Johnson’s campaign against Barry Goldwater, Johnson set-up a secret 16-member team dubbed the “5 o’clock club”. This "club": wrote an anonymous letter to columnist Ann Landers slamming Goldwater; secretly fed hostile questions to reporters on the Goldwater campaign trail; infiltrated headquarters to swipe advance texts of speeches; and wrote books with titles like “The Case Against Barry Goldwater” as well as a kids "coloring" book with Goldwater dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
1972: Watergate was the coup de grâce, but Nixon operative Donald Segretti and his team started small. In the Democratic primary season, voters began getting late-night phone calls from rude people pushing for Muskie. To play on racist fears, many callers were either black or pretended to be and added that they’d been bussed up from Harlem to work for Muskie.
(The above was originally from Joseph Cummins book, Anything for a Vote, but reprinted in the New York Post, http://nypost.com/2015/11/01/a-history-of-dirty-tricks-in-presidential-elections/, from which I paraphrased/edited here in parts due to length and space. For another list, including the most recent elections, see https://blog.getpocket.com/2020/09/americas-history-of-nasty-tumultuous-and-strange-presidential-elections/).
After reading all this, I think it can be safely said that "the good old days" of civility in elections never existed. Instead, shenanigans, doublespeak, and yellow journalism all seem to be both our collective heritage and our unavoidable legacy. And, as I mentioned last week, the courts tend to shy away from limiting political speech, no matter how unsavory it gets or how fast such disinformation can fly.
It's enough to make one want to shut off all news outlets and social media and binge watch Murder, She Wrote. At least with JB Fletcher you knew that Karma was working. Anyone caught lying or calling anyone an undeserved $@#&*% would get their well-deserved comeuppance in the end. What a civil idea.
For a bit more thorough take on the election of 1800, its background and effect, please see “The Presidential Election of 1800: A Story of Crisis. Controversy, and Change” , accessed at https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/early-republic/essays/presidential-election-1800-story-crisis-controversy-and-change