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Mud isn't a new element in American politics

Campaigns have long been marked by vitriol and deception. Even the Founding Fathers and Abe Lincoln weren't immune.

October 19, 2008|Libby Copeland | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — You want to talk dirty politics? Oh, we'll talk dirty. We'll talk about . . . 1800.

Thomas Jefferson was attacked by ministers who accused him of being an "infidel" and an "unbeliever." A Federalist cartoon depicted him as a drunken anarchist, and the president of Yale warned that if Jefferson came to power, "we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution."

A Connecticut newspaper warned that his election would mean "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced" -- though the paper (now the Hartford Courant) did apologize some years later.

In 1993.

"You turned out to be a good influence on America," the editors wrote.

John Adams, the sitting president in 1800, also got hit with his share of slung mud. James Callender, a journalist in league with Jefferson, told the country 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." There was also a nasty rumor that Adams had sent his vice president to Europe to bring back four mistresses, two for each of them.

Anyone disgusted by the tone of modern political campaigns might be reassured (or depressed) to learn that presidential campaigns have long been filled with vitriol and deception.

"Everybody always assumes there was a golden age of presidential campaigning that occurred 20 years ago," says Gil Troy, an American history scholar at McGill University. "Almost from the start, American politics had its two sides -- it had its Sunday morning high-church-sermon side, and it had its Saturday night rough-and-tumble ugly side."

Things have turned negative in this year's presidential race. John McCain's wife has accused Barack Obama of conducting "the dirtiest campaign in American history," while Obama aide Robert Gibbs has said, "If people want to get down in the mud, we're prepared to get dirty."

Will anybody achieve the great lows of the 19th century, though?

Campaigns in 1800 and 1828 "and the one against Lincoln, I think -- those were worse than anything we've had," says historian Paul Boller, who has written about the history of dirty politics and who, at 91, takes the long view.

Political rhetoric was once, as David Mark puts it in "Going Dirty," "shriller, hyperbolic, and downright mean." It was racist (candidates were rumored to be half-this or part-that), hostile to certain religions, deeply personal and occasionally bizarre. Historians differ on whether Jefferson was ridiculed for being raised on a diet of "hoe-cake" and "fricasseed bullfrog." A Pennsylvania congressman accused President Martin Van Buren of being so decadent that he landscaped the White House grounds into hills resembling "an Amazon's bosom."

Oh, "John Quincy Adams was accused of pimping for the czar," Troy says. Really. The czar of Russia. The press backing Jackson labeled Adams "The Pimp."

As historian Kathleen Hall Jamieson writes in "Packaging the Presidency," the Founding Fathers intended the nascent nation's elections to be a dignified, deliberative activity, carried out by a small number of wealthy, well-educated men. "The ideal unraveled rapidly."

Vitriolic handbills and fiercely partisan newspapers took up one side or another. Laws about who could vote opened up the franchise -- somewhat, at least. Party identification was strong. Political feelings were expressed in the strong language of the time, and even people we think of now as having been above politics were not spared. To wit: George Washington.

"If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington," Benjamin Franklin's grandson wrote in 1796.

According to an 1864 edition of Harper's Weekly, Abe Lincoln was disparaged as a "filthy storyteller," a "buffoon," a "usurper," a "monster" and a "land pirate." His enemies described him as "a long, lean, lank, lantern-jawed, high cheeked-boned spavined rail-splitting stallion," which actually makes Lincoln sound kind of hot, except for the "spavined" part. (We looked it up. It invokes horses with diseased joints, or more generally, decrepitude and decay.)

As Jamieson notes in another book, "Dirty Politics," presidential campaigns were thick with oversimplified attacks aiming at the gut, not the intellect.

"Campaigns generally ally the favored candidate with things uncritically accepted, such as flag and freedom," Jamieson writes, "and tie the opponent to such viscerally noxious things as the murder of innocent men, women and children."

In the 1828 election, Jamieson writes, Andrew Jackson's supporters distributed handbills portraying John Quincy Adams as driving away a "crippled old soldier" who asked for charity, with a horsewhip, no less.

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