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A kinder, gentler era in politics?

The early days of American politics

Created date

January 29th, 2016

South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beating Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

As we ease into another election year, we hear the same old song about candidates slinging mud at their opponents. Rather than positing workable solutions to social and economic problems, White House hopefuls spend their time and money cramming newspapers, magazines, and the airwaves with nasty attack ads. 

Politics is a dirty game; it always will be. But if you think the rhetorical barbs exchanged by today’s candidates are bad, think again.

We’re downright civilized compared to the political landscape of the nineteenth century. A brief look at a few of America’s dirtiest presidential elections yields plenty of examples to prove it.

Jefferson vs. Adams

Consider, for instance, the election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson challenged the incumbent candidate John Adams.

During the American Revolution, the two were close friends. They respected one another and worked toward a common end—independence from Great Britain and the formation of a new nation, the United States.

Once that was behind them, these Revolutionary comrades became ruthless political rivals in a race to lead the country they’d created. There were no rules of propriety in the pursuit of triumph, even among exulted men like Jefferson and Adams.

In addition to the usual political attacks launched by the official arm of Jefferson’s party (the Democratic Republicans), this self-styled enlightened philosopher had a secret weapon. Behind the scenes, Jefferson had hired the scurrilous services of James Callender, an unethical journalist willing to write anything for money and patronage.

Little by little, Callender planted stories in which he levied vicious, patently false charges and insults against the Federalist Adams. He wrote that the sitting president was “a hideous hermaphroditical character” and a “repulsive pedant.”

Adams’ supporters, likewise, fired off campaign ads disguised as factually based, journalistic commentary, warning the nation’s voters that if they dared elect Jefferson, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly be taught and practiced.”

Another Adams devotee, who happened to be the president of Yale University, publicly declared that in the wake of a Jeffersonian victory, Americans would see their “wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.”

Nineteenth-century Americans often believed what they read and heard. 

While they lived sheltered, parochial lives, they also devoured newspapers and political pamphlets. Entire towns would turn out to see politicians stump, no matter how outrageous or mean-spirited their speeches might have been.

Some historians believe that unbridled political attacks were responsible for the sudden death of President Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel. 

Nothing off limits

During the 1828 election, supporters of John Quincy Adams had done everything in their power to eviscerate Rachel Jackson’s reputation. Newspaper articles, broadsides, and handbills flooded the popular consciousness with stories of her previous marriage, which had ended in divorce after she committed adultery.

The allegations of infidelity were true, but the Adams camp nonetheless made them public in a most cruel fashion.

Federalist publications depicted Rachel as a “convicted adulteress” who was inclined to “open and notorious lewdness”—a “dirty black wench,” as one writer described her. The strain of this unrelenting humiliation was too much for her to bear.

Shortly before her husband’s first inauguration, Rachel dropped dead of a heart attack. Jackson never forgave Adams or his supporters.

Unsullied by partisan politics

Then there were those politicians who openly embraced the culture of partisan vitriol. Abraham Lincoln, for example, endured a constant barrage of slurs aimed at his ungainly appearance.

During the 1860 presidential race, Northern Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas called his Republican opponent a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper, and the nightman.”

Typically, the gangly rail-splitter either dismissed these remarks with a chuckle or deployed his ingenious, self-deprecating sense of humor. When a reporter accused him of being two-faced, Lincoln wryly responded, “If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”

Lincoln made it look easy; but make no mistake, early American politics was a rough game virtually without boundaries when it came to honesty and decorum.  

That’s not to say that modern campaigns are squeaky clean. They aren’t. 

But in a world perpetually monitored by pocket-sized audio and video recorders, cameras, the Internet, and social media, politicians have to watch what they say and back it up when they say it. Nineteenth-century voters possessed no such sway over their prospective leaders. 

Today’s candidates are beholden to the people like never before, and a look back at so-called “simpler times” confirms this.