According to newscaster Anderson Cooper, this year’s campaign has “taken dirty to new levels.” But anyone who believes this has a short memory or is completely out of touch with history. Campaign dialog is probably more civilized today than in times past.
In the 1800 campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who later became fast friends, things got real ugly. Jefferson’s campaign accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force nor firmness of a man or the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
The Adams people retorted that Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian Squaw sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Martha Washington entered the fray and called Jefferson “one of the most detestable of mankind.”
Wow! They didn’t tell us about that in eighth-grade American history class.
Nor did they mention James Callendar’s accusation of Jefferson’s alleged affair with his slave mistress, Sally Hemmings. Unfortunately for Jefferson’s apologists, this rumor has been substantiated by later DNA evidence.
In the 1860 campaign, Lincoln was vilified unmercifully by the opposition press, particularly in the south where “tall, stumbling baboon” was one of the milder terms used to describe Lincoln’s appearance. I was told as a youngster by a retired school teacher that Abraham Lincoln was actually the illegitimate son of South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun. He told me Calhoun paid Tom Lincoln to take Nancy Hanks, Lincoln‘s mother’s maiden name, over the mountains to Kentucky to have her baby. An unreconstructed Confederate, this teacher always referred to Lincoln as “Old Abe Hanks.” This rumor was originally used in the 1860 campaign.
Franklin Roosevelt was probably attacked more viciously than any other candidate in modern times. In 1936. the Ku Klux Klan declared that FDR was not crippled by polio at all, but by syphilis he had caught from his wife Eleanor. She had allegedly contracted it from some of her black boyfriends.
Historians and political scientists alike agree that the 1828 campaign between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams tops them all for pure, unmitigated mudslinging and lies. Jackson’s wife, Rachel, had been divorced, not a common thing in those days, and the opposition press had a field day with it. She was called an adulteress and a prostitute (they often used the more common monosyllabic term of Germanic derivation). Jackson was called a murderer because of his dueling and because as commanding officer he ordered that deserters be shot during the War of 1812. Anti-Jackson campaign ads were bordered with caskets.
In retaliation, the Jackson press concocted a tale about John Quincy Adams when he accompanied his father, who was ambassador to Russia. They averred that young Adams pimped for his own personal maid, furnishing her as a prostitute to the Russian tsar.
Take away the daily filibuster and ranting of Rush Limbaugh, who actually speaks for nobody and to whom few pay serious mind anymore, and the presidential campaign rhetoric today is relatively civilized and issue-oriented. In this year’s dialog, the word “lie” was used on numerous occasions, but neither candidate directly called the other a liar.
Let’s hope this current civility extends to the congressional floor next year, and both parties put aside their animosity and divisiveness and work for us for a change.
George B. Reed, Jr. is retired from AT&T and a former history teacher in the Hamilton County school system. He lives in Fort Oglethorpe and can be reached at email@example.com or 706-858-3501.