"Mrs. President, infidel, old, querulous, mean-spirited."
The calumny of today's campaigns? Hardly, it was the campaign of 1800, with Thomas Jefferson defeating the incumbent John Adams on the 36th ballot in the
House of Representatives in one of the nastiest campaigns ever. So, if the
contemporary mudslinging leaves you, the voter, frequently yearning for the
respectable campaigns of the 'good old days', think again.
Campaigns were simpler once. During George Washington's first
unopposed victorious campaign there were no conventions, no open campaigning,
and no political parties. Even voting was simpler as state legislatures voted
for 'electors' to select the president. Nevertheless, only 69 of the 73
electors showed up for the final tally. One had missed due to gout, another due
to icy rivers, and three states -- North Carolina, Rhode Island, and New York -- hadn't even participated.
Simpler, however, hasn't always meant better; for, although
improbable, cacophonous campaign music was worse. Two fortunately forgotten
political classics -- "Little Wat Ye What's a-Comin" and "The Hard Cider
Quick Step" -- assaulted the minds and ears of voters in the 1828 and 1840
campaigns. Fortuitously for the beginning of future sporting events, in 1816,
when the victorious James Monroe made his only public campaign statement by
writing a letter accepting the nomination, Republicans had begun singing
Francis Scott Key's poem to the tune of an old English drinking song,
resulting in "The Star Spangled Banner."
Historically, American politicians have accused each other of
anything and everything. Based on the rumor that he had procured an American
girl for the Czar of Russia, John Quincy Adams was branded "the Pimp," while Martin Van Buren was accused of wearing corsets and taking more baths
than a real man should. Vilified as a "murderer and adulterer," Andrew
Jackson underwent his mother being called a "COMMON PROSTITUTE, brought to
this country by the British soldiers!" Later, Ulysses S. Grant was defamed as
"the Drunkard, the Butcher, the Dummy, the Great Loafer, Swindler, Ignoramus,
and an utterly depraved horse jockey."
More modern day recipients have included Grover Cleveland,
castigated by the president of Amherst College as a "coarse debauchee who
would bring harlots to Washington," and William H. Taft, labeled by Theodore
Roosevelt as "a fat head who has an intellect a little short of a guinea
pig." Later, Warren Harding sallied into print as a "platitudinous
jellyfish" and Harry Truman as a "Missouri Jackass."
Not even our national icons have been exempt. Abraham Lincoln was
pummeled as "the Big Baboon, the Slave Hound of Illinois, and the Illinois
Ape," and Franklin D. Roosevelt was maligned as "feather duster,
Frankenstein D. Roosevelt, the corkscrew candidate, Little Lord Fauntleroy, an
amiable Boy Scout, warmonger/appeaser, and Dr. Jekyll of Hyde Park." Even
Thomas Jefferson was not spared as the campaign of 1800 heated up.
By 1800 the newly created political parties -- the Federalists and
Republicans -- had separate drinking taverns and partisan presses. Because John
Adams, the incumbent, had lost most of his teeth, and Thomas Jefferson, the
Republican candidate, didn't like to speak in public, there were few public
speeches; nevertheless, the highly vocal partisan presses more than made up for
Adams was labeled "a mere old woman and unfit to be President."
The Republican Aurora newspaper called him the "old, querulous, bald, blind,
crippled, toothless Adams," while the Massachusetts Centinal christened him
the "lawless lust of Pow'r in embryo" and "the first spawn of hell."
Republican rumors abounded that Adams planned to marry one of his sons to a
daughter of George III in order to start an American dynasty, and that he had
sent Thomas Pinckney (his running mate in 1796) to England to procure four
pretty girls as mistresses for them both. Adams' wife, Abigail, was assailed
as "Mrs. President" for her supposed dominance over him. However, there
were limits. One critic was fined $100 for commenting that the cannon fired in
honor of Adams would be better aimed at the president's pants.
Incredibly, the public pounding that Adams took paled in comparison
to that of the victorious Jefferson. The Federalist press labeled him an
"atheist, infidel, and Jacobin" and charged that he had copied the
Declaration of Independence. The Gazette of the United States headlined: "The
Grand Question Stated. God -- And A Religious President; Jefferson -- And No
God!!!" The Connecticut Courant warned readers that if he were elected
"murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and
practiced." A Federalist campaign biographical précis stated: "Tom
Jefferson... a mean spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian
squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father... raised wholly on hoe-cake made of
coarse-ground Southern corn, bacon and hominy, with an occasional... fricasseed
Today's calumny, based on pandering moralistic sound bites, would
surely highlight George Washington's lack of 'values'. A land speculator
who was contemptuous of lawyers and schoolmasters, Washington knew, used and
enjoyed far more profanity than Scripture. Keeping a jug of whisky handy in
case of a chill, he advocated no sure cure for the world's ills and took
little if any interest in other people's private concerns.
So, what is to be done as the campaign calumny escalates? I'm
ready with the mute button, comfortable in knowing that statesmen-stateswomen
and saints are rare and often mutually exclusive breeds.