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Updated on November 17, 2012



Well, another presidential campaign has come and gone. It will take awhile to clean-up all the mud flung fast and furious by both sides. Mitt Romney would deny women their contraceptives; and you had to love this one from the DNC- “Women, you better run and get your abortions before Romney takes office.” President Obama is a Communist Muslim (is that combination actually possible? I thought communists were atheists.) As usual, the American people rolled their eyes, shook their heads, and could not wait for Election Day to be over, just so they would no longer have to endure anymore obnoxious commercials. The talk show pundits despaired concerning the depths to which the opposing party would sink, while yearning for the good old days of the clean, issue driven political campaign. Did such a time really ever exist? No, not quite.

The disparaging and demeaning of your political adversaries has a long history in the United States, going back to the formation of parties during George Washington’s Administration. The cutting sound bytes of a TV or radio ad were not yet available, so the followers of Thomas Jefferson (Democrat-Republicans) and Alexander Hamilton (Federalists) employed newspapers and pamphlets to degrade their rivals. Even the Father of Our Country was not immune to the stinging barb of the pen, though he tried desperately to stay above the fray. As his views were known to be closer to Hamilton’s ( a strong national government), Jefferson’s states’ rights supporters let the president have it: Washington wants to be a king, look at that pretentious carriage he drives around Philadelphia in, and the lavish parties he throws, please. By his second term, poor George was portrayed as a tottering old man, sliding into senility by the opposition press. Not the stuff of Mount Rushmore.

For his part, Thomas Jefferson was one of the first targets of the now standard political ploy- question the moral character of your opponent. Jefferson’s transgression, of course, involved fathering children by one of his slaves. Only a rumor at the time (though later shown to be true after Jefferson was dead and gone), the Federalists gleefully pounced on the story anyway. Personal attacks could have tragic consequences. During the 1828 campaign, the harping of Andrew Jackson’s enemies on the fact his wife Rachel had not been properly divorced from her first husband caused such distress, it led to her untimely death before Old Hickory took office. Jackson never forgave his critics for the attacks on his wife, and he was not a man you wanted on the other side.

The anger engendered by real and perceived slights sometimes boiled over into violence. The most famous example from early America is Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel after years of bitter political battles between the two New York rivals. The same fate almost befell our most revered president, Abraham Lincoln. Before his rise to prominence, Lincoln’s wife Mary sent some anonymous letters to an Illinois newspaper ridiculing Democrat James Shields. The enraged Shields traced the letters back to Lincoln and challenged him to a duel. The reluctant Honest Abe felt he had no choice but to accept, in order to preserve Mary’s honor. The incident soon passed into the surreal when Lincoln proposed cavalry broad swords as the weapons of choice, instead of the customary pistols (which makes you wonder how seriously the future president took the whole thing). Luckily, friends of the two men stepped in, before the silly nonsense went any further. Lincoln learned his lesson, however, and never personally savaged a political figure again.

It would not be many years later before violence exploded in the hallow halls of Congress over political insults. By the 1850’s, the debate over slavery had become so bitter that Senators and Congressmen took to carrying pistols, knives, and even whips while attending sessions. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered a blistering attack on the South and slavery concerning the fighting going on in Kansas between pro and anti-slavery groups. His calling out of genteel South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler caused Butler’s cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks, to beat Sumner bloody and senseless with a cane in the Senate chamber the day after the Massachusetts man finished his speech. It would be several years before Sumner could return to work. While outrage would seem to be the appropriate reaction to Brooks’ conduct, many Southerners sent him congratulatory notes and new canes, including one bearing the inscription, “Hit him again.”

Fortunately, such scenes no longer occur, but the stagnation and dysfunction of the pre-Civil War federal government is comparable to the situation in Washington today. That is maybe why the American people have less patience for the mudslinging and nasty tone of political campaigns. Hamilton and Jefferson traded heavy jabs, but it did not prevent them from getting things done. The same cannot be said for today’s politicians, from president to Congress, all the way down the line. Trillions of dollars are spent, with precious little to show for it. Attacking your opponent, of course, is a useful distraction from your own shortcomings. The just finished presidential election, which was particularly low and dirty, left one with the impression that neither the president nor Romney had much of substance to offer. It also does not appear that things will change anytime soon. The mud will keep flying as the nation sinks ever deeper into it. Thus we can expect to hear reporters asking that ever popular question, “Does your wife really wear combat boots?”


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    • billd01603 profile image

      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Good, interesting Hub. My favorite line came out of the 1884 Presidential Campaign. Republicans found out that Democratic Candidate Grover Cleveland has fathered an illegitimate child. They used the line "Ma Ma, Where's My Pa?" on publications, badges and other items. When Cleveland won, the Democrats responded with the line: "He went to the White House, HA, HA, HA." Hub voted up and interesting