He is a “rageful, lying, warmongering fellow; a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite…”
Strong words, indeed. And just who is the subject of this slur? Donald Trump you say?
Not even close. Although the shoe may fit, this particular quote was directed at then-President John Adams by his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and fellow Founding Father. The two, formerly fast friends, found themselves matched against each other in the presidential contest of 1800.
We mention this because the hostility level is rising in the Trump/Clinton/Sanders contests. It should be white hot soon. But before we cover our ears, avert our eyes and weep for the future of our country, consider this.
No matter how bizarre and angry the rhetoric becomes, it’s unlikely it will match that of presidential contests in years past.
And the election of 1800 is the gold standard for character assassination, deviousness and mudslinging.
For example, Adams supporters characterized Thomas Jefferson as the son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a mulatto father. Voters were warned that Jefferson’s election would result in a civil war and a national orgy of rape, incest, and adultery.
They claimed Jefferson supporters were “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amid filth and vermin.”
As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.
Even Martha Washington got into the act, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was "one of the most detestable of mankind."
So much for the age of civility.
Strangely enough, presidential candidates didn't actively campaign in those days, according to several published histories. In fact, Adams and Jefferson spent much of the election season at their respective homes in Massachusetts and Virginia.
That didn’t stop Jefferson from hiring a pamphleteer named James Callendar to do his dirty work. Adams, on the other hand, considered himself above such tactics.
Callendar proved effective, claiming Adams had a “hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman” and convinced many Americans that Adams wanted to attack France. Although the claim was untrue, voters bought it, and Jefferson won the election.
Jefferson paid a price for his campaign tactics, however. Callendar served jail time for slandering Adams, and when he emerged from prison in 1801, he felt Jefferson owed him.
When Jefferson did little to appease him, Callendar published a story in 1802 that claimed the President was having an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. In a series of articles, Callendar wrote that Jefferson had lived with Hemings in France and that she had given birth to five of his children.
That rumor continues to attach itself to the name of Thomas Jefferson to this day. In fact, a 1998 DNA study found a match between the Jefferson male line and a descendant of Hemings' last son, Eston Hemings.
Adams lived long enough to see his son, John Quincy Adams, elected to the presidency.
He died before his son engaged in a nasty reelection battle with Andrew Jackson in 1828.
Slurs flew back and forth, with John Quincy Adams being labeled a pimp, and Andrew Jackson's wife getting called a slut.
A historian reported that as the election progressed, editorials in the American newspapers read more like bathroom graffiti than political commentary.
One paper claimed that "General Jackson's mother was a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers. She afterward married a mulatto man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!"
Jackson supporters accused Adams of having premarital sex with his wife and being a pimp, claiming he arranged an American hooker for Czar Alexander I.
A few other lowlights:
In 1839, Martin Van Buren was accused of being too close to the Pope, when, in fact, he had done little more than correspond with the Vatican in his job as Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson. His opponents, nevertheless, spread the canard that a “popish plot” was afoot to ensure Van Buren’s election.
During the campaign of 1864, Abraham Lincoln was called an ape, a ghoul and a traitor. One New York paper suggested that “Barnum should buy and exhibit him as a zoological curiosity.” A Houston newspaper said he was the “most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame.” Political cartoons pictured him as a monkey. At one point, Lincoln’s wife was accused of being a Confederate spy.
During the campaign of 1884 the Buffalo Evening Telegraph accused Grover Cleveland of fathering an illegitimate son a decade earlier in Buffalo. It turned out that Cleveland, a bachelor, had dated the child’s mother, as had several other men. The boy, therefore, was of questionable parentage. Yet the inherently decent Cleveland had provided for him. A chant soon arose in Republican ranks: “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha! ha! ha!”
Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.