Brad K. Berner: Campaign Calumny
By Brad K. Berner
“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 their silence.
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 bull-frog.”
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.
Brad K. Berner is a professor at Western International University (Phoenix, Arizona) and Estrella Mountain Community College (Avondale, Arizona). He is the author of The World According to Al Qaeda (2005), Jihad: Bin Laden in His Own Words (2006), and Quotations from Osama bin Laden (2006).