We here at Historical Nerdery prefer to be apolitical in regards to the 2016 presidential election. That said, with the various claims that the current presidential race is the “nastiest”, “dirtiest” and “meanest” in American history, we thought it would be nice to look back at a few campaigns in American history that make the current contest look like a kindergarten dispute.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams engaged in a very nasty smear campaign against each other to win over American voters. Jefferson hired a writer to draft insults rather than dirty his own hands (at least at first). One of his more interesting smears asserted Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In response, Adams' Federalist Party raised it up a notch and asked, “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames... female chastity violated... children writhing on the pike? GREAT GOD OF COMPASSION AND JUSTICE, SHIELD MY COUNTRY FROM DESTRUCTION.” Jefferson prevailed over Adams and became the third president of the United States.
John Quincy Adams must have been inspired by his father, for during the 1828 election he hurled a string of insults and accusations at his political opponent Andrew Jackson that would make many modern politicians run to their safe spaces. He and his handlers argued Jackson had the personality of a dictator, was too uneducated to be president and his wife, Rachel was a “dirty black wench”, a "convicted adulteress" and “open and notorious [to] lewdness”. Adams’s supporters even went as far to say Jackson’s mother was “a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers . . . [she] married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children of which number General JACKSON IS ONE!!!”
In response, Jackson and his backers literally accused Adams of being a “pimp” and procuring young girls for Czar Alexander I while he was minister to Russia. Jackson also argued his opponent was a government hack who fed “at the public trough”. Worse, Adams was a “lordly, purse-proud” aristocrat who decorated the White House with fancy furniture and a “gambling den.” The biggest critique was that the president had made a “corrupt bargain” with House Speaker Henry Clay to garner the necessary votes to become president in 1824.
Naturally, Jackson bristled at the attacks against his wife. He easily won the election, but his wife died before he took office. At her funeral, Jackson allegedly said “In the presence of this dear saint . . . I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy.”
On the eve of the American Civil War, Americans were subjected to the mud slinging of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Douglas undertook an unpopular tactic for the era by visiting various towns around the country to speak to voters. However, to deflect criticism, he claimed these visits were made because they were along the train route he was taking to visit his mother. In response, Lincoln announced via a “lost child” pamphlet that Douglas was a missing mommy’s boy. “Left Washington, D.C. some time in July, to go home to his mother... who is very anxious about him. Seen in Philadelphia, New York City, Hartford, Conn., and at a clambake in Rhode Island. Answers to the name Little Giant. Talks a great deal, very loud, always about himself.” Of course, “Little Giant” was a dig at Douglas' height (he was a mere 5'4"). Lincoln even attacked his opponent’s weight. A description in the pamphlet alleged Douglas was “about five feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way.”
Of course, Douglas fired back at Lincoln, saying he was a "horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman." Have to be careful of those nutmeg dealers! Another swipe claimed “Lincoln is the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame.” The Democrat even went as far to stoke racial fears if his opponent were elected. “Lincoln wants whites to be able to marry blacks, blacks to serve on juries, blacks to have equal rights, blacks to have the vote, blacks to have white servants and all these things that are supposed to send shivers of horror into the white community.”
Lincoln would rout his opponent, winning the presidency with 1.87 million votes, nearly 500,000 better than the runner-up Douglas. But less than two months after the election, South Carolina voted to secede from the union. Six more states would follow before Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th president of a rapidly dissolving United States on March 4, 1861.
Tomorrow we’ll discuss some of the nastiness of the post Civil War and early 20th Century elections.