Gross Hypocrites and Low-Lived Fellows
What the Founders Taught us About Negative Campaigning
By Brendan Wilson
After four tumultuous years, the nation braces for an election, pitting a former vice president
against an unpopular incumbent. Americans have never been so divided, with two factions each digging in to hurl insults and accusations at the other. The former VP is accused of godlessness and profligacy, the incumbent of tyranny and betrayal of our allies. The year is 1800. The candidates on the ballot are John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
This year, our nation counts down to our own election. Many of us lament the level to which our civil discourse has sunk. Whether it be Mr. Trump’s noxious Twitter feed or angry barbs flung at the administration by the progressive left, there is no denying that the political heat has been turned up in recent years. Is this a new phenomenon, or were our forefathers savagely attacking one another before Lincoln was a twinkle in a Kentucky farmer’s eye?
In 1800, our government was just 12 years old and buckling under severe growing pains. The foundation that supports our government today has been reinforced by centuries of political and judicial precedent. Not so in the 1790s, when the founding fathers were guided only by a single-page document on which the ink was still drying. The Constitution, though ratified, was just a piece of parchment and our nation’s founders were grappling with the herculean task of building from scratch the government outlined in it.
Though Washington warned against political factions in his farewell address, the vast differences of our newly created nation made their emergence inevitable. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the Democratic Republicans, believers that the best government was the one that governs least. They stood for weak federal authority, strong states’ rights, and an agrarian society. Banks and cities were their betes noires. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, mutual hatred notwithstanding, led the Federalists. They believed in strong central government, a federal banking system, and the buildup of industry.
During the decade prior, the young, vulnerable nation saw close brushes with war against both France and Britain. It experienced constitutional crises like the Alien and Sedition Acts. There was even a rebellion in Pennsylvania over whiskey taxes. For all of these reasons, many framed the election of 1800 as a battle for the soul of the country, one that would shape this fragile nation’s future. The stakes were exceedingly high, sowing fertile ground for some of the most spectacular political smack talk our country would ever experience.
As politicians did not personally campaign during that time, much of the mudslinging was carried out in print. The Fox News and MSNBC of today would have blushed at the ultra-partisanship of the newspapers circulating during the early years of our republic. Among the mouthpieces of the Democratic Republicans were the Philadelphia Aurora and the New Daily Adviser. The Federalist periodicals included the Gazette of the United States and The Porcupine’s Gazette. Venom flowed freely from the sharp quills of writers on both sides and often included character denunciations, attacks on family members, and blatant lies.
Jefferson attack dog James Callender, a reputed “scandalmonger”, wrote that Adams was a “gross hypocrite” that “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.” Adams was called a corrupt tyrant and it was openly speculated that a Federalist controlled Congress would set him up to rule for life. Wives were not spared from the rancor. Abigail Adams was said to be “as complete a lady as any in the French Court” – an allusion to the reality that most French aristocrats had had their heads recently separated from their bodies.
Not to be outdone, Federalist newspapers accused Jefferson of godlessness and atheism, a charge, in those days, akin to calling him a crack-smoking devil worshiper. One Connecticut-based weekly asserted that a Jefferson presidency would create a nation in which “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” The bitter phrase “Mr. Jefferson’s Congo Harem” circulated in many pro-Adams columns. He was maligned as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Spicy.
This year, Mr. Trump has revived the moniker “Sleepy Joe” and has released ads poking fun at Mr. Biden's cognitive lapses. He paints colorful pictures of what a Biden presidency would look like in language that Thomas Jefferson would recognize, “If you want a vision of your life under Biden presidency, think of the smoldering ruins in Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago, and imagine the mayhem coming to your town, and every single town in America.” There is little doubt that his Twitter feed will be active in the months leading up to November.
The Biden camp has set up its own heavy artillery, with Mr. Obama being the latest to launch attacks: “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that's what it takes to win." Biden supporters, and in some cases Mr. Biden himself, have called him incompetent, a racist, and a “national embarrassment.” The left-leaning press has also dubbed him “a microwaved circus peanut,” a “jack-o-lantern on a drunken bear,” and a “ludicrous tangerine ballbag.”
When comparing the affronts of today and those of 1800 it is evident that our discourse has not sunk so far. A few decades of Virginian rule followed the election of 1800, but things would heat up again with a contested election in 1824 and a knockdown, drag-out election battle in 1828. The flames would fan higher in the years approaching the Civil War and culminate with the election of 1860, which led to the secession of the American South. Election rhetoric didn’t exactly cool down during Reconstruction or two World Wars.
The frequency with which we hold our elections coupled with the free speech protections enshrined in our Bill of Rights ensures that we will experience periods of civility and periods of hostility, depending entirely on the types of politicians that lead us. Our political leaders are reflections of us. If the currents underpinning our society call for a vitriolic leader, that will be reflected in the election rhetoric we see strewn across cable news stations and social media.
Each generation will see both a level-headed Washington and a fire-breathing Hamilton; a Lincoln and a Douglass; a Wallace and a Ford. There is no need to sound the alarm. We should accept it as a necessary (and entertaining) feature of our open and free electoral process.
Kamarck, E., 2020. Has A Presidential Election Ever Been As Negative As This One?. [online] Brookings. Available at: <https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2016/10/18/the-most-negative-campaign/> [Accessed 2 September 2020].
Larson, Edward J. A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign. New York, NY [u.a.: Free Press, 2007. Print.]
Lepore, J., 2020. Party Time For A Young America. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/09/17/party-time> [Accessed 2 September 2020].