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OCTOBER 16, 2008 11:00AM

Smears through the Years

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I watched the last debate last night, and once again I thought Senator Obama was great – smart, calm, in command of the material and his temper --  and Senator McCain looked even a little more demented than usual, and it slowly began to dawn on me that we might actually be about to elect an intelligent person as president of the United States. That would make me happy, but it’s also slowly dawning on me that long before that new good president could take office, ordinary people who have done everything right just might lose everything, through no fault of their own, and it could happen to anyone. Two dawns on the same day is too confusing, so let’s think about something else completely.

Do you notice that whenever anyone points out particularly scurrilous attacks in this presidential campaign, somebody else always says oh, campaigns are always scurrilous, in the past they were way more scurrilous. I would really like to know if that’s true and I’ve been looking it up and, as usual, got carried away. Here is my headlong run – fall, maybe – through American presidential campaigns from 1789 to the present, looking for the smear of the year. And yes, some are pretty scurrilous, all right. Worse than trying to inflame the worst people in the country by insinuating that Barack Obama is a terrorist? Let’s see!

My sources are mainly wikipedia, historycentral.com, history.com, infoplease.com, usnews.com, 270towin.com and the American Presidency Project, but I was just wildly skimming, every single issue and personality from every single campaign in U.S. history is a world in itself, you could get lost in Millard Fillmore alone! (But you would not like it.) It’s fun, though, trying to be the poor man’s Michael Beschloss -- but I guess that makes you the poor men.

Here’s 1789 through 1828. More tomorrow (-ish).

1789 and 1792: George Washington won, no contest. Literally. Each of the electors (69 the first time, 77 in 1792) cast two votes. The candidate with the most votes was elected President, the second most, Vice President. All of the electors cast one vote for Washington. He’s considered to have been elected unanimously. In both elections John Adams came in second so he was elected Vice President.

1796: Washington could probably have gone on getting elected unanimously but he didn’t think that would be good for the country. (When George III was told that Gen. Washington intended to retire he said that if Washington actually did that, he would be the greatest man of the age.) So the smears could get started! Thomas Jefferson’s party, the Democratic-Republicans, said that John Adams favored monarchism and aristocracy. John Adams’s party, the Federalists, said that Jefferson favored revolutions like the one in France. Adams won (and no monarchy, no aristocracy).

1800: Now we’re rolling.  Jefferson’s party said that Adams had “a hideous hermaphroditical character.” Adam’s party said that the election of Thomas Jefferson would cause “the teaching of murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest” and on top of that Jefferson was the “son of a half-breed Indian squaw and sired by a Virginia mulatto father” and had robbed a widow of 10,000 pounds.  Jefferson won, but only after maneuvering in the House of Representatives after a long tie among the electors.

1804: Jefferson ran against Charles Pinckney. Jefferson was called a slummer and a dilettante with his head in the sky from reading too much French philosophy. He was also accused of fathering children with his slave Sally Hemings (considered a lie for about 200 years, but proved in recent years by DNA tests). Also the guy who wrote “The Night Before Christmas”, Clement C. Moore, published an anonymous screed saying Jefferson was an infidel, and dehumanized blacks while raising up apes (i.e., he was not a proper creationist). Jefferson still won, but he kept Pinckney on as Vice President. This is also the year Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. They were apparently still mad at each other about the 1800 election, and also about alleged smears against Burr when he was running for governor of New York.  

1808: James Madison won, and his Vice President was either Charles Pinckney (wikipedia) or George Clinton (the James Madison Center).  It’s confusing because you could be a runner-up for President but a winner for Vice President. Madison took a lot of heat during the campaign about the Embargo Act, which was Jefferson’s brilliant idea and did turn out to be not such a great policy (in 1807 American exports were $108 million, in 1808 $22 million. Oops.) but that’s an actual issue, so we can move on.

1812: James Madison won again, this time defeating DeWitt Clinton, who tried attacking Madison in the Northeast for fighting the War of 1812, because it was really unpopular there, and attacking him in the South and West for not fighting it hard enough, because they liked the War, possibly because it was being fought mostly in the Northeast. (Two years later Dolly Madison had to save George Washington’s portrait when the British burned the White House.)

1816: James Monroe beat Rufus King, who was an early opponent of slavery but the Federalists were pretty much over. He was their last candidate for President. Monroe was supported by former Presidents Jefferson and Madison and won by a landslide.

1820: James Monroe was re-elected almost unanimously. One elector thought George Washington should be the only president elected unanimously, so he cast a vote for Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.  This election was smack in the middle of a period in American history called the “Era of Good Feelings” when there was really only one party, the Democratic-Republican.  I was very surprised to discover that there was such an era. I think we should start one again! One party, decent president. It could happen…. Supposedly the Era of Good Feelings lasted from 1812 to 1828, but in 1824 I don’t think all the feelings were so good.

1824: John Quincy Adams eventually won, but four people contested it.  William Crawford was accused of unlawful acts while Secretary of the Treasury. Henry Clay was called a drunkard and a gambler. Andrew Jackson was called a murderer. Adams was called a bad dresser with an “English” wife (she was an American born in England).  The people wanted the murderer but the House of Representatives chose the bad dresser, the first of four times in our history that a candidate (Jackson) won the popular vote but lost the election.  (Although the concept that Jackson was robbed is considered a myth by some, see the blog Publick Occurrences .  I told you,  it’s a world.) Jackson called the House of Representatives deal a “corrupt bargain” and rallied his base about it for four years.

 John Quincy Adams is the first president of whom we have a photograph. It was taken 14 years after he left office.

John Quincy Adams 

1828: A rematch between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. This was the first presidential election to include officially a national popular vote, the electors had been the sole deciders until then. And we the people got off to a roaring start. Adams, the “elitist”, was accused of living in kingly pomp and splendor, having had premarital relations with his “English” wife, delivering an American servant girl over to the carnal desires of the czar of Russia, using public funds to buy gambling devices for the presidential residence (turned out to be a chess set and a pool table), and traveling on Sundays.

 Andrew Jackson, the “populist” was accused of being uneducated, reckless, a murderer, a massacre-er of Indians and the “paramour husband of a convicted adulteress.” But really, what’s that compared to traveling on Sundays? Jackson won in a landslide. 

 See you in 1832.

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history, presidents, politics

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