Can running for political office get much uglier?

Posted By on March 3, 2016

Yes … it probably can and will IF “friends” like  Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton go at it. On the otherhand, they still have some mud to sling to reach the level of the John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson campaign as highlighted in the WSJ.

The Birth of Modern PoliticsPolitical Mudslinging, 1828

If you think this presidential campaign season is notable for its mudslinging, it’s a good thing you weren’t around in 1828. That’s when American electioneering became modern in the race between incumbent President John Quincy Adams and challenger Andrew Jackson. Earlier campaigns had seen some rough stuff, but the electorate was small and communication poor.Freewheeling newspapers, advanced printing techniques for circulars and posters and better transportation methods coincided with the rise of universal manhood suffrage. And the bad blood between Adams and Jackson went back to the election of 1824, when Adams whipped Jackson, who had the most popular votes, in a decision rendered by the House of Representatives.

The campaign between the two men started more than 14 months before the 1828 election; it was an era when candidates were selected by state conventions, not at national nominating conventions. And these two couldn’t have been more unalike—Adams, the Harvard-educated son of a president, and Jackson, the rugged son of the frontier who made his name in the military.

The attacks poured out from the candidates’ followers, surrogates and partisan newspapers. Jackson supporters accused Adams of having premarital relations with his wife and Jacksonian newspapers called him “The Pimp,” procuring young girls for Czar Alexander I when he was minister to Russia. Adams’s stewards contended that Jackson’s mother was “a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers.”

Adams, according to the Jacksonians, was a “lordly, purse-proud” aristocrat “feeding at the public trough.” He decorated the White House with fancy furniture, including a billiard table described as a front for 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, given that Clay was later appointed by Adams to be secretary of state.Adams’s supporters lashed out at Jackson as a drunkard, duelist and cockfighter—and a man who couldn’t even spell “Europe” (he spelled it “Urope”). Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was called variously a “whore” and an “adulteress,” because she married Jackson before her divorce was final. This was an unspeakable offense, according to the Cincinnati Gazette, for “the highest office of this free and Christian land.” Another unkind cut: Rachel was fat.

Jackson won the election, but Rachel died of a heart attack in December 1828, before he took office. At her funeral, the campaign was clearly still fresh in Jackson’s mind. “In the presence of this dear saint,” he said, “I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy.”

Mr. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University in Washington, D.C.


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