Stateside: A history of mudslinging

Nov 6, 2012

Do you think today’s political attack advertisements are venomous?

They are tame when compared to those used by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the 1800 election.

Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University, told Stateside that attack ads are in America’s blood.

“It’s part of our American political culture. If you go back to the Second Continental Congress and the debates that started there, they could hardly agree on anything. At 1787 for the Constitutional Convention, they were at each other’s throats,” said Whitney.

When losing hope over the state of contemporary politics, one must look back at the attacks made by past politicians.

“I’m always amused when people say our civil society is breaking down. It’s true that we have a lot of misleading statements in our ads, there is no question. But in terms of the actual comportment of the candidates, they don’t fight the way they used to. Fighting is part of our political DNA. The election of 1800 was a vicious election,” said Whitney.

One of the more ambitious insults came from Thom Jefferson’s campaign against John Adams, in which his paid publicist called Adams a “hermaphrodite.”  

“Jefferson was mean-spirited on a number of occasions. In the election of 1800 they were hurling horrible things at each other. Jefferson needed Pennsylvania’s electoral votes so they cooked up the rumor that Adams had mistresses shipped in from Germany and France,” said Whitney.

Not to be outdone by Jefferson’s past affronts; Stephen Douglas hurled something of a fireball at Abraham Lincoln, calling him a “hatchet-faced nutmeg dealer.”

“Americans say we want civility, but we love the good fight. It makes the cocktail rounds more interesting. For most of us today, if we go back to the 1980 election, we see that Reagan was viciously mocked by the media and often called, ‘Ray-gun.’

So while the abuses of this year’s election are discussed over cocktails, may we remember that they are far softer than the “hatchet-faced” slurs of the past.

-Cameron Stewart

There are two ways you can podcast "Stateside with Cynthia Canty"