CNN looked at 5 contests in the 19th century
The candidates often laid low on the trail, but their supporters were over the top
As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton prepare to square off Monday night in their first debate, the expectations are clear: Political bloodsport in primetime.
The 2016 race has been notably nasty, with Trump assuming the attack dog role campaigns have traditionally outsourced to running mates and surly surrogates. Clinton too has shown a willingness to blitz Trump – though in less graphic terms – during speeches and interviews on the trail.
But does the current election season represent a new low in American politics? History says no – and a group of historians interviewed by CNN agree.
Exhibit A: “That hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Exhibit B: “Around him, as the candidate for the highest office in the gift of the people, the most corrupt, the most designing and the most dangerous of the community rally.”
Exhibit C: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion.”
Presidential candidates, their campaigns and supporters have been slinging mud since the Founding Fathers were jockeying for power in the aftermath of the revolution. The contests of the 19th century routinely descended into cesspools of public deviance, racism, and religious and personal slander.
“The machinations, the backstabbing, the hideous caricatures and slurs were just devastating,” historian Joan Waugh told CNN.
“It was a bloodsport,” she said. “I have to laugh, when I’m not weeping, at the utter abysmal ignorance of the way that politics and the history of politics is often reported. As if nothing today has ever happened before.”
1800: ‘That hideous hermaphroditical character’
The first race of the new century was a rematch of the 1796 contest, pitting President John Adams, a Federalist, against Thomas Jefferson. In American politics in those early days, the parties were less important and the candidates didn’t campaign much in person, mostly allowing partisan allies and hired hands to do the dirty work.
And there was none more foul than Jeffersonian hatchet man James T. Callender.
In a pamphlet titled, “The Prospect Before Us,” the Scottish immigrant described Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” (For his trouble, Callender would eventually be convicted of violating the Sedition Act and jailed, only to be freed when Jefferson took office.)
Candidates in this era operated under both social and statutory constraints. It was considered unseemly to seek votes or speak ill of the opposition. And the Sedition Act made it illegal to write or print anything “malicious” about the government – especially its President.
“Famously, when a guy in a bar, half-drunk, said that John Adams had a fat ass – which is also factually true – the guy was put in jail,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson told CNN. “So you had to watch what you said directly about Adams. You could get away with saying anything you wanted about others in the Federalist party.”
While the Jeffersonians feared Adams was fixing to dispense with the American experiment in favor of something like the British monarchy, the Federalists were equally convinced that Jefferson would effectively open the borders to foreign radicals and clamp down on religion.
As one Massachusetts newspaper put it, electing “the infidel Jefferson” would mean “our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous prostitute, under the title of the Goddess of Reason, will preside in the Sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the Most High.”
Of course, none of it was true.
“Jefferson was not an atheist,” Larson explained. In fact, the Virginian and Adams “had almost identical religious viewpoints. They were both Unitarians. Adams’ religious viewpoints were almost indistinguishable from Jefferson’s and they knew that. They had been close friends.”
Their relationship would last another quarter century, until they died on the same day – July 4, 1826.
1828: ‘The skunks of party slander’
In the first – but not final – American campaign drama widely considered to have sent one of its central characters to an early grave, another incumbent Adams was defeated in an electoral rematch from four years earlier.
Like in 1800, the 1824 contest had gone to the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams fared better than his father, winning the presidency over Andrew Jackson by obtaining the support of House Speaker Henry Clay in what opponents called the “corrupt bargain” – Adams would name Clay his secretary of state.
This did not sit well with Jackson, a hard-bitten man who was orphaned as a teen and made his name in combat against the British and then by leading a violent campaign against Native American tribes. He would spend the next four years plotting his revenge.
“The campaign of 1828 was very nasty, a campaign in which supporters of Andrew Jackson called John Quincy Adams a ‘pimp’ (the rumor, started by Jackson allies, was that Adams during his time as the US minister to Russia had provided female companionship for the czar) and supporters of John Quincy called Jackson and his wife ‘polygamists’ because they had married before her divorce came through,” said CNN presidential historian Tim Naftali.
Kerwin Swint, an author and professor at Kennesaw State University, recalled it being particularly hard on the Jackson family.
“Andrew Jackson’s mother was caricatured as a common prostitute that the sailors brought over for the benefit of the English Navy,” he said, while Jackson himself “was called a murderer, a traitor, and mentally unstable.”
Adams dismissed the vile tone of the campaign, chalking up the slurs to those “skunks of party slander.” The President, though, was not so high-minded that his associates didn’t accuse Jackson of being illiterate, while mocking his poor spelling skills and keeping up attacks on his wife, Rachel.
The harsh spotlight wore on her and, as many historians agree and Jackson then believed, probably had a hand in killing her.
“I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington,” she is said to have told friends as the campaign turned ugly.
Rachel Jackson died on Dec. 22, 1828, likely of a heart attack. She would be buried on Christmas Eve, before her husband’s inauguration.
At her funeral, Andrew Jackson is widely reported to have told fellow mourners, “I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy.”
Her tombstone at the Hermitage, Jackson’s home in Nashville, read in part: “A being so gentle, and yet so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonour.”
1860: ‘Stephen in search of his mother’
“At political rallies in (Abraham) Lincoln’s era, people got drunk, they had fist fights, they threw excrement, they attacked horses, they screamed and shouted and cursed – did I mention they drank; they drank a lot – and it was not exactly a festive atmosphere,” the historian and Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer told CNN. “It was a scary atmosphere.”
In the years before the public flocked to see heavyweights in the ring or on the gridiron, many would bring their booze and off-hours aggressions to campaign rallies – drunken parades and parties that made little mention of the candidates, who rarely if ever attended.
Lincoln in particular steered clear of the trail, as outright campaigning was still considered unbecoming of a future chief executive. So when one of the four candidates in the 1860 race, the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, announced he was going to travel from Chicago to New Hampshire, by way of New Orleans, to visit his sick mother, political opponents and the partisan press drew their daggers.
“Douglas made a speech every time the train stopped for water and coal,” Holzer said. And for that, “he was mocked brutally as a momma’s boy, as ‘little Steven in search of his mother,’ insulting his independence, his manhood, making him look like a pipsqueak – which he was – so he was personally assailed.”
The broader sweep of the 1860 campaign was much darker. Conspiracy theories and race hate were the prevailing the themes in a four-way showdown that left the Democratic Party in shambles and cleared the way for the first shots of the Civil War just a few months later.
The table had been set by a Supreme Court decision three years earlier, in 1857’s Dred Scott decision, when it declared that African Americans could not be US citizens. The ruling aggravated tensions between the northern and southern states, leading many to believe that, as Holzer put it, “Douglas was in cahoots with President James Buchanan and Chief Justice Taney to make slavery legal, national, and perpetual.”
This was not quite true. Douglas despised Buchanan and considered the Scott decision a political misstep. But Honest Abe knew how to throw an elbow and seized on anxieties in the north over a federal government conspiring to expand slavery across the continent.
Douglas tried to turn the tables, as Holzer explained, by saying “that 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.”
The political cartoons of the day helped stoke the fiction. Appearing mostly on pamphlets and in saloon windows, they were often crude and deeply racist. In one titled “The political quadrille: Music by Dred Scott” (above), all four candidates danced with their perceived objects of their interest – Lincoln with a black woman, John C. Breckinridge with President Buchanan (or “Buck” the goat here), Douglas with an Irishman and Constitutional Union party candidate John Bell, with a Native American, suggesting that he is a Nativist, or anti-immigrant.
Lincoln would rout all three, 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.
1872: ‘The Home Stretch’
The second post-Civil War election pitted President Ulysses S. Grant against a challenger from within his own party: the audacious abolitionist and New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley.
The 1872 campaign turned on the fight over Reconstruction in the South and with the Democratic party still hopelessly divided, the Liberal Republicans – a breakaway GOP group that favored amnesty for erstwhile Confederates – formed the base of the electoral opposition.
But as the campaign neared, they faced one minor hurdle: no one wanted their nomination. Enter Greeley, “a very strange and eccentric figure” by historian Waugh’s account. “He always wore this long white waistcoat and his hair was a mess.”
“He was no one’s idea of their standard-bearer,” Waugh added, but that he would be – and with it, the target of relentless attacks by his former friends and the cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Greeley became a figure of fun early on, and unflattering caricatures, in essay or cartoon form, followed him throughout the campaign.
The press behaved like a band of cruel teenagers, wondering aloud – as in one Evening Post editorial – “how many men are there of character and reputation who may be counted among his friends? If there be any at all, they are very few – so few that it is difficult to recall their names.”
Rallying around him instead, the piece continued, were “the most corrupt, the most designing and the most dangerous of the community.”