Coming off another statewide campaign in which candidates and their supporters criticized each other bitterly, the usual calls for reforming our campaign finance system are underway. These “negative” attacks are so disturbing to editorial boards, the state’s two largest papers have actually proposed doing away with Supreme Court elections altogether. Apparently, the best way to protect the peoples’ interest is to make sure they have no say in who governs them.
Yet for all the people that think these races are too “negative,” it is instructive to go back and take a historical look at negativity in campaigning. In David Mark’s excellent book “Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning,” he details some of the most important races in American History, and the level of animus and dirty campaigning in each.
In the “good old” days, much of the campaigning was done by third parties, in the form of partisan newspapers. These are the very third parties campaign finance reformers now seek to shut out of the political discussion come election time, believing the only people allowed to have discussions about elections are the candidates themselves. Here’s a look at some of the campaign rhetoric in presidential races that actually determined the course of our nation:
Adams vs. Jefferson (1796)
The Federalists, led by John Adams, attacked Thomas Jefferson as an “Atheist,” “anarchist,” “demagogue,” “coward,” and “trickster,” and said that Jefferson’s followers were “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amid filth and vermin.”
Adams vs. Jefferson (1800)
Jefferson, who was Vice President (because at the time, the person who came in 2nd in the previous election earned the VP job) took Adams on again. Jefferson’s supporters tried to link Adams to George III, even starting a rumor that Adams intended to marry his son off to the daughter of George III and create an American dynasty under British rule. Adams’ supporters ripped Jefferson, calling him (the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, incidentally) “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father… raised wholly on hoe-cake made of coarse-ground Southern corn, bacon and hominy, with an occasional change of frecassed bullfrog.”
Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams (1828)
The two had run against each other in 1824, with Jackson winning the popular vote; yet three other candidates, including Adams, fractured the electoral votes to the point where deciding the election had to go to Congress. Adams then convinced Speaker of the House Henry Clay to engineer a vote to give him the presidency; three days later, Clay was given the secretary of state job in the Adams administration.
Incensed, Jackson spent the entire next four years attacking Adams. Jackson’s supporters called Adams “The Pimp,” based on a rumor about Adams coercing a young woman to have sex with a Russian Czar a decade earlier. Adams’ supporters countered with a cartoon of Jackson hanging a man in a noose, a reference to Jackson’s time spent executing Seminole Indian sympathizers. The cartoon’s caption read, “Jackson is to be president and you will be HANGED.”
The campaign also saw each candidate attack each others’ wives. Jackson’s supporters claimed that Louisa Adams was an illegitimate child that had been having sex with Adams before marriage. Adams’ supporters pointed out that Rachel Jackson married Andrew before her previous marriage had legally ended. After growing increasingly depressed, Rachel Jackson died several days after Jackson won the campaign, and Andrew never stopped blaming Adams for her death.
James Blaine vs. Grover Cleveland, 1884
Republican Blaine suffered attacks when he refused to distance himself from a Protestant minister’s anti-Catholic slurs, including that the Democrats were the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”
Cleveland was attacked for having hired a substitute to fight for him in the Civil war, a common practice for wealthy Northern men. Cleveland also faced attacks that he had fathered an illegitimate child, leaving to Blaine’s campaign slogan, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” Cleveland admitted that the child may be his, and paid child support until the boy was adopted by wealthy parents.
Keep in mind that in each of these examples, the Union was still in its infancy – so unlike the hyperbole in today’s campaigns, the future of the country truly was at stake. And yet, with all of this mudslinging and “misinformation,” voters made choices that crafted our fledgling democracy into the world’s gold standard for individual freedom. Compare that to the recent Wisconsin State Supreme Court race, where the suggestion that one candidate “tends to side with criminals” was covered as if it were an alien invasion, leading the news media to advocate shutting down elections altogether.
Interestingly, Mark points out that one of our founding documents is essentially an issue ad against British Royalty. While everyone remembers the towering rhetoric about all men being created equal and the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the Declaration of Independence is essentially a negative document that savages King George III of England as “unfit to be the ruler of free people.” According to the Declaration of Independence, “He (George) has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” Basically, our nation was founded by a hit piece.
Campaign finance reformers will continue to harken back to the “good ‘ol days” where everyone got along and campaigns were run with dignity. Yet these days never existed, and never will. We have to continue to trust the voters to make choices that have built us into the world’s foremost democracy – and that includes trusting our citizens with the right to free political speech.