Overwrought commentators warn us about the nasty, destabilizing rhetoric of this presidential campaign. Some claim that the accusations the candidates hurl at each other are a threat to the continued existence of free government. As a high school junior enrolled in AP U.S. History, and fresh off the study of the election of 1800, I can assure you that the rhetoric in this election is nothing new. By some measures, we might even consider it tame.
Mudslinging, fiercely partisan political parties, and personal attacks on candidates during campaign season have been with us since the beginning. Some of our most revered Founders knew how to throw a sharp elbow at election time. The genius of our republican system of government is that it was designed to account for the passions of politics without succumbing to them.
In the infamous election of 1800—the election that was, without question, the nastiest of them all—character assassination was carried out with unsurpassed variety, rigor, and expertise. The election of 2016 doesn’t come close.
The attacks began as soon as George Washington stepped out of office and John Adams stepped in. Adams had always been unpopular. That did not change when he became president. His one surge in popularity came when his party, the Federalists, and the people of the United States believed he would wage war with France, particularly after the humiliating XYZ Affair.
Instead, Adams pulled back from war and sought peace with France. He went to sign the much hated Alien and Sedition Acts, earning him the undying enmity of Jeffersonians. The Sedition Act, in particular, hindered and criminalized the slander of those holding public office, including the president. No surprise the unpopular Adams was drawn to this act. He was the frequent object of his opponents’ scorn. The unsavory things said about Adams, including referring to him as having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman” seem beyond both the ferocity and the vocabulary of today’s Twitter insult brigade.
Despite Adams’ unpopularity the Federalist party reluctantly nominated him again in 1800, along with Charles Pinckney. The two-party system that has dominated since then emerged during this campaign, with the Democratic-Republicans nominating Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
The outlines of all political division in our country more or less began with the rivalry between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton during Washington’s administration. The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans feared the other would take over and destroy free government forever. Hamilton wrote that supporters of a strong federal government should be prepared, “to make [the federal government’s] continued existence a question of force,” and William Cobbett, another leading Federalist, warned, “a civil war, or a surrender of independence is not more than a twelvemonth’s distance.”
The opinionated Hamilton declared in a “Letter from Alexander Hamilton Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams,” meant only for the eyes of Federalist leaders, that he did not support Adams’s campaign for a second term. The letter fell into the hands of Aaron Burr, and soon the public was well aware of Hamilton’s innermost feelings respecting Adams’ “great and intrinsic defects,” which included “disgusting egotism,” “distempered jealousy,” “ungovernable indiscretion,” and “vanity without bounds.”
However, public ridicule was not reserved only for Adams. Among other things, Thomas Jefferson was accused of robbing widows and orphans, gaining his property through fraud, acting as a tool of France, fathering mulatto children, practicing “wild philosophy, and gimcrackery in politics,” and being the Antichrist.
One supporter of John Adams insisted that if Jefferson were to win, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” Federalist preachers accused him of atheism (a disreputable belief at the time), and cried that there was no crime of which Jefferson was not guilty, and no evil he had not committed. One campaign sign read: “GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD!!!”
Federalists warned that the future of the American republic looked bleak if Jefferson, the then current Vice President, author of the Declaration of Independence, and leader of the Democratic-Republicans, became president. The Connecticut Courant predicted:
“There is scarcely a possibility that we shall escape a Civil War….Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes….”
But Jefferson could give as good as he got. He fostered his own anti-Adams calumnies by hiring hatchet man James Callendar. A few years prior, Callendar exposed Hamilton’s extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds, and accused Hamilton of embezzling funds from the United States Treasury. Hamilton was guilty of the former, but not of the latter.
During the election of 1800, Callendar penned a treatise called The Prospect Before Us, in which he painted Adams as a tyrant, thirsty for war with France, and gave the people a simple choice, “between Adams, war and beggary and Jefferson, peace and competency.” Sound familiar?
In the end, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for first place, followed by John Adams in second, then Charles Pinckney, and lastly, John Jay who had a grand total of one electoral vote. With no candidate having a simple majority, the vote was thrown to the House of Representatives, which was filled with Federalists who were faced with a choice between two Democratic-Republicans. When asked who he would vote for, Hamilton reluctantly supported Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr—an offense Burr would not soon forget.
At the end of Burr’s term as vice president, in July 1804, he and Hamilton dueled in Weehawken, New Jersey, resulting in Hamilton’s death.
Until the election of 2016 leads to the vice president and a former secretary of the treasury dueling in New Jersey, there is no contest as to which election will be more notorious.
Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton compare to Jefferson, Adams, or Hamilton, but neither are American politics more vulgar or deceitful than ever before., Our politics have always been contentious.We have always had conflicts over the Constitution and its interpretation. We have had good presidents and bad. We have had dignified campaigns and malicious ones. To ignore this is to ignore history itself, and to give up the opportunity to learn from the past. And let’s be thankful that so far this year no candidate has been accused of having a “hideous, hermaphroditical character” and the prospect of a duel remains remote.