You Think Today’s Politics Are Bad?

Amid the understandable growing public disgust with the nasty and petty behavior of our public servants, the Baltimore Sun helpfully reminds us that politics really hasn’t changed all that much — if anything, it is a lot tamer.

Consider our first contested presidential election, in 1800, which pit two of our most famous statesmen — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — against each other. It’s tempting to envisage them as wig-clad philosopher-kings, deliberating high-minded ideas in a calm and reasoned campaign.

It’s also false. Jefferson’s supporters said that Adams had secretly plotted to have one of his sons marry King George III’s daughter, to bring America back under the British crown. But if Jefferson were elected, Adams’ camp charged, the young nation would descend into anarchy and violence.

“Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced,” one anti-Jefferson newspaper predicted, “the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

Another editorialist painted an even bleaker picture of life under a Jefferson administration. “Look at your homes, your parents, your wives, and your children,” he warned. “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, hoary hairs bathed in blood, female chastity violated, or children writhing on the pike?”

To think that Adams, one of the most vociferous patriots of the American Revolution, being accused of selling out the country to the British? It must be hard to imagine our enlightened and gentlemanly founders resorting to such crude and provocative language. To be sure, much of this was being directed by supporters rather than the candidates themselves, but neither of the men seemed to have done much to reign in on such inflamed passions. Politics is politics, even for otherwise seemingly intelligent people. 

As the Sun goes on to document, it gets worse. Highlights include such sordid accusations as John Quincy Adams giving the Tsar of Russia a “young American virgin” as a gift; Andrew Jackson’s mother being a “common prostitute”, and Henry Clay spending “his days at the gambling table and his nights in a brothel”.

The now-widely beloved Abraham Lincoln was pettily described as “a lank-sided Yankee of the uncomeliest visage, and of the dirtiest complexion”, and in one colorful editorial, called a “liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, ignoramus aba, old scoundrel, perjurer, robber, swindler, tyrant, fiend and butcher”. Pretty nasty stuff.

The 20th century did not bring much improvement; Warren Harding was “accused” of being black, FDR was suspected of being “secretly Jewish”, and JFK was seriously questioned about whether, as a Catholic, he would take orders from the Pope. Given all that, is it any surprise that Obama is accused of being a closet Muslim and non-citizen? There is a whole legacy of such nutty allegations and insults being slung at leaders of all political persuasions. 

The clear and simple fact is, politics has always been a dirty business, in the U.S. and elsewhere. While this truism does not justify the nastiness and demagoguery we see today, it does put matters into perspective…for what that is worth. What does it say about humans that we seem so keen on this sort of behavior no matter what time, place, or political culture we are in? What are your thoughts? 

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