Many contemporary political observers denounce the nasty tone of presidential campaigning in the modern era and call for a return to civility by both Republicans and Democrats. Despite the scorn heaped upon practitioners of this art, attack ads have long been a hallmark of presidential campaigns and first appeared soon after the United States gained its independence. Here are some of the nastiest advertisements or slogans used during previous races for the White House.
Election of 1800
Thomas Jefferson challenged President John Adams in 1800, four years after losing to Adams in the 1796 presidential race. Jefferson was also Adam's vice president at that time, despite belonging to a different political party, as the U.S. Constitution did not originally call for separate elections for the two offices.
The mudslinging was intense during the campaign, with Jefferson paying newspapers to print articles critical of President Adam's Federalist Party. Jefferson supporters also attacked President Adams directly, calling him a "hideous hermaphroditical character."
Political supporters of President Adams fired back with invective of their own, accusing Jefferson of being "the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Jefferson defeated President Adams, relegating the Federalist Party to the historical archives of American history. The bitterness between the two candidates extended beyond the election, with President Adams declining to attend Jefferson's inauguration.
Election of 1828
The election of 1828 featured President John Quincy Adams running for re-election against Andrew Jackson, his opponent from 1824. Jackson won the most electoral votes in 1824 but since no candidate received a majority, the race was decided in favor of Adams by the House of Representatives.
During the campaign, Jackson was the target of a series of political pamphlets that became known as the "Coffin Handbill." The first handbills accused Jackson of the callous execution of several U.S. Army deserters during the Creek War in 1814 and the massacre of Native Americans, including women and children. The attacks even extended to his family, with later handbills accusing Jackson and his wife of adultery and his mother of prostitution. The attacks on Jackson's character and family failed and he defeated Adams easily, with 56% of the votes in the election.
Election of 1840
The 1840 race featured President Martin Van Buren running for re-election as a Democrat against William Henry Harrison, the Whig Party candidate. Harrison was a former general and touted by his party as a war hero. The Whig Party attacked President Van Buren as being a patrician snob who was uncaring and aloof towards a country that was in the midst of a severe economic contraction. President Van Buren was belittled as "Martin Van Ruin" and "A First-Rate Second-Rate Man" by his opponents.
The Democrats fired back against Harrison, anointing him a drunk and a hillbilly with a pro-Van Buren newspaper saying "give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin." The Whig Party turned this portrayal to its advantage and transformed Harrison into a regular guy who was at ease with the voters, as opposed to the sophisticated and uncaring incumbent. This was a remarkable alteration of Harrison considering that he was from the upper class of American society and the son of a signer Declaration of Independence.
The Whig Party also attacked Vice President Richard Johnson, who was elected with President Van Buren in 1836. Vice President Johnson was accused of having a relationship with an African American woman and was dropped as a vice presidential candidate in 1840. Harrison rode his "log cabin and hard cider" image to victory and won a decisive victory in the election of 1840.
Election of 1884
James G. Blaine was the Republican candidate in 1884, winning the nomination over President Chester Arthur, an incumbent from his own party, who suffered from a debilitating illness towards the end of his term. Blaine faced Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate, who made his reputation battling corrupt political machines and supporting reformism in government.
Cleveland's supporters attacked Blaine's integrity and portrayed him as serving the interests of the railroads and other businesses while he served as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Although these were old charges, they were renewed with the discovery of a related letter written by Blaine, which advised the recipient to burn the letter, suggesting wrongdoing and a cover-up. Democrats penned the slogan "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine," in an effort to damage his character.
Cleveland was also the focus of personal attacks during the campaign, after it was revealed that he might have fathered a child out of wedlock. Cleveland was a bachelor at the time so adultery was not an issue, but Republicans ran with this anyway. Newspapers published cartoons ridiculing Cleveland, including one of a crying baby reaching out to Cleveland along with the slogan "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" Cleveland, to his credit, came clean and admitted to engaging in the affair and paying child support to the mother. He did not admit paternity, as Cleveland apparently shared the woman with his law partner. The voters forgave Cleveland's transgressions and he defeated Blaine, winning the popular vote by a narrow margin and the electoral vote by a 219-182 margin.
The Bottom Line
While the conventional wisdom holds that modern presidential campaigning has brought a new level of vulgarity to American politics, attack advertisements are nothing new and have been around almost as long as the U.S. has been a nation. The electorate should get used to it because these ads are an effective means of shaping the image of an opponent.
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