Playground Bullies and the History of Mudslinging in U.S. Presidential Elections

The White House,  pixabay

The White House, pixabay

Last updated April 12, 2019

The 2016 Republican primary was, no doubt, a contentious race. But was the mudslinging that took place in that election unprecedented? Perhaps, not. Read on to learn about the history of U.S. presidential election mudslinging. 


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playground Bullies, mudslinging and recess academy

Playgrounds are full of mudslinging bullies. And for those who get properly sniffed out, impending doom awaits in the halls of silence—aka, detention. But during my son's grade school years, the school administration decided to stop sending kids to detention. Instead, they implemented an alternative form of punishment called recess academy. I can see the value in that: Practicing kindness and respect, in lieu of negative consequences, models desired behaviors.

But why limit recess academy to school children? Since politicians also have a flair for bullying, perhaps we should create a special one for them, too. If you followed the 2016 Republican primary, perhaps, you'll agree. Though it's naive to consider the mudslinging that took place in that particular primary unprecedented when, in fact, dirty politics harks back to our country's first elections. As the saying goes, "there is nothing new under the sun." So, here's a short history lesson.

U.S. presidential election mudslinging begins: President John Adams versus Vice President Thomas Jefferson

Presidential election mudslinging took root in the election of 1800 between President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson, which set the tone for dirty politics in America. Jefferson, with the help of James Madison, was secretly undermining President Adams and his Federalist Party because he thought the Federal government had already become too powerful. Meanwhile, Federalist publications referred to Jefferson and Madison as traitors. Only one political party existed at that time, so people considered Jefferson's move to form an opposition to the current form of government a treacherous act. Nevertheless,  Jefferson's defiance was instrumental in launching our two-party system.

Troubles for Adams

President John Adams faced opposition from within and from his opponents. Some of Adams's views were unpopular among his party members, one of which was his refusal to declare war on France. But his reputation also came into question. Even Alexander Hamilton, also a Federalist, like Adams, wrote a letter questioning Adams's character. Though one of the most outlandish accusations was that Adams had arranged a marriage between his son and one of the daughters of King George III to create an American dynasty. Rumors spread that George Washington had donned his general's uniform and threatened to use his sword against Adams to prevent him from forming an alliance with the king. Unsurprisingly, no one could verify the authenticity of these rumors.

This gossip paled, however, compared to Thomas Jefferson's betrayal of his friendship with Adams. Mudslinging reached a climactic point when  Jefferson paid a handful of reporters to slander Adams. One even suggested that Adams had hermaphroditical personality traits. It's worth noting, though, that Jefferson and Adams later mended their friendship and corresponded between 1812–1826, leaving behind an important collection of letters. Remarkably, they both died on the same day, July 4, 1826. 

Troubles for Jefferson

On the other hand, the Federalists equally scandalized Jefferson. According to a piece by Peter Onuf, Professor of History, University of Virginia, one newspaper wrote that if Jefferson became president, "‘Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.’" The president of Yale University, a supporter of Adams, expressed fear that wives and daughters would become victims of legal prostitution. In addition, opponents attacked Jefferson's deist beliefs while also exposing his intimate relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. (DNA tests have confirmed that he most likely fathered one if not more of Sally's children.)

Yet, this was just the beginning of U.S. presidential election mudslinging. Other contentious elections include Lincoln vs. Douglas, Cleveland vs. Blaine, Johnson vs. Goldwater and Nixon vs. Muskie. And mudslinging wasn't limited to newspapers and supporters of candidates. Sometimes, like today, presidential candidates threw their fair share of mud, too.

Andrew Jackson versus John Quincy Adams: One of the dirtiest elections in U.S. History

But the 1828 election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams is considered one of the dirtiest presidential elections in U.S. history. Both candidates' careers and personalities provided plenty of fodder for newspapers. In addition, politics takes a familiar turn: Spouses become fair game.

ELITIST, Pimping John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, son of second President John Adams, began his political career as secretary to the U.S. ambassador to Russia. He was only a teenager at the time and went on to become a brilliant diplomat. But his refinement and intelligence worked against him. Supporters of Jackson accused Adams of being elitist. They also spread rumors that he purchased a billiards table on the government's dime. 

Yet, one of the most outlandish accusations against Adams was that he gifted an American girl to the Russian czar. In fact, his opponents attributed his success as a diplomat to pimping. In response to these rumors, Adams refused to participate in any campaign strategies. Indeed, Adams was so horrified by the muckraking that he stopped writing in his journal until after the election. 

Andrew Jackson: a flaming temper, executions and a scandalized marriage

In contrast to Adams's aristocratic background, Andrew Jackson had an illustrious past, which kept the pundits busy. He was known to have a violent temper and had even killed a man in a duel. In addition to that, he had ordered six members of his militia executed for desertion in 1815 while leading troops in the War of 1812. The legality and severity of the punishment became a controversial topic for Adams's supporters, who also accused Jackson's wife, Rachael, of bigamy. The accusations against Rachel were especially troubling for Jackson and only served to fuel his temper. And, unlike Adams, who retreated in response to slanderous attacks, Jackson fought back by meddling in the affairs of newspapers. 

andrew jackson's controversial marriage to rachael

Although uncalled for, it's easy to see how Andrew Jackson's marriage led to malicious gossip when you view it through the lens of more traditional and religious beliefs held during that time.

Rachael Jackson, Andrew Jackson's wife, was married to Lewis Robards before she married Jackson. From here, it gets confusing: Rachael accusing Lewis of physical abuse; Lewis accusing Rachael of adultery and abandonment; reports that Lewis had already filed for divorce leaving Rachael free to marry Jackson, which wasn't true; and a marriage between Andrew Jackson and Rachel in Natchez, Mississippi, which the Spanish-ruled state considered void because the only legal marriages at the time were ordained Catholic marriages.

Jackson and Rachel legally married a second time in Tennessee, but Rachel's reputation was already damaged. Many considered her an adulterer and a bigamist, titles that carried a heavy weight back then.

Rachel's fate

Publicists exposed the story of the scandalous marriage during Jackson's presidential campaign, which, according to Jackson, aggravated Rachael's heart condition. She died three days before Christmas, leaving Jackson to occupy the White House without his wife. Because of the way his opponents treated Rachel during the election campaign and afterward, Andrew Jackson felt that John Quincy Adams and his supporters had caused her death in spite of the fact that Rachael's heart condition was diagnosed before the election. And some of the newspapers remained vicious toward Rachael, even after her passing. 

U.S. presidential election mudslinging, 2016

You don't need to look beyond the 2016 Republican primary, however, to observe that political mudslinging hasn't let up. Though the interactions between Republican candidates Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were especially dirty and, also, crude. Besides questioning Cruz's eligibility as a candidate—Cruz was born in Canada to a U.S. citizen—Trump even implicated Cruz's father in the Kennedy assassination. And no one was (or is) safe from his malice.

An interview with Rubio at NPR illustrates this point well: Rubio told journalist Steve Inskeep that he tired of Trump "personally offending not just everyone in the race but women and minorities and the disabled."  So, as a way to hit back, Rubio made a remark about Trump's "small hands." At this point, the genitalia officially entered the race, though one can hardly blame Rubio for getting in a dig. 

But Trump dealt a particularly low blow when he insulted Cruz's wife by posting an unflattering picture of her on Twitter next to a photo of Melania Trump. The tweet says, "A picture is worth a thousand words." Cruz replied with a photograph of Melania from G.Q., and the political games continue as, no doubt, they always will. Our culture accepts below-the-belt insults as a normal part of presidential candidate competition. For school-aged children, this would result in suspension, expulsion or long hours spent at recess academy.

instructing our children

So, in response, I think it's crucial we teach our children to respect and have empathy for people of all races, religions, countries, sexual orientations and genders; refrain from mudslinging and bullying behaviors, such as mocking the handicapped and disabled and separating families at our borders; and never defend those complicit in the hatred of others, for any reason whatsoever. But if they choose to ignore the rules of common human decency, the consequences of their contempt could be far more dire—at least for the rest of us—than recess academy: They could end up running for president of the United States. And, even worse, they just might win.   —Laura

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