U.S. Presidential Election Mudslinging and Playground Bullies

By White House photo by Tina Hager [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By White House photo by Tina Hager [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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. But during my son's grade school years, the administration decided to stop sending kids to detention. Instead, they implemented an alternative form of punishment called recess academy. I understand the intent behind this. 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. Anyone who followed the 2016 presidential campaign knows what I mean. Though it's naive to think that the current level of mudslinging is unprecedented when, in fact, it 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.

Last updated October 26, 2017

U.S. presidential election musdslinging 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. Rumor had it that George Washington 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.

Yet, gossip was nothing compared to what his long-time friend Thomas Jefferson did. Election ugliness reached a climactic point when  "Jefferson paid several journalists to libel 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 from 1812–1826, leaving behind an important collection of letters. Remarkably, they both died on July 4, 1826. 

Troubles for Jefferson

On the other hand, the Federalists equally scandalized Jefferson. One newspaper quoted 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.)

But this was only 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 it wasn't limited to newspapers and supporters of candidates. Sometimes, just 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 gave supporters of each plenty of fodder for newspapers. In addition, politics now 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. 

But 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. He 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. But in 1815 while leading troops in the War of 1812, he had ordered six members of his militia executed for desertion. The legality and severity of the punishment became a controversial topic, especially for Adams's supporters. Yet, it was his opponents' criticism of his wife Rachael that infuriated him the most. Having his wife accused of bigamy didn't sit well with Jackson and fueled his temper even more. Unlike Adams, who retreated in response to slanderous attacks, Jackson fought back by meddling in the affairs of newspaper editors. 

andrew jackson's controversial marriage to rachael

Although uncalled for, it's easy to see why 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 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. Yet, some of the newspapers that were so quick to criticize Rachael softened, grieving her death. But others took the opportunity to remain vicious, even after her passing. 

U.S. presidential election mudslinging, 2016

Fast forward to the 2016 presidential election and the mudslinging doesn't let up. But what is especially crude about this election, however, are the interactions between republican candidates Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Besides questioning Cruz's eligibility as a candidate—Cruz was born in Canada to an American parent—Trump has even implicated Cruz's father in the Kennedy assassination. And no one is safe from his malice, either.

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." The genitalia officially entered the race. 

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 merry-go-round continues as, not doubt, it 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 at recess academy.

instructing our children

So in response, I think it's critical we teach our children to practice tolerance; to respect all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, religion and culture; and to refrain from mudslinging and bullying behaviors. But if they can't abide by these rules of common human decency, the consequences are far more unpalatable than recess academy: they could end up running for president of the United States. And what's even worse, they just might win.

Laura