The year before we pulled our son out of elementary school to homeschool, the school administration changed the familiar punishment doled out for rude and disrespectful behavior from detention to recess academy. I understand the intent behind this. It’s important kids understand the meaning behind their inappropriate behavior, and more importantly, practice the desired behavior in lieu of teachers simply punishing them. I propose that presidential candidates might also benefit from attending “recess academy.” As the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes). The idea that current U.S. presidential election mudslinging is unprecedented is a naive one. So, here’s a brief history lesson.
This post was originally published March 27, 2016 and last updated October 9, 2016. Also, please see my notes at the end of the piece.
U.S. presidential election musdslinging begins – President John Adams versus Vice President Thomas Jefferson
We see the beginnings of U.S. presidential election mudslinging as early as the presidential 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 and brewing discontent among the populace, had already begun quietly undermining President Adams and his Federalist Party. Meanwhile, the Federalist press 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 government a treacherous act. Nevertheless, these actions set a precedent for our modern political party system.
Troubles for Adams
Adams’s party held different views on many issues, which put his party at a disadvantage. Even Alexander Hamilton, also a Federalist, like Adams, wrote a letter questioning Adams’s character.
Adams’s opponents accused him of arranging a marriage between his son and one of the daughters of King George III in order 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 forging such an alliance. None of this was true, of course.
Sadly, even though Adams and Jefferson courted a friendship, Jefferson stooped so low as to pay several journalists to libel Adams. One of them even suggested that Adams had hermaphroditical personality traits.
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” ( Miller Center website).
The president of Yale University, a supporter of Adams, expressed fear that wives and daughters would become victims of legal prostitution. Opponents viciously attacked Jefferson’s deist beliefs and exposed his suspected intimate relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. (DNA tests have almost certainly confirmed that he fathered some of Sally’s children.)
The list of nasty presidential campaigns continues with Lincoln vs. Douglas, Cleveland vs. Blaine, and Hoover vs. Smith. Mudslinging wasn’t just limited to newspapers and supporters of candidates. Sometimes, the presidential candidates themselves threw their fair share of mud, too.
Andrew Jackson versus John Quincy Adams – U.S. presidential election mudslinging continues
But in the presidential election of 1828, between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, dirty politics took aim at Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel. Here, we see U.S. presidential election mudslinging take a familiar turn. Spouses became fair game.
Rachel Jackson, Andrew Jackson’s wife, married Lewis Robards before marrying Jackson. From here, it gets confusing – a meandering trail into accusations of physical abuse on the part of Lewis; adultery and abandonment on the part of Rachel; reports that Lewis had already filed for divorce leaving Rachael free to marry Jackson, which unfortunately wasn’t true; and a marriage between Andrew Jackson and Rachel in Natchez, Mississippi, which the state considered void because at the time, they only ordained Catholic marriages in Spanish-ruled Mississippi. Jackson and Rachel legally married a second time in Tennessee, but Rachel’s name was mud at that point. Many considered her an adulterer and a bigamist, titles that carried a heavy weight.
Publicists exposed the story of Rachel’s past early on in Jackson’s presidential campaign. Some historians suggest that Rachel spent the days leading up to the election depressed and crying. All of the stress aggravated a prior heart condition.
As history tells us, Jackson won the election. But Rachel wasn’t too thrilled at the thought of living in Washington D.C after her reputation was smeared. Her physical and mental health had deteriorated to such a great extent that she suffered a near fatal heart attack in the fall of 1828. She did recover, however, and had planned to attend the inauguration, purchasing a gown and white slippers for the inaugural ball.
Rachel died three days before Christmas. She wore the inaugural gown and slippers to her grave – leaving Jackson to occupy the White House without his wife.
Because of the manner in which his opponents treated Rachel during the election campaign and afterwards, Andrew Jackson forever blamed John Quincy Adams and his supporters for Rachel’s death. Some of the newspapers that had been so quick to criticize Rachel, softened and mourned her death. But others took the opportunity to remain vicious to the bitter end. (National First Ladies Library)
U.S. presidential election mudslinging today
These days, U.S presidential election mudslinging continues. And spouses are fair game. People accept harsh criticism and vulgarity as an accepted form of presidential candidate competition. For school-aged children, this type of behavior would result in suspension or expulsion.
So, I believe it’s important to continue teaching our children the ideals of respect and dignity for all people. This should include, also, restraint from inappropriate insults and vulgar comments. However, we must warn children that unless they learn to refrain from mudslinging and bullying behaviors – they just might find themselves running for president of the United States.
*Please note: I wish to express no sympathy for Andrew Jackson’s views and treatment of slaves and Native Americans. Nor would I even begin to suggest that Rachel Jackson was a matronly saint. I wrote this essay to highlight our history of politicizing the spouses of presidential candidates and to point out that our tendency toward dirty politics isn’t new. Although Thomas Jefferson kept slaves, also, Andrew Jackson was particularly cruel and vicious. It’s important to note that John Adams never owned slaves.