Looking to the Founders: Politicians Have Always Played Dirty Politics

We’re in the home stretch of an important mid-term election. The Senate looks to be in jeopardy — the balance of power for the rest of the Obama administration seems up for grabs.

The television, Internet, and radio ads are a constant barrage of negative campaigning and mudslinging, making many long for a simpler time of honest campaigning.

But did that really exist? Or perhaps mudslinging has been with us from the very beginning.

Phocion

Publius, the pseudonym used for the Federalist Papers, will be immortalized in history classes. Yet, Hamilton was known by other pseudonyms as well. Phocion, in honor of one of Athens’ most honest statesmen, was Hamilton’s pseudonym during the Adams/Jefferson election of 1796.

Hamilton didn’t really have a vested interest in seeing Adams win the election — his political aims were just to undermine his long-time political adversary, Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton would accuse Jefferson of having fathered numerous children from slaves, claimed that Jefferson would free the slaves if elected, and that civil war would break out if Jefferson was elected. Hamilton had little to no proof, but just wanted to undermine Jefferson’s credibility. And it worked — even Martha Washington was quoted calling Jefferson one of the “vilest creatures” to ever walk the earth.

The media was pretty limited in early America, with fewer than 200 newspapers in the entire country — the ability to control what was in the papers was critical. Bad press tends to sell far more papers than public interest stories, something that hasn’t changed throughout our history.

Jefferson lost by one of the smallest possible margins, but wouldn’t forget Hamilton’s actions in the next election.

Jefferson Retaliates

The next election, Jefferson hired an attack dog in the form of James Callender to spread bad press about Adams — everything from calling him a hermaphrodite to accusing him of warmongering and quietly planning an attack on France.

Choosing Callender highlights Jefferson's belief that Hamilton and Adams were working together against him.
Callender had a past with Hamilton, accusing him in 1797 of public corruption and adultery, charges that at least temporarily derailed Hamilton’s political career. Choosing Callender highlights Jefferson’s belief that Hamilton and Adams were working together against him, and he was definitely trying to “kill two birds” by hiring Callender.

Jefferson’s strategy won the election, but cost him (and Callender) quite a bit.

Callender wound up serving time in prison for slandering Adams, and he left prison in 1801 with the distinct impression that Jefferson “owed” him something. Jefferson no longer had any use for him and gave him the cold shoulder — big mistake when dealing with an angry journalist.

In a series of articles, Callender continued Hamilton’s claims that Jefferson had fathered a number of children with Sally Hemings, one of his household slaves, even suggesting that she was hiding in France to spare Jefferson embarrassment while raising his illegitimate children.

While Jefferson denied the allegations, they would haunt him for the rest of his life and beyond, and it wasn’t until modern DNA testing that it was in fact confirmed that Callender’s story was true.

Today’s Campaigning

This is one of those unfortunate times when we really can’t look to the Founders for guidance, because they liked to stoop to the lowest levels in dirty campaigning. Many of the earliest campaigns capitalized on the opponent’s drinking habits, extra-marital affairs, and/or religious beliefs (true or not).

Throughout our political history, many of our greatest and most revered politicians have been drug through the mud during elections: Andrew Jackson was accused of cannibalism and John Quincy Adams was called a sexual deviant and a pimp in the election of 1828 — yet both are considered great presidents by most accounts.

When Barrack Obama is caricatured as a devout Muslim or Sarah Palin as a hate-filled idiot, we are only continuing a long tradition that has been laid out before us.

In some ways, we need to know how our leaders will react to the harshest of criticisms — true or not — because dealing with adversity is a hallmark trait of leadership. Within reason, I’m far more interested in seeing how a politician squirms under the pressure of allegations than whether or not they actually did it — because I want to see what will make them crack before they are elected, not afterwards.

Image: Alexander Hamilton