As election day nears and the political races tighten, mudslinging is again on the rise. But vituperative language and negative tactics are not new in American political campaigns. Consider the 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. If Jefferson wins, a Federalist editor in Connecticut predicted, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced." The Federalists dismissed Jefferson's supporters as "cutthroats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin."
Now, in 1996, reasoned debate has given way to negative ads, personal attacks, and strident rhetoric. Each day the Clinton and Dole campaigns release another barrage.
Bob Dole recently lambasted the Democrats for waging "a campaign of negativism, a campaign of fear." For his part, Vice President Al Gore labels Dole and Newt Gingrich "the two-headed monster."
Stronger incendiary charges were commonplace in 19th-century elections. Even the presidents we now most revere were savagely maligned during their time in office.
In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln stood for reelection. The war was not going well for the North, and many critics of the unending carnage called for a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. During the campaign, northern Democrats variously referred to Lincoln as a liar, thief, buffoon, monster, ignoramus, scoundrel, swindler, fiend, and butcher.
Alas, the price of free speech in a democracy is having to put up with a lot of foolish speech.
Perhaps the most scurrilous presidential campaign occurred in 1884. "The public is angry and abusive," observed Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of former presidents. "We are all swearing at each other like demons."
Congressman James G. Blaine was the Republican nominee. He was a charismatic speaker and veteran party leader who happened to have been caught accepting bribes from a railroad owner in exchange for key votes.
His Democratic opponent, the New York bachelor Grover Cleveland, was known for his stubborn integrity. But early in the campaign it was revealed that he had fathered an illegitimate child ten years before and had been providing mother and son with financial support. When asked by aides how to handle this explosive revelation, Cleveland replied, "Tell the truth."
The respective failings of Blaine and Cleveland spawned some of the most colorful battle cries in American political history. Democrats chanted: "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine," while Republicans countered, "Ma, ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha."
Democrats dismissed Blaine as a crook while Republican newspaper editors castigated Cleveland as "a moral leper" and "a wretch unworthy of respect or confidence." Of course, to remind ourselves that mudslinging is an old American tradition offers little solace to those dismayed by the degrading tone of contemporary political contests. But there is some comfort in knowing that most campaigns today are relatively civil when compared to the venomous tone of earlier elections.
What seems to be lacking amid today's slash-and-burn polemics is the disarming humor that previous generations of politicians used to deflect and dilute personal attacks. When Stephen A. Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced, Lincoln replied:
"I leave it to my audience to decide. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"
*David Shi is president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.