A look back: In spite of super PACs, this isn't the most negative campaign in history

Negative campaigning is actually an American tradition. In fact, attack campaigning has been around since the beginning without derailing the electoral process. Mudslinging can hardly be called a positive campaign feature, but it is a sign of democracy in action.

AP Photo/The St. Paul Pioneer Press, Ben Garvin
Mitt Romney hands 6-month-old Dexter Hall of Plymouth, Minn., back to his mother, Laura, during a campaign stop at Freightmasters, Inc. in Eagan, Minn., Feb. 1. A recent Federal Election Commission report shows that the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future spent more than $16.5 million in negative ads directed at Newt Gingrich.

Now that the 2012 presidential campaign is shifting into high gear, Americans are bombarded with seemingly nonstop negative political ads. It’s easy to believe that mudslinging is at an all-time high. The history of political campaigns, however, tells a different story.

Negative campaigning is actually an American tradition. Nineteenth-century political fights sound a lot like current campaign ads. Elitism, radical tendencies, military incompetence, fiscal extravagance, sexual peccadilloes – by the early 1800s all the familiar smears were in place.

Mudslinging can hardly be called a positive feature of campaigns, but it is a sign of democracy in action. Attacks are only worth mounting where voters need to be swayed. While most of us would prefer that candidates keep to the high ground, it may be some comfort to know that attack campaigning has been around since the beginning without derailing the electoral process.

The 1800 presidential contest between incumbent John Adams and Thomas Jefferson remains one of the nastiest on record, in spite of the limited nature of campaigns in those days. Stumping for office was frowned on, so candidates didn’t make speeches or appear at rallies. They left the electioneering to their supporters, who got the word out through pamphlets and editorials.

Adams supporters went after Jefferson for being a radical. They highlighted Jefferson’s sympathy with the French Revolution, charging that his election would bring an American Reign of Terror. Newspapers spun scenarios of future anarchy and devastation. One editorial warned, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught.”

Jeffersonians branded Adams an elitist. He once suggested that the country should be governed by “the rich, the well-born, and the able,” leading the opposition to accuse him of being a secret monarchist. The rumor spread that he planned to marry off one of his sons to George III’s daughter.

Wide-scale campaigning arrived during the 1820s, when the voter base expanded as states loosened their eligibility requirements. The negativity level ratcheted up with the need to capture more voters.

When Andrew Jackson challenged John Quincy Adams in 1828, both sides achieved new heights of vituperation. Like his father, Adams was smeared as a would-be aristocrat. Jacksonians accused him of “kingly pomp and splendor.” Although the younger Adams was known to be straitlaced, they spread the absurd tale that when he served as a minister to Russia, he procured an American girl for the czar.

The assault on Jackson was equally nasty. The first in a series of pamphlets known as “The Coffin Handbills” accused Jackson of having wrongly executed six soldiers during the War of 1812. Other attacks exaggerated his love of brawling. One pamphlet alleged that he had been involved in at least 14 duels or other conflicts.

The most vicious attack was against Jackson’s wife Rachel. Mrs. Jackson had been married before. She married Jackson believing that her first husband had obtained a divorce. Several years later the Jacksons learned to their shock that the decree had only recently become official. They immediately remarried.

Adams supporters blew this mistake into a major campaign issue. They labeled Rachel Jackson an immoral woman and a bigamist. One anti-Jackson editorial asked, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?”

Jackson was elected anyway, but the attack had serious consequences. Rachel Jackson, who had heart trouble, died shortly after the election.

Candidates have been dodging mud ever since. Martin Van Buren was accused of wasting taxpayer money while living in “regal splendor” in the White House. Franklin Pierce was nicknamed the Fainting General by those who questioned his war record. Abraham Lincoln, now one of our most admired presidents, was ridiculed for his homely looks and low origins. His detractors dubbed him Ignoramus Abe.

William Jennings Bryan, who ran against William McKinley in 1896, was portrayed as not merely radical, but insane. He lost in a landslide.

If negativity has been going full blast since the time of Jefferson and Adams, why does it seem as though it’s getting worse? One reason is the flood of television ads, talk show commentary, and blog posting that comes with modern campaigns. This saturation coverage is a far cry from the hand-distributed pamphlets of yesterday and it can feel relentless.

Money also plays a part. McKinley, in what is often called the first modern campaign, was able to flatten Bryan in 1896 largely because he outspent Bryan by several million dollars. Today’s so-called super PACs have financial clout beyond anything McKinley could dream of. That translates to more and louder negativity.

Negative campaigning works, so it is probably here to stay. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Concerned citizens can support campaign finance reform. Several proposals are now circulating, including a constitutional amendment that negates the recent Citizens United decision by rejecting corporate personhood. We can also let our representatives know that we expect them to run positive campaigns.

At an individual level, we can filter what we hear through nonpartisan fact-checking sites like Politifact and Factcheck.org. And we can just unplug occasionally – turn off the computer and television, step back from the fray, and let our thoughts settle.

Rosemarie Ostler is the author of “Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics (Perigee 2011).”

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