The campaigns leading up to yesterday’s presidential election will certainly be remembered as being among the most controversial and divisive in American history. Partisan politics, name-calling, accusations of corruption, and drudging up unflattering bits of each candidate’s past all took center stage in this election. Regardless of who you decided to vote for, or who ultimately emerged the winner (as I write this, people are casting their ballots all over the nation), it would be easy to assume the political atmosphere in our country is worse than it has ever been.
Believe it or not, however, the United States has an illustrious history of muddy, and sometimes bloody, presidential campaigns that date all the way back to our Founding Fathers. As we watch our friends and families swear at one another on Facebook about Hillary Clinton’s corruption and Donald Trump’s ego, it may behoove us to take a look back at the birth of negative campaigning: when sitting president John Adams took on his very own vice president, Thomas Jefferson, way back in the year 1800.
A short 24 years earlier, Adams and Jefferson were a part of a group of incredible revolutionaries who sacrificed their very way of life to build the country we would one day get to call our own. These men, unified in their vision of a free and independent American nation, set aside their differences and fought alongside one another to end British rule in the colonies. Unfortunately for each of them, they would soon come to learn why Lin-Manuel Miranda would attribute the line, “Winning is easy, young man; governing is harder” to George Washington in the musical sensation “Hamilton.” Even the Washington family was unable to avoid the bitter rivalry these men would come to develop.
News outlets the world over were shocked when Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman.” Others couldn’t believe Clinton would dare call Trump supporters “deplorables.” Such divisive and derogatory language may seem like a new low for American politics, but the historical record shows that even the worst comments made by each candidate could objectively be considered “business as usual” for presidential candidates. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s presidential campaign issued the following statement regarding John Adams: “President Adams has a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Although I mentioned it earlier, it seems necessary after reading that to once again point out that Jefferson was the sitting vice president at the time of the statement. Of course, the policy of the day meant that the two candidates were not on the same ticket and that the loser would take the vice presidential seat, but even amid the worst debates between two seemingly antithetical characters like Trump and Clinton, no one dares accuse the other of being a hermaphrodite.
John Adams’s camp, not to be out-dirtied, responded by calling Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” These great men, the sort of men history will remember for all time, resorted to petty name-calling that would make a cartoon redneck blush—and that was just the beginning. Other more historically common names would be tossed about throughout the campaign as well. Calling your opponent a tyrant, hypocrite, criminal, and a coward all got their start in the election of 1800.
Even fear-mongering about war started with these two men. Jefferson hired a man named James Callendar (as presidential candidates did not actively campaign at the time) to spread rumors about Adams wanting to start a war with France. Although it was untrue, the successful misinformation campaign would win Jefferson a significant number of votes. After all, the American people were still recovering from a bloody war, and the fear of getting involved in another one was enough to motivate many voters to choose the candidate who wasn’t going to get them into another conflict.
The media also played a similar role in stirring up controversy. Press outlets announced that electing Jefferson would lead to a country where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” Even Martha Washington was eventually dragged into the rhetoric when she told a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.” The statement went public back then without anyone even having to hack her emails.
Eventually, Thomas Jefferson would win the election and go on to continue making history. These two great men had fought an ugly battle for the presidency, but they would not go down in history as fighting the ugliest. A mere four years later, another fierce battle for the highest office in the land would ultimately lead to Aaron Burr killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
Now, it’s important to take note that none of the awful statements (or actions) made by these men in pursuit of the presidency can take away from the incredible achievements, compromises, and sacrifices they each made in the name of our nation. A career can’t be summarized by a single remark. If anything, these stories show that the titans of our heritage were human, mortal, and even flawed. That doesn’t diminish their greatness, it makes it all the more incredible. It’s easy to picture the Founding Fathers as political deities, resolute in their beliefs and incapable of making mistakes, but in reality, they were just people. They stand tall against the backdrop of American history not because they couldn’t make mistakes, but because they could, and still valued the success of the United States above their own ambitions. The only thing superhuman about our Founding Fathers was the way their efforts added together to make a nation greater than the sum of its parts. For my money, that makes them all the more heroic.
So as you lament or celebrate the results of this year’s election, remember that nations aren’t built on campaign promises or mudslinging, and the strength of our nation doesn’t come from the person sitting in the Oval Office. The United States of America is the greatest country in the world because we’re built on a foundation of overcoming obstacles, overlooking flaws, and continuing to strive to be better. I have a fierce love for this nation, but it isn’t because of the things we’ve done, it’s because of the things we do, we can do, and we will do.
Despite all the name-calling and insults, Jefferson and Adams both did their part to make America what it could be in their eyes. So to honor their memory, it’s up to each of us to do the same. Stop sharing your memes on Facebook about moving to Canada because your candidate lost. Don’t assume that your candidate winning means your work is done. Being the greatest nation on the planet is a full-time job, and no matter who won the election, we’re just getting started.
Image courtesy of Mentalfloss