By John Toth
Were you a little put off by the tone of the presidential race? Did you think that the “other” side was telling a bunch of lies about your side?
The tone was harsh, and the left- and right-leaning news outlets stoked the flames even more.
Running for high office, such as the Presidency, is not for the faint-hearted. Those who easily get their feelings hurt should find another line of work. But, as much as you may have been put out, the race between Obama and Romney was not the first time in which the candidates mixed in a helping of misstatements (O.K., lies.)
Let’s go back to 1796 (It didn’t take long to get started). That was our young country’s first presidential election without George Washington as a candidate. He decided after two terms to return to private life. Our Founding Fathers went straight for the throat.
The candidates were Vice President John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
On Oct. 19, 1796, a mysterious editorial from a writer named “Phocion” appeared in The Gazette of the United States, a popular Federalist newspaper in Philadelphia. The letter accused Jefferson of having an affair with one of his female slaves. As it turned out, this was pretty accurate. But still, in those prim and proper days, it was a big allegation.
Phocion later turned out to be Alexander Hamilton.
Phocion also accused Jefferson of running away from British troops during the Revolution, unlike his brave friend Hamilton. (Just a little pat on the back, since the letter was being written, anyway.)
Phocion then supported Adams and said that Jefferson would free the slaves if elected. Apparently, that was a hot-button issue in those days.
The Saturday Evening Post also accused Jefferson of being the son of a half-breed Indian and a mulatto father, and it warned that Jefferson’s election would result in “a civil war and a national orgy of rape, incest, and adultery.”
Say what you may, but compared to this, accusing Romney of hiding money in the Caymans, or Obama of raiding Medicare, seem minuscule. They knew how to fight dirty in the old days.
The Adams folks also said that Jefferson was godless and wanted to spread the French Revolution to America. They also said Jefferson’s supporters were “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amid filth and vermin.”
I know that Romney said he has hunted vermin, but Jefferson supporters were supposed to have slept with them. That’s getting down and dirty.
In return, Adams was accused of wanting to be king and start a dynasty, and sucking up to England, too, in the process. He was also accused of being overweight.
The overweight part was kind of lame, if you ask me. Jefferson should have come up with something better, like accusing Adams of being a canibal.
But, Adams’ crew knew how to sling that mud.
So, who won? The one who was best at defining the other guy. Adams became the young country’s second president by 3 electoral votes.
Many Americans weren’t happy with the discourse in the 1796 election, having never seen party politics in action before.
Washington was not pleased, either. In his farewell address, he even warned against such tactics. Apparently, not too many presidential candidates who followed have listened.
Another candidate in that election was Aaron Burr, who ran for vice president. He didn’t quite make it, but he did manage to kill Hamilton in their famous duel in 1804.
That’s how it all got started, so next time you think the other candidate is going overboard, just be glad you’re not being accused of sleeping with vermin.
Democracy is great, isn’t it? Every four years since 1796, it has provided us with the greatest show on Earth.