Personal Attacks Filled U.S. Politics in 1800s

Article excerpt

If you think the decision of presidential candidates this year to make personal attacks is new in American politics, you're wrong. Personal attacks on a candidate are as old as American democracy.

Dirty politics? How about the election of 1828, when Andrew Jackson tried to dislodge John Quincy Adams from the White House.

One story circulated widely by his opponents indicated Adams had premarital relations with his wife, which was much worse than Jackson's marrying his wife Rachel a short time before her divorce was final. Another story suggested that when Adams was minister to Russia, he was a procurer of American girls for Czar Alexander I.

Jackson was also the object of personal attacks, some general (he had engaged in murder, gambling, adultery and slave-trading), some specific: Jackson's mother, it was widely circulated, was a prostitute.

The most sensational charge involved Gen. Jackson's order to execute six soldiers for desertion during the Creek War in 1813. One Philadelphia editor published a different version, arguing that the men had fulfilled their terms as militiamen and were killed in cold blood when they attempted to return home.

The "Coffin Handbill," as the revised version of Jackson's execution order was dubbed, became the object of bitter debate during a campaign that ended in his election.

One campaign of personal vilification was distinctly positive for the attacked candidate, the Whig Party nominee of 1840, William Henry Harrison. A military man who was college educated and born to a wealthy family, Harrison was destined to be a loser until a Baltimore editor published what he claimed was a remark made by one Whig about Harrison.

"Give him a barrel of hard cider," went the conversation, "and a pension of 2,000 [dollars] a year and, my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin, by the side of a `sea-coal' fire and study moral philosophy."

Nothing could have been more untrue than the intended insult, but the Whigs turned it into an asset by saying that "old Harrison" (he was 67 years old) was born in a log cabin and was as close to the common folk as a snake was to the ground. Harrison won the election.

Personal attacks about Franklin Pierce's military service in the Mexican War were an integral part of the presidential campaign of 1852. Pierce's opponents called him the "Fainting General. …