Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Election of 1800: A Model of Crazy, Dirty Campaigning

Today is election day! As we are all aware, every two years in this grand nation of ours citizens invoke their right to elect the candidates to office whom they feel best represent their views, hopes and goals for the future. It is a time-honored practice that we as a nation have enjoyed (to differing degrees of course) for more than two centuries.

And as is the case with these election cycles, negative ads have become a staple item on the menu of American political dialogue. Virtually every candidate for almost every office up for grabs in today's election has engaged in some form of "mud-slinging" towards his/her opponent. Whether it takes the form of automated phone calls, mailed letters, television commercials or radio sound bites, this election has, for the most part, been like those of recent history: a dog fight.

With that said, we still see candidates who either deny their personal participation in negative campaign tactics or who claim to soar above such trivial and hostile banter. They claim to be invoking the extinct heritage of long ago, when Americans could somehow set aside their partisan views and focus exclusively on the issues at hand. Oftentimes we see these same individuals calling upon the legacy of America's founding fathers as "evidence" of their innocence. These candidates state they (and their cause) are on the side of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, whose purity and grace transcended political division, giving rise to an era of cooperation and contentment that our generation's political circus is incapable (or unwilling) to rekindle.

And though I am not a fan of today's 24/7 political media blitz and the constant bombardment of campaign ilk every election cycle, I think there is a grave misunderstanding as to the nature and history of American politics. We seem to be under the delusion that this "dog-eat-dog" street brawl style of campaigning is something new. It's not...and not even our blessed, holy, infallible founders were exempt from it.

210 years ago, at the turn of the century, two of the biggest players in the American Revolution exchanged blows over some of the same issues that still occupy us to this day. John Adams, the incumbent who had taken the Federalist reigns from the great George Washington, squared off with his on-again, off-again, on-again Virginia friend, Thomas Jefferson. Contrary to what we are often led to believe, this contest was incredibly fierce and oftentimes took a very negative tone. For example, when the Adams camp learned of Jefferson's desire to thwart the Federalists they accused Jefferson of plotting to destroy the very fabric of society by eliminating god from American life. As one broadside stated:

The attacks didn't stop with mere broadsides. Having discovered some of Jefferson's personal religious declarations that could prove problematic to his campaign, the Adams camp went on the offensive. In his infamous letter to the Reverend William Linn in 1800, Jefferson stated, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Along with this declaration, Jefferson went on to state the following about Christianity:
Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.
Needless to say, such comments proved to be extremely distasteful to the American populace, who actually believed that a Jefferson election might actually lead to:
Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest [being] openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.

And:

Female chastity violated [with] children writing on a pike.
Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was "one of the most detestable of mankind and a threat to our way of life." (Gee, you NEVER hear that kind of stuff about our current leaders!).

To capitalize on these comments, the Adams campaign took swift action. Acting as if they had been handed a gift from the divine, Adams' men pounced Jefferson in the public arena, accusing him of being "an enemy to his country and his God." Steven Waldman, author of the book Founding Faith sites a poem that was used against Jefferson throughout the campaign:
I am the first of men in the ways of evil,
The truest, thriftiest servent of the Devil;
Born, educated, glory to engross
And shine confess'd the Devil's Man of Ross.
Here's three to one I beat even him in pride;
Two whores already in my chariot ride.
(Founding Faith, 170).
But the fight was far from one-sided. To counter the Adams onslaught Jefferson decided to take off the gloves. On one public occasion, Jefferson called Adams, "a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man or the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." (David McCullough, John Adams, Pp. 500). But Jefferson didn't stop there. Taking advantage of President Adams' foolish Alien & Sedition Acts (a law that essentially tried to make it illegal for people to speak or publish anything negative about the president) Jefferson created the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, in which Jefferson claimed that:
The several States composing the US. Of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government…and one of the Amendments to the constitution having also declared, that the powers not delegated to the US. by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people, therefore the act of Congress…are altogether void and of no force.
As election day drew closer, President Adams found himself in a political mess that virtually consumed him. The Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson's clan) had effectively used the Alien & Sedition Acts to brand the President as a tyrant by calling them, "the most abominable and degrading Executive act that could fall from the lips of the first magistrate of an independent people." In an effort to demonstrate just how "tyrannical" the Adams Administration had become, Jefferson called on renowned pamphleteer James Callender, a long-time enemy to the Federalists who had attacked the likes of Alexander Hamilton by exposing his affair with Maria Reynolds to the public. This time, Callender was to turn his sights on the president himself. In his popular pamphlet, The Prospect Before Us, Callender pulled out all the punches by boldly proclaiming that John Adams had become a miniature version of King George III:
The reign of Mr. Adams has been one continued tempest of malignant passions. Indeed, the president has never opened his lips, or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding; the grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties to culminate and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.
The Federalist response to Callender's "treason" was swift. Callender was quickly jailed in Richmond and sentenced by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase to five years in prison. In consequence, Callender quickly became a poster boy of sorts for the Jefferson campaign. Callender's imprisonment illustrated to the common man just how far Adams had gone. In essence, Callender became Jefferson's 19th century version of "Joe the Plumber."

In the end, the Alien & Sedition Acts helped to solidify the popular message of the Democratic-republicans, which in turn led to the election of their beloved Thomas Jefferson(even if he was an evil, godless man whose reign would surely lead to rape, murder, etc.). The popularity of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, combined with the "mud-slinging" efforts of James Callender and Jefferson himself, helped to ensure the demise of the Adams Administration. But the election was close...VERY close. See for yourself:

In the aftermath, Federalist supporters were devastated. Alexander Hamilton (one of Jefferson's biggest rivals) made the claim that a Jefferson presidency would surely usher in an era of violence unprecedented in American history, in which the guillotine of France would replace the civility of American republicanism (Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 429). Former First Lady Abigail Adams wrote to her husband stating, "'What an inconsistency,' said a lady to me today, 'the bells of Christ's Church ringing peals of rejoicing for an infidel president!'"

But somehow America survived. After all, here we are 210 years later. And while many things have changed over those two centuries, other things have stood the test of time...namely our tradition of crazy, over-hyped political partisanship. Yes, some may feel that an Obama presidency is a surefire catalyst for fascist, socialist, Marxist, Stalinist, Nazi, communist totalitarianism, while a Tea Party regime is sure to bring about racist, homophobic, idiotic, psychotic, leadership. But in the end all of this rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. Is there really any difference between the crap we hear today and the crap our beloved founders threw at one another? Not really. The only difference is that we're inundated with more of it today (thanks Fox News and MSNBC).

So the next time you drink the Chicken Little Kool-Aid and freak out over the possibility of the sky falling because the "other team" has won political power, remember that we've been down this propaganda road many times. If we can survive the "HORRIFIC" tyranny of John Adams and the "DISASTROUS" atheism of Thomas Jefferson, I'm pretty sure we'll be ok in the here and now. In conclusion, check out the following videos. They do a wonderful job of capturing some of the fear that surrounded the election of 1800: