How dirty can politics become?

Published 12:32 pm Monday, October 25, 2010

In recent political campaigns we seem to be slipping back into an earlier disgraceful period of dirty politics and disgraceful personal slander. I want to hear candidates for public office tell me why I should vote for them rather than why I should not vote for their opponents. I want rational, reasonable discussions of significant issues rather than political maneuvering and deceptive rhetoric.

To recognize where this nonsense could yet end, consider the presidential election of 1828. Four years earlier John Quincy Adams had defeated Andrew Jackson and become president.

Adams hadn’t been in office a year when Jackson’s supporters in Congress began to dig for dirt against him to use in the next election. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri submitted a damning report that claimed Adams’ administration had abused the State of Georgia over its treatment of Indians. This was mild in comparison with what was to come as soon as the campaign began to be organized by Sen. Martin Van Buren of New York,

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Van Buren held several strategy meetings each month, beginning in late 1826, that included Benton and Senator John Eaton of Tennessee as well as Pennsylvania representative James Buchanan. He even brought in Adams’ own vice president, John C. Calhoun. They created a central committee whose job it was to disseminate the propaganda these men generated. They did an effective job of coordinating their work with Jackson’s Nashville headquarters and newspaper editors to craft speeches and writings that presented a consistent charge.

The congressional Jacksonians used their franking privileges to mail pamphlets and other materials to newspapers nationwide. Pressure was put on office holders to donate large sums of money to the campaign, even lending to others so they could donate. Most of the money was used to create a national network of Jacksonian newspapers. Adams’ May 1827 diary entry refers to his vice president as “the great electioneering manager for General Jackson.”

Adams’ campaign for re-election was headed by Secretary of State Henry Clay and Senator Daniel Webster, but Adams himself was a most reluctant campaigner. His indifference to the mechanics of politics was an actual hindrance. When he did give speeches, he quoted such philosophers as Voltaire, which only seemed to support the charge of his being aristocratic.

As a matter of personal principle, Adams refused to respond to political attacks. In contrast, the Jacksonians promptly replied to everything Clay and Webster threw at them. When truth wasn’t sufficient, Jackson’s men distorted the truth to fit their cause. When this was still not enough, they simply fabricated what they needed.

For his part, Adams felt the truth itself would win out and the false charges against him would be “amply refuted.” Some of the most bitter attacks came from Kentucky newspaper editor Amos Kendall, but Adams dismissed them on the basis that Kendall was widely recognized as a liar and morally deficient.

Although Adams was not involved, Webster on his behalf also engaged in the dissemination of falsehoods. He got the Cincinnati Gazette to published a story that Jackson had persuaded his wife, Rachel, to leave her husband and live with him as an adulteress. If this weren’t enough, the paper claimed that Jackson’s mother was a prostitute brought into the country by British soldiers. Once here, it continued, she married a mulatto and had several children by him, Andrew Jackson being one. His older brother was also sold as a slave in the Carolinas.

The Jacksonians countered with the claim Adams, while Minister to Russia, served as the czar’s pimp.

The result of this scandalous campaign was the reluctant campaigner got to serve but one term as president and Andrew Jackson was elected to replace him by an overwhelming majority of both electoral and popular votes.

The kind of negative attack campaigns that have recently developed aren’t this bad. But if we don’t learn the lesson of 1828, they will eventually become so.

(For assistance with this commentary, I am indebted to Historian J. Mark Alcorn.)