Smear and Slander in US Politics Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Smear and Slander in US Politics

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Richard Nixon in 1958.
If you vote for Nixon, you ought to go to hell.
– Harry Truman, while campaigning on behalf of John F Kennedy in 1960

The good old days... we didn't realise how good we had it. It is a curious fact of human nature that most people seem to instinctively recall years long past with undue warmth and disproportionate nostalgia. We may remember the few long, lazy summer days in our teenage years with fondness, but forget the isolation and depression which made those years all but unbearable.

The story of the USA, as told by many historians, is fraught with selective memory. The glory days of the American Revolution, the creation of the US Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase and the concept of manifest destiny are warmly recalled, but the less attractive bits are forgotten. Modern US pundits and columnists who decry the current cut-throat nature of politics and invoke an unspecified day of civility and honesty in politicians would do well to closely examine the nature of past elections. The practice of making unfounded personal accusations against a political opponent is as old and time-honoured as the American Republic.

Early US Newspapers

Elections, my dear sir... I look at with terror.
– Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Adams

Early on, the US was as politically divided as it ever has been. There were two camps, which had diametrically opposed beliefs regarding the country's future. The two parties, known as the Republicans and the Federalists, both felt that the stakes were too high to allow the other side to win critical elections. With that mindset, an anything-to-win mentality was an easy jump. In that period, the best way to reach the people was through the press. Newspapers were widely read, which is not surprising, because they were highly entertaining (and still are, if you take the time to look through the old ones). Unlike modern newspapers, they did not have much actual news but focused on opinions, rants and analysis. Most were highly partisan, and they spared no effort in attacking and attempting to destroy their political opponents. Dripping with vitriol and colourful accusations, the editors tended to favour the technique of throwing everything negative they could think of at an enemy, to see what would stick.

Some of the earliest partisan newspapers were little more than acts of ventriloquism by the political titans of the day. Alexander Hamilton, a leader of the Federalists, encouraged his friend John Fenno to create a newspaper called The Gazette of the United States and even helped to fund it. In response, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson put a poet named Philip Freneau on the payroll of the State Department, which allowed him the time and necessary funds to start a Republican opposition newspaper, called, confusingly the National Gazette. Through these two papers, Hamilton and Jefferson (whether directly, indirectly or behind pseudonyms) exchanged accusations of corruption, anarchism, monarchism, aristocracy and amoralism. Freneau even dared to attack President George Washington, which quite simply was not done.

After the National Gazette folded due to financial problems, the main vehicle for Republican propaganda became The Aurora, led by Benjamin Franklin Bache (grandson of the Pennsylvania statesman and scientist) and William Duane. Another important partisan newspaperman was Federalist Noah Webster of The Minerva. Webster would later go on to write a politically neutral book, which he called the Dictionary.

James Callendar and Scandalmongering

One of the most interesting of the Republican newspapermen was James Callendar – a man to whom the title of 'scandalmonger' has been almost universally applied. He did much to deserve this epithet. First, he was essentially run out of his native Scotland for his inflammatory views, and emigrated to the US. Once there, he allied himself with the Republicans and worked for The Philadelphia Gazette. After he was fired from that job, Thomas Jefferson helped him secure writing work for The Aurora. His exposure of Alexander Hamilton's affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds (and her husband's subsequent blackmail of him) helped to destroy the former Federalist leader. Callendar then wrote a book called The Prospect Before Us, which prominently attacked John Adams. In it, Callendar called Adams, among other things, a 'hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman', a 'repulsive pedant', a 'gross hypocrite' and 'that strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness'. For these words, he was found in violation of the notorious Sedition Act, and was imprisoned for nine months.

When Jefferson was elected to the Presidency (at least partly due to Callendar's work as a surrogate hatchet-man against Adams), Callendar hoped to get a government job. Jefferson refused him, and in retaliation, Callendar printed a story in the Richmond Recorder in 1802, alleging an affair between Jefferson and one of his slaves named Sally Hemings. He wrote:

It is well known that the man whom it delighteth the people to honor [Jefferson], keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY.... The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking, although sable resemblance to those of the President himself.

By this time, the Federalists were barely relevant as a political power in the US. However, they did what they could to keep this story going, in order to try to destroy President Jefferson. Lines of doggerel appeared in Federalist newspapers:

Of all the damsels on the green
On mountain or in valley
A lass so luscious ne'er was seen
As Monticellan Sally

Despite these smears1, Jefferson ended up as one of the most beloved US Presidents ever. Callendar ended up as a miserable drunk – loathed by both sides of the political spectrum. In June, 1803, his dead body was found floating on the James River. No one knows exactly what happened to him, but it's not difficult to guess.

1800 – Atheist versus Aristocrat

In 1796, John Adams was elected to succeed George Washington to the Presidency. The runner up, and thus the new Vice President was Thomas Jefferson. The ineffectual Adams administration did much to make itself unpopular, and Jefferson looked to capitalise on this by running for the Presidency himself in 1800.

Adams was always quick to take a political manoeuvre as a personal offence. Over the course of several years, Adams and his allies spread everything they could to damage Jefferson's reputation. They seized upon the concept of Jefferson making his slaves into sex servants. They called him 'a mean-spirited low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father'. Someone actually began a rumour that Jefferson was, in reality, already dead. One newspaper posed a religious question (ironically enough, given that they were attacking a staunch defender of religious freedom and the separation of religion from government activity):

At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is: Shall I continue in allegiance to


Or impiously declare for


Not to be outdone, the Jeffersonian forces rallied to smear Adams (or 'Old Rotundity' as they called him) with everything they could think of. Besides the hatchet job done by James Callendar, Republicans asserted that Adams was an aristocrat who wanted to be made into an American King. They claimed that Adams would have his family intermarry with British Royalty and have his son, John Quincy Adams, succeed him2. Federalists attempted to associate Jefferson with the rapidly deteriorating French Revolution. A Jefferson Presidency was envisaged by one Federalist paper:

Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be 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.

The Republicans won the mud-slinging match, and Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams for re-election. Adams never really forgave Jefferson for the will of the voters.

Jacksonian Democracy

Oh, Andy! Oh, Andy, How many men have you hanged in your life? How many weddings make a wife?

It is said that Andrew Jackson changed the face of US politics, and in many ways that is true. For one thing, the name of the Republican Party was changed to the Democratic Party, to reflect a more populist bent. Political parties were strengthened. Participation in government increased dramatically. However, in at least one important aspect, nothing changed – political campaigns were just as dirty as before.

Andrew Jackson was a popular figure in the United States, having first gained national attention as a hero in the War of 1812. As war heroes are wont to do, he ran for the Presidency in 1824. However, he came up just short. Four major candidates contended for the office, and Jackson actually received the greatest number of electoral votes and the greatest number of popular votes. However, he did not receive an outright majority of electoral votes and the election was therefore decided in the House of Representatives, who chose John Quincy Adams (the runner up in terms of popular and electoral votes). The man who had won fourth place was Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Clay threw his support behind Adams, who became President and appointed Clay as his Secretary of State. Jacksonian partisans believed that a 'corrupt bargain' had been struck between Adams and Clay, and they managed to convince much of the public of this fact. Campaigning against this 'corrupt bargain', Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams for re-election in 1828, and took over himself.

During their two electoral clashes, Jackson and Adams did not have many kind words for one another. Jackson's allies railed against President Adams for bringing 'gambling furniture' into the White House. These turned out to be a fairly benign ivory chess set and a billiards table. They also accused him of sexual deviancy. They charged Adams with having premarital sex with his wife – an allegation that was conveniently impossible to disprove. They also brought up an old accusation from Adams' time as the US ambassador to Russia. Adams was supposed to have procured a young girl from the US for Czar Alexander I – effectively acting as a diplomatic pimp.

The Adams people spread rumours about Jackson on all fronts. They claimed he had shot his own men when serving in the military. They claimed that he had a horrible temper and was frequently involved in barfights and duels. Most of these rumours were probably true, and did not bother Jackson in the least. However, he did not like it when the women in his life were attacked. One Adams partisan described him as a 'gambler, a cock-fighter, a slave trader', which would have been fine – accurate, even – had the writer not continued with, 'and the husband of a really fat wife'. A Kentucky paper called Jackson's wife a 'dirty, black wench!'. Additionally, one widely distributed handbill claimed that Jackson's mother was a prostitute. Jackson was appalled by the treatment of these ladies by the press (he said 'I never war against females and it is only the base and cowardly that do'). He would be even more appalled by the continuing efforts to paint him as an adulterer.

Jackson's wife had previously been married to a man named Lewis Robards, and had obtained a divorce before marrying Andrew Jackson. Or, at least she thought so. It turned out that the divorce was never technically finalized, and thus her marriage to Jackson was invalid. They were living in an adulterous relationship, on a technicality. Once she was alerted to this fact, she had the divorce finalised and she and Andrew remarried. However, opposition press did not let Jackson put this behind him. Newspapers referred to her as Mrs Robards, and one writer asked 'Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?' Rachel died a short while after the election of 1828, and President-elect Jackson claimed that the attacks in the press had killed her.

When Jackson left office, his Vice President Martin Van Buren succeeded him. Van Buren had a fairly disastrous first term, but was renominated for the 1840 election nevertheless. Whig politicians ridiculed him as being weak and elegant, and suggested that he lived in the White House like a king. Representative Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania gave a speech, now known as the Gold Spoon Oration, in which he essentially catalogued all of the luxurious items in the 'regal splendour of the President's Palace'. This speech helped to paint a picture in voters' minds of an aristocratic Van Buren, in contrast to the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison, who lived (at least in the popular zeitgeist) in a log cabin. Further reinforcing this image, a Tennessee politician named Davy Crockett (of frontier fame) accused Van Buren of wearing a corset:

He is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say, from his personal appearance, whether he was a man or woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers.

Van Buren lost his bid for re-election.


Abraham Lincoln is today remembered as perhaps the greatest US President, and one of the most beloved Americans in history. Unfortunately, most of the people in his time didn't quite see it that way. In fact, Americans and their press were quite open about the shortcomings they saw in Lincoln – the most glaring of which was that he was weird-looking. One New York paper suggested that 'Barnum should buy and exhibit him as a zoological curiosity'. A Charleston paper had this to say:

A horrid looking wretch is he, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse swapper, and the night man... He is a lank-sided Yankee of the uncomeliest visage, and of the dirtiest complexion.

Yet another newspaper, this one from Houston, said he was the 'most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame.' Political cartoons pictured him as a monkey. Today these comments would be considered unthinkable. However, Lincoln remained good-humoured through it all. He willingly described himself as 'homely'. During one of his famous debates with Democrat Stephen Douglas, his opponent accused him of being 'two-faced'. Lincoln asked the audience, 'If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?' One satirical biography of the time (which some have subsequently mistaken as a piece of attack literature) is worth quoting at length if only for the fact that Lincoln himself would have found the faux-accusations very funny:

Mr Lincoln stands six feet twelve in his socks, which he changes once every ten days. His anatomy is composed mostly of bones, and when walking he resembles the offspring of a happy marriage between a derrick and a windmill.

When speaking he reminds one of the old signal-telegraph that used to stand on Staten Island. His head is shaped something like a ruta-bago, and his complexion is that of a Saratoga trunk. His hands and feet are plenty large enough, and in society he has the air of having too many of them. The glove-makers have not yet had time to construct gloves that will fit him.

In his habits he is by no means foppish, though he brushes his hair sometimes and is said to wash. He swears fluently. A strict temperance man himself, he does not object to another man's being pretty drunk, especially when he is about to make a bargain with him. He is fond of fried liver and onions, and he is a member of the church. He could hardly be called handsome, though he is certainly much better looking since he had the small-pox. As a public speaker he differs considerably from Daniel Webster and Artemus Ward. He is hospitable, bilious, and writes a good hand. Mrs Lincoln thinks well of him. He is 107 years old.

1876 – Swindler versus Syphilitic

The Presidential election of 1876 is remembered as perhaps the closest and messiest of the US's many messy elections. New York Democrat Samuel Tilden probably won enough votes to beat back Republican Rutherford B Hayes of Ohio, but the election was given to Hayes under rather dubious circumstances. As if that wasn't enough to stoke the fires of political discontent, the campaign throughout 1876 had been one of the nastiest on record.

Hayes was generally considered to be inoffensive and really quite uninteresting. In fact, one of the reasons he won the nomination of the Republican party was because he had just the right amount of blandness and innocuousness to be a perfect compromise candidate at a deadlocked convention. Nevertheless, he was accused of all manner of things. First, opponents charged that once, after having too much to drink, he shot his mother. He was also accused of income tax fraud, drawing the salaries of dead Civil War soldiers while serving in the Union Army and favouring a scheme to prevent immigrants from obtaining citizenship.

Samuel Tilden was in turn accused of a great many things as well. It was said that he was an alcoholic and was afflicted with syphilis. Opponents claimed he was in cahoots with rich robber barons and corrupt political kingpins. His enemies accused him of favouring the reinstitution of slavery and of wanting to have the US Federal government pay the war debt of the Confederate states from the Civil War.

Apparently, Tilden's smears worked better, because he won the national popular vote total by about a quarter of a million votes. Hayes still won the Presidency, of course.

1884 – Public Delinquent versus Private Delinquent

The Presidential election of 1884 pitted Democrat Grover Cleveland of New York against Republican James Blaine of Maine. Cleveland was fighting against the odds, as a Democrat had not been elected to the Presidency since 1856. Blaine was popular, but there were whiffs of corruption surrounding him. Cleveland, on the other hand, was nominated largely because he was seen as a completely honest reformer-type.

During the course of the campaign, a woman named Maria Halpin claimed that Cleveland was the father of her illegitimate child. Though this seemed unlikely to Cleveland, and there was no proof3, he accepted responsibility and saw to it that the mother and child were taken care of. He admitted that the reports of his fathering a child out of wedlock were true. In response, Republicans started a chant:

Ma, ma, where's my Pa?
Gone to the White House
Ha ha ha!

On the other hand, James Blaine faced his own scandals. He was involved in some shady railroad dealings, and a letter from Blaine to one party in these dealings surfaced during the campaign. The letter infamously ended with the line 'Burn this letter'. This provided Democrats with their own chant:

Blaine, Blaine, James G Blaine,
The Continental Liar from the State of Maine,
Burn this letter!

The candidates presented interesting contrasts. One Cleveland supporter said that 'M. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in public life, while Mr Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr Cleveland to the public office for which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn.' In the end, it looked as if the race would be very close. The winner would probably be decided by the outcome of the vote in New York state, and its 36 electoral votes. Unfortunately for Blaine, a Republican named Samuel Burchard made a speech in front of a group of Protestant ministers in which he denounced Democrats as the party of 'Rum, Romanism and Rebellion' (implying that the Democrats opposed Prohibition, were soft on Catholics and caused the Civil War). Famous newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer seized on this comment and associated it with Blaine (who did not distance himself from the comment). By election time, the outrage of thousands of Irish, Italian and German Catholics in New York City probably swung the election in Cleveland's favour when he won New York (and thus the election) by just over 1,000 votes.

Other Great Smears

  • 1844 – Supporters of James Polk claimed that Henry Clay4 had broken every one of the Ten Commandments. How they managed to find out that Clay had coveted his neighbour's ox is a matter for the ages.

  • 1856 – The Democratic nominee for President James Buchanan had a medical condition which affected his vision. To compensate for this, he usually tilted his head to the left. Opponents claimed this was a lingering effect of his trying to hang himself. The Republican nominee was John Frémont. His opponents falsely spread rumours that he was Catholic (which would have made him all but unelectable at the time).

  • 1950 – Richard Nixon ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas for the US Senate in California. She called him 'Tricky Dick', implying corruption and underhanded campaign tactics. He called her 'Pink Lady', implying that she was a communist sympathizer.

  • 1968 – Lyndon Johnson's Presidential campaign was notable for producing children's colouring books which depicted his opponent Barry Goldwater in Ku Klux Klan robes. Aside from the obvious outrage of such an unfair charge, one is left to wonder what exactly is meant to be coloured in KKK robes (which are traditionally all white).

  • 1972 – At a Florida rally for Governor George Wallace, who was running for the Democratic nomination for President, thousands of cards circulated reading, 'If you liked Hitler, you'll just love Wallace'. The opposite side said, 'A vote for Wallace is a wasted vote, on March 14 cast your ballot for Senator Edmund Muskie.'

  • 1972 – During the Democratic primary for President, Republican operatives operating at the behest of President Nixon sent out letters on the stationary of Senator Ed Muskie of Maine (who was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President) falsely claiming that Vice President Hubert Humphrey had been arrested for drunk driving.

  • 1994 – Infamous political consultant Karl Rove ran a campaign against a Democratic State Supreme Court Justice in Alabama. He is alleged to have spread rumours that the Justice (who was active in several children's charities) was a paedophile.

  • 2000 – During the crucial South Carolina Republican primary, a 'push-poll'5 was conducted asking voters if their vote would be affected if they knew that Presidential candidate John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. This rumour stuck partially because McCain was often seen with his adopted Bangladeshi child Bridget.

  • 2004 – A group calling themselves 'Swift Boat Veterans for Truth' claimed (among other things) that Democratic Presidential candidate and war hero John Kerry had not been wounded in Vietnam, but had faked it.


It is difficult to imagine all the bad things people can do and be until a vote is at stake. At that point, the creative energies of political professionals and media-types abound. For those who are desirous of going into public life in the United States (and that desire should really be disqualification enough) it may be best to avoid the appearance of being hypocritical, hermaphroditical, ignorant, deceitful, weak, atheist, monarchist, aristocratic, corrupt, a gambler, a pimp, a fornicator, a cockfighter, a barfighter, a dueller, a murderer, a dandy, a corset-wearer, simian, homely, a graverobber, syphilitic, a fraud, an alcoholic, a communist, a mother-shooter, anti-Catholic, a miscegenator, a phoney, a drunk driver, a sinner, a suicide-attempter, a racist, a paedophile or a member of the KKK. But remember, if you are unfairly attacked in the US political arena, you are part of a long and proud tradition – so wear your badge of mud with pride.

1Whether it would technically be a smear or not is up for debate, because DNA testing has subsequently proven that Jefferson probably did father several children with Sally Hemings.2In fact, John Quincy did eventually follow his father into the Presidency, but through a legal election (and as a member of the Republican party).3This was well before the days of mid-afternoon pulp television programming with dramatic paternity tests.4Incidentally, Henry Clay ran for President probably around two or three dozen times, but never won.5A 'push-poll' is an illegal campaign tactic wherein a poll is conducted by telephoning thousands of people in the state, but the intent is to stir up rumours by asking provocative questions.

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