A lot of people seem to think the lies and insults unleashed in the current presidential race are unprecedented — one headline the other day declared, “Worst. Campaign. Ever.” — and that, by sinking so low, we have sullied the high-minded democracy envisioned by the Founding Fathers.
But here’s some perspective: The Founding Fathers actually wrote the book on how to brawl in the streets. In the words of historian Edward Larson, “They could write like angels and scheme like demons.” Consider the campaign of 1800 — when, for the first time, two political parties skirmished for presidential power.
Thomas Jefferson looks noble on the nickel in your pocket, but back in the day, he hired hatchet men to do his dirty work. As the challenger in 1800, his goal was to topple the incumbent. His critique of President John Adams included the accusation that he was “a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
In 2012, at least, neither candidate has been accused of having the sex organs of both genders — although we still have two months to go.
Adams also did his business through surrogates. Jefferson was described as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father ... raised wholly on hoe-cake (made of coarse-ground Southern corn), bacon, and hominy, with an occasional change of fricasseed bullfrog. ...”
Granted, that menu sounds like something dreamed up by an artisan in the local food movement in 2012. But all that stuff about the squaw and the mulatto — suffice it to say Obama was hardly the first presidential candidate to be tarred as something less than a real American.
Nor is Obama the first president whose detractors have called him a dictator. Adams got the same treatment from the Jefferson gang, which contended that the rumored hermaphrodite was not only “one of the most egregious fools upon the continent” and a “strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness,” but a wannabe monarch plotting to destroy democracy.