Thursday, May 22, 2008

The hemorphidites and horse-swappers of yore

As we enter into the general election one thing is for certain: There will be much moaning from the candidates, the media, and the "public" about the the negative tone the campaign will inevitably take. Even though mere policy could never sustain a six month election news cycle, the self-righteous critics will complain how slander and innuendo is no way to elect a President, and that such tactics breed hopelessness and cynicism. But what they won't say is such tactics are un-American. And if they do they are sorely misinformed.

Those who took in the John Adams mini-series on HBO last month were exposed to the ugliness of the 1800 election, which pitted Adams against Thomas Jefferson, his sometimes good friend and his current Vice President.

During the campaign both candidates pummeled the other's character in widely-distributed pamphlets. Including this dozy leveled against the sitting President:

(Adams is a) hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.

On the strength of that disturbing image (and opposition to the Alien and Sedition Act) Jefferson won the election.

The Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858 are often looked upon as the height of our nation's political discourse. But in fact the two statemen's traveling show was rife with petty insults, many focusing on the other's physical appearance. Douglas was regularly assailed for being short and fat, while Lincoln constantly lambasted for being gangly and ugly. In that vein Stephen Douglas launched this verbal barb against the great emancipator:

(Lincoln is a) horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman.

I tried to do a little research into nutmeg dealers of the 19th century, but all searches yielded only the original quote. So I have no idea if such a vocation is better or worse than being a Weatherman or a lobbyist.

More examples of old-fashion campaign values here and here.

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