By Dave Kopel, of the Independence Institute
NRO Weekend, September 30-October 1, 2000
Just in case you haven't had your fill of scurrilous accusations in the current election cycle, here are some highlights from previous presidential elections.
1800, Jefferson beats Adams: The Federalists claimed that Jefferson had cheated his creditors and defrauded a widow out of her estate. He was the child of a "half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father," who fed young Tom bacon, hominy, and fricasseed bullfrog.
Republicans argued that President Adams had planned to marry one of his sons to the daughter of England's King George III, and start an American monarchy; Adams had supposedly abandoned the plan only after George Washington threatened to run him through with a sword.
Further, Adams' vice president, General Pinckney had been sent to England to procure pretty girls as mistresses -- two for Adams, and two for Pinckney. Remarked Adams, "I do declare upon my honor, if this be true General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two."
1808, Madison elected: An anti-Madison newspaper, the Albany Register, revealed that both Jefferson and Madison had been nationalized as French citizens by the revolutionary government in Paris in 1793. Madison had thanked the French assembly, and expressed his "admiration" for the revolution's mass-murderer "the bloody Robespierre." In fact, the Assembly had conferred honorary French citizenship on Washington, Hamilton, and Madison in 1792, before Robespierre took power. To accept French citizenship, Madison would have had to sail to France to swear allegiance. The Albany Registerretracted its charges.
1828 Jackson smashes Adams: President J. Q. Adams had purchased a pool table and an ivory chess set with his own money, to use in the White House. The Democrats denounced Adams for using public funds to install "gaming tables and gambling furniture." Further, Adams was alleged to have debauched his wife before they were married. While he had been Ambassador to Russia, he supposedly procured an American girl for Czar Alexander I.
The Adams forces were just as nasty. Jackson had fought several duels, brawls, and shoot-outs, so one pamphlet insisted his "intemperate life and character" made him "unfit" for the presidency.
A famous "Coffin Handbill" accused General Jackson of having shot six of his soldiers (including one preacher) who had completed their terms of duty and wanted to return home. (Actually, the six had tried to stir up a mutiny, stolen supplies, burned a building, and then deserted.)
Attacks on his war record didn't bother Jackson, but he cried at charges that his mother was a prostitute brought to the United States by British soldiers.
Because of legal problems, Jackson's wife Rachel had not been officially divorced from her abusive first husband when she married Andrew Jackson. Asked one newspaper, "Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?" Crowds sang:
Oh, Andy! Oh, Andy, How many men have you hanged in your life? How many weddings make a wife?
A Jackson supporter decided to get back, by printing in the United States Telegrapha story about Adams' pre-marital sex with Mrs. Adams. Jackson stopped the story. "I never war against females," said the General, "and it is only the base and cowardly that do."
Rachel Jackson died before her husband's inauguration, perhaps from the stress of the attacks against her. Said the President-elect, "May God Almighty forgive her murderers, as I know she forgave them. I never can." He hated Adams and Clay bitterly for not making their followers keep Rachel out of the campaign.
1836 Van Buren's election: Congressman Davy Crockett repeated a common charge about Vice-President Van Buren: "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."
1840, Harrison unseats Van Buren: Although Van Buren had spent less on White House furnishings than any other president, his Whig opponents told a different story: Van Buren maintained a "Royal Establishment . . . as splendid as that of the Caesars." Surrounded by expensive French vases and furniture, President Van Buren was said to eat with golden utensils, and adorn himself with rubies, diamonds, and lace -- all at taxpayer expense. Besides that, he spent hundreds of dollars on beauty products such as "Double Extract of Queen Victoria" and "Corinthian Oil of Cream."
In return, the Democrats alleged that General Harrison wanted to abolish slavery for blacks and institute slavery for whites. In his earlier frontier days, he was supposed to have cohabited with an Indian woman.
1844 James K. Polk beats Henry Clay: According one major Democratic leaflet, Clay had broken every one of the Ten Commandments. "Clay spends his days at the gambling table and his nights in a brothel."
"Polk the Plodder" had led too dull a life for the Whigs to respond in kind, so an anti-Polk newspaper in Ithaca published an excerpt from a book called Roorback's Tour Through the Southern and Western States in the Year 1836. The excerpt described an incident in which "the Hon. J.K. Polk" had bought 40 slaves, and hot-branded their shoulders, to mark them as his. Trouble was, the real book never even mentioned Polk.
1852, Franklin Pierce elected: Pierce really did have a drinking problem, so his opponents gleefully dubbed him "a hero of many a well-fought bottle."
1856, James Buchanan tops John C. Fremont: Fremont, the first national candidate of the modern Republican party, was alleged to be a drunken, slave-holding, foreign-born crook. The most damaging charge was that he was secretly a Catholic. Stories circulated that he had crossed himself in a Catholic cathedral, refused to accept an Episcopalian prayer book, and promised to favor Catholics if elected.
The origin of the stories lay in Fremont's marriage. His bride's father disapproved of the match, so they got married by the first officiant they could find, who happened to a priest. Although a devout Episcopalian, Fremont refused to publicly repudiate "Romanism." He reasoned that the Constitution forbade religious tests for public office.
1864, Lincoln reelected: The New York Worldand Chicago Timespublished stories that while touring Antietam battlefield, and observing stacks of dead Union soldiers, Lincoln had dishonored the dead by making one of his companions sing a silly song called "Picayune Butler." Actually, the incident had taken place 16 days after Antietam, and several miles from the battlefield.
The Detroit Free Press, New York World, and Chicago Timesalso reported that Lincoln drew his salary in gold, while Union soldiers were paid in less valuable "greenback" paper money. In truth, Lincoln often neglected to draw his salary, and let it revert to the Treasury.
In 1863, an anonymous 75-page pamphlet appeared in New York City. Its author purported to favor "miscegenation" (racial intermarriage), called on the New York Irish to marry Negroes, and "proudly" claimed that Lincoln and the Republicans were the "party of miscegenation." Other newspapers picked up the fraud, and repeated the line that the Republicans believed in racial intermarriage.
Eventually, the pamphlet was exposed as a hoax by a London newspaper. Two weeks after the election, the New York Worldran a story called "Miscegenation hoax," which omitted one fact: the World's managing editor and a reporter had thought it up and carried it out.
1876, Hayes squeaks by Tilden: On the issues, New York lawyer Samuel Tilden was accused of tax evasion, favoring slavery, and planning to pay the Confederate war debt. As for his character, it was said that he suffered from alcoholism and syphilis.
Democrats claimed that General Rutherford B. Hayes had stolen pay from dead soldiers during the Civil War, had swindled Ohio while he was governor, and shot his mother "in a fit of insanity."
1884, Cleveland defeats Blaine: A Buffalo newspaper correctly reported that Cleveland had fathered a child out wedlock. To retaliate, Democrats produced a story that Blaine had premarital sex with his wife, gotten her pregnant, and only married her at the point of her father's shotgun. When Cleveland saw the story, he tore it bits and threw it into the fire. "The other side can have a monopoly of all the dirt in this campaign," he said.
1896, McKinley narrowly defeats Bryan: William Jennings Bryan championed what he called "the avenging wrath of an indignant people...the struggling masses" against "the encroachments of organized wealth." Not since Andrew Jackson had a candidate so fervently challenged the eastern establishment.
A New York Timeseditorial asked "Is Mr. Bryan Crazy?" and trotted out as proof all the extravagant campaign statements Bryan had made. Next, the Timesran a letter by "an eminent alienist" (psychologist) who had determined Bryan was "a madman." The Timesalso interviewed several New York psychologists, who concluded that Bryan was nuts -- although they all produced a different diagnosis: megalomania over-valuation of the self], delirium, mattoid (erratic behavior), paranoia querulenta (complaining too much), querulent logorrhea (talking about complaints too much), graphomania (writing too much), or paranoia reformatoria." Another psychologist denied that Bryan was "ordinarily crazy . . . But I should like to examine him for a degenerate." One expert thought Bryan lacked the intelligence to be capable of paranoia.
1912, Woodrow Wilson defeats William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt: Theodore Roosevelt been president since McKinley died in 1901. In 1908, Roosevelt decided to pass the job on to somebody else, so he stepped aside to let the vice president, William Howard Taft, run and win. By 1912 though, Roosevelt had grown dissatisfied with President Taft was doing, so "T. R." challenged against Taft for the Republican nomination. Roosevelt won more popular votes, but Taft, who was supported by the party machine, captured the nomination. Roosevelt bolted to form his own third party, The Bull Moose party.
Political commentators decided that Roosevelt must be a lunatic. The New York Timesran an article questioning his sanity, and one psychologist announced that Teddy Roosevelt "would go down in history as one of the most illustrious psychological examples of the distortion of the conscious mental process through the forces of subconscious wishes."
Stories also circulated that Roosevelt (a very light drinker) was an alcoholic prone to drunken rages. He sued for libel, and won.
1920, Harding's landslide: A Democratic operative found proof that Republican Warren Harding had Negro blood. The operative brought the news to President Wilson, who was sitting on the White House porch drinking milk. The President took a sip, and declared, "Even if that is so, it will never be used with my consent. We cannot go into a man's genealogy; we must base our campaigns on principles, not on back-stairs gossip."
1928, Herbert Hoover smashes Al Smith: New York's Democratic governor Al Smith was the first Catholic ever nominated for the presidency. Although Smith made it clear that he believed in the separation of church and state, rumors flew anyway: the Pope would move to Washington if Smith won; all Protestant marriages would be annulled; the Holland Tunnel would be extended under the Atlantic Ocean to the Vatican.
Since Smith favored repeal of alcohol Prohibition, he was dubbed "Al-coholic Smith." It was claimed that he was once so drunk in public he had to be held up be two men.
A popular radio preacher denounced Smith as representative of evils such as "card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, over-eating, nude art, prize-fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism."
As for Hoover, the most serious (false) charge against him was that he was secretly a British citizen.
1964, Johnson's landslide over Goldwater: Goldwater had a habit of "hip-shooting" (speaking his mind), and he believed that the United States had been going in the wrong direction ever since the New Deal. Thus, elements of the media concluded that not only was he conservative, he was crazy. One poll found psychiatrists voting by a two-to-one margin that Goldwater was psychologically unfit to be president.
1972, Nixon sweeps McGovern: Richard Nixon wasn't the only guy playing dirty tricks on George McGovern. One rumor was that George McGovern, the anti-war candidate, had been dishonorably discharged from the military. Actually, he had been decorated for his service on a bomber crew during World War II.
1980, Reagan's first landslide: During the Democratic primary campaign, Carter operatives circulated stories about challenger Ted Kennedy's shaky marriage.
During the general election, Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell announced that he had conferred with Carter in the White House. Carter had said that homosexuals needed representation in the White House, and there were several on the White House staff. Actually, Falwell had never even been in Carter's office, and was forced to admit that he had "fabricated" the story.