Wednesday, November 3, 2010

As American as Mississippi Mud

Title from one of the "Coffin Handbills" from the Election of 1828
One of the things I inherited from my mom is an eager anticipation of getting the mail each day. At our apartment it's sheer guesswork as to what time the mail will arrive. The postal worker for our neighborhood is a little erratic. Sometimes he'll have it in our box by ten in the morning. Sometimes it won't be there till five in the evening. The most disappointing day is the "no mail" day, with the "all junk mail" day following closely on its heels. Depending on how you define "junk mail" we had a lot of the latter last week. Every day brought scads of candidate flyers and political endorsements, most of which went directly into the garbage.

Out of the few flyers that I did examine before consigning them to the bowels of the trash can, I noticed that many were attacks on rival candidates. The Bill Kennemer (R) campaign for State Representative in my district seemed to send out just as many circulars vilifying Alice Norris (D) as it did those promoting Bill Kennemer's positive virtues. Sometimes this negative campaigning works in a candidate's favor. Sometimes voters have an adverse reaction to it and vote for the vilified individual. Fellow citizens who are distressed by negative campaigning often make comments like this: "Politics is getting worse and worse. Back in the good old days there wasn't this much mudslinging. Candidates used to talk about the issues instead of attacking each other."

This bowdlerized view of the past is hardly accurate, especially when it comes to American politics. Someone--no one seems to know who--once labeled negative campaigning "as American as Mississippi mud." The Election of 1828 is a case in point. Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams fought tooth and nail to attain the highest office in the United States, and the accusations they leveled against each other were far more damning than insinuations of foolish spending or inconsistent voting records.

Jackson, whose greatest asset was his military career, was accused of murdering several militia members (that he had executed for desertion). Adams' supporters produced the eyecatching Coffin Handbills to convince the public of Jackson's guilt. They also accused Jackson of adultery; his wife Rachel had been previously married to another man and the records were a little sketchy on when her divorce had actually been finalized. One newspaper took up the attack with this rhetorical question: “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?”

John Quincy Adams was not exempted from the same slimy treatment at the hands of Jackson's supporters. Earlier in his political career, he had been the American ambassador to Russia. Now his opponents were claiming that he had used that position to procure American prostitutes for the Russian czar. In 1828, Adams had already served as president for nearly four years, and Jackson's lackies accused him of using government funds to buy gambling devices for the White House. (Actually, he had used his own money to purchase a billiards table for one of the rooms there.)

Mutually disgusted by the ad hominem attacks on themselves, Adams and Jackson responded in different ways. Adams reportedly forbade his supporters to engage in any more mudslinging; Jackson, on the other hand, decided to amp up the rhetoric in revenge for the things that had been said about him and his family. The Election of 1828 ended in a victory for Andrew Jackson. Unfortunately, his wife Rachel died before he could take office, and Jackson attributed her failing health to the personal attacks that had been made against her. He responded to her death with these famous words: "May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them. I never can."

Although the vindictiveness of the Election of 1828 proves that America, in her very infancy, indulged heavily in political mudslinging, it would be misleading to assume that our country initiated the rest of the world into this activity. Even in the days before popular elections, monarchs and members of the European nobility were stained with many rotten tomatoes flung in their direction.

Marie Antoinette is a classic case of political mudslinging at its dirtiest. Those who wanted to overthrow the French monarchy produced many slanderous (and implausible) pamphlets accusing her of sexual debauchery and deviancy; these very pamphlets were used at her trial to "prove" her crimes and condemn her to death. Even today the mud still sticks. Movies like Sophia Coppola's 2006 film Marie Antoinette portray her life as filled with rumor, scandal, and sex, certain that there must be some grain of truth in all the filth that was flung.

Looking back at Jackson vs. Adams and Marie Antoinette, one must admit that the negative campaigning nowadays is a whole lot nicer than it used to be. When I get a mailer from Bill Kennemer accusing Alice Norris of foolish spending during her term as Oregon City mayor, it gives me grist for thought not grist for gossip. It makes a verifiable accusation relevant to Alice Norris' political career and may actually be helpful to the voters. At least it won't lead to anyone wasting away from the shock of slander or suffering the punishment of an unwarranted execution.

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