Musings on Sports, Politics and Life in general

Is Modern Politics More Vicious than Ever?


Woodcut of Lyon-Griswold House Floor Brawl, 1798 (Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution)

What spurred me to write about this topic was a recent Facebook discussion I had with an old and respected friend, who opined that he thought political leaders over the past twenty years or so were subjected to more slanderous accusations, ridicule and disrespect than at any time in our history. I might have dismissed that comment, except it seems to be a popular sentiment these days. Whether the cries to denounce comparisons to “Nazis” after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, complaints by members of Congress regarding ethnic and racial slurs used against them, or statements by people like my friend, there seems to be an overriding sense that politics today has become far too personal. Popular sentiment is that unlike our history, we’re a nation more polarized and more willing to use the most vicious ad hominem attacks in place of reasoned debate than ever before.

Such sentiment may be popular, but it is incorrect. Defaming public figures is an American tradition that is older than the Republic – one can find newspaper articles and pamphlets pre-dating the Revolution that disparage, often in the most personal terms, some of the most famous Americans in history. Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them.” 1 Although Jefferson wrote those words in 1814, the reality is vulgarity and mendacity were hardly new to politics, even at that young age for the nation. As an example, in 1798 Alexander Hamilton published the pamphlet Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. In it, Hamilton not only defames Adams’ character (among other things, he asserts that Adams is “a drunkard, the type for whom sound judgement <sic> deserts at the first drop of whiskey.”2). Of course, six years later Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton would be killed by Vice President Aaron Burr – a duel sparked by Hamilton’s characterization of Burr as, among other things, corrupt and treasonous; even going so far as to actually recommend assassination should Burr win the Federalist Party nomination for President.

The election of 1824 gave rise to “The Corrupt Bargain,” but was nothing compared to the vindictiveness and nastiness exhibited in 1828. Andrew Jackson was portrayed by John Quincy Adams as an adulterous murderer(and you thought Bill Clinton had it tough), while Jackson and his camp gleefully heaped charges of prostitution, elitism and corruption on Adams. The slander reached levels not seen since, as the “Coffin Handbills” were widely distributed and Jackson’s wife was accused of bigamy. The attacks were so vicious that Mrs. Jackson fell ill and later died as a result. In 1840, the winning campaign of William Harrison completely avoided the issues of the day (including the worst financial crisis in the nation’s history, to that date), focusing instead on comparing the personalities of Harrison and Martin Van Buren. (Although Van Buren tried to make an issue of Harrison’s age, it went nowhere. The nation should have listened – Harrison served the shortest term in history after falling ill during his Inauguration.) And of course, Abraham Lincoln faced the worst kind of personal attack when ½ the country decided they would rather secede than accept him as President.

Personal attacks haven’t always been limited to the Executive Branch, either. Indeed the mudslinging on the floors of the Congress and Senate have even occasionally led to outright brawls. The first occurred in 1798, between Roger Griswold (Ct.) and Matthew Lyon (Vt.). Griswold, upset about charges of cowardice from Lyon, took it upon himself to whack Lyon with his hickory walking stick. Of course, it should be noted that Lyon didn’t help calm the situation when he spat at Griswold. Both men were later censured by the House. In 1856, Andrew Sumner (Ma.) took the floor to deliver a diatribe against Preston Brooks’ (SC) father-in-law. In a scathing bit of oratory, Sumner alleged Brooks’ in-law kept a mistress “who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him.” 3 The result was less brawl than mugging: Brooks beat Sumner to within an inch of his life, using his cane; as other members of the Senate attempted to aid Sumner, Laurence Keitt (SC) bayed them at pistol-point. Keitt was hardly a stranger to fisticuffs on the House floor. Two years later, he took exception to Galusha Grow’s (Pa.) calling him a “negro driver” and attempted to strangle Grow – on the House floor. The result was the largest melee ever seen in Congress, involving at least 50 Representatives.

These are just some of the more outrageous examples of how political slander has been a part of our discourse since the days of the Founding Fathers. In fact, you can argue that if anything, politicians today face less derision than their predecessors. The next time somebody you know complains about our leaders being treated like Rodney Dangerfield, feel free to whip out one of these juicy tidbits – and invite them to pay more attention in history class.

  1. Excerpted from “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,” edited by Lipscomb & Bergh, published 1903. The excerpt is from a letter written to Walter Jones in 1814.
  2. As excepted in the Philadelphia Aurora, June 12, 1800.
  3. Detailed in “The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner“, Senate Historical Office, US Senate.
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One response

  1. Not my real name

    Really enjoyable. Maybe they should allow canes on the senate floor more often!

    December 30, 2011 at 9:06 pm

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