Politics are such a torment that I would advise everyone I love not to mix with them.
Wait, that’s not me talking in 2016. That was Thomas Jefferson, writing to his daughter in 1800.
In other words — if it makes us feel any better, if perspective can perchance calm our nerves — the 1800 presidential campaign was just as vicious as what what we’re seeing now.
Incumbent President John Adams and his surrogates slimed Jefferson as a God-hater who, if elected, would close the churches and import French revolutionaries to wreak violent havoc upon the land and foment “the insurrection of the Negroes in the southern states.” Adams’ surrogates called Jefferson “an open infidel” who, if elected, “will be a center of contagion to the whole continent.”
One pro-Adams tract (akin to a superPAC TV ad) warned the people of Delaware that “if Jefferson is elected, the morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin, which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence, defend our property frm plunder and devaluation, and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will be trampled upon and exploded.” If Jefferson is elected, Americans would become “more ferocious than savages, more bloody than tigers, more impious than demons.” And the top pro-Adams newspaper (the Fox News of its day) blared the slogan “JEFFERSON — AND NO GOD!!!”
Jefferson finally gave up trying to fact-check his accusers: “It has been so impossible to contradict all the lies that I have determined to contradict none; for while I should engage with one, they would publish 20 new ones.”
But Jefferson and his allies slimed Adams as a war-mongering dictator who wore “a mask for monarchy,” who, if re-elected, would whack the average citizen with higher and higher taxes in order to support a massive military buildup and thus burden “an enslaved and impoverished people.” Indeed, “the foundation for monarchy is already laid.” A vote for Adams was framed as a vote for “war and beggary.”
Jefferson’s surrogates, in their mass-produced pamphlets (the social media of their day), also slimed Adams as a rank hypocrite, because even though Adams routinely denounced slavery, he still had three slaveholders in his Cabinet.
Jefferson’s face is on a coin today, and Adams stars in an HBO series, but back in their day, voters basically saw that campaign as a choice between the lesser of two evils. (Which should sound familiar.) One disgruntled pro-Jefferson guy wrote, “Now I don’t know that John Adams is a hypocrite, or Jefferson a Deist” — a synynom for a God-hater — “yet supposing they are, I am of the opinion the last ought to be preferred to the first (because) a secret enemy is worse than an open one.”
And even though Washington, D.C., was a brand new city, people already hated its partisan fervor. One government official wrote, “No stranger can be here a day and converse with the proprietors without conceiving himself in the company of crazy people.”
So. Do we all feel a lot better knowing that, as William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past”? That America (then and presumably now) can survive even the most twisted lies and slanders?
Oh well. It was worth a try.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.