Tea Party winners: Elaine Marie Cooper's novel goes to both Ashley Penn and Mary Ann Hake:, Carrie Fancett Pagels' and Gina Welborn's Blue Ribbon Brides collection goes to: Melanie Backus Carrie's O' Little Christmas Town Collection goes to: Cherrilynn Bisbano

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

American Politics: A History of Invective, Chicanery, and Mudslinging

Every presidential campaign season I ruminate on the history of American politics, and since we’re coming down to the wire in the current race, I thought this would be a timely—and lively—topic for discussion. We hear a lot of complaints about personal attack ads and dirty tricks, including from the politicians who are guilty of using them. But you don’t have to do much digging to discover that political chicanery is a time-honored American tradition that has been exercised with glee since America was still a collection of British colonies on the course toward revolution. So let’s take a quick tour of some of the more egregious examples from our nation’s history.

Political parties didn’t exist in this country until we were well on the way to revolution. At that point, the division between those who supported the British and those who opposed them spawned the Loyalists, or Tories, and the Patriots, or Whigs. There was no such thing as neutrality between the two points of view. Anyone who didn’t support one side was automatically consigned to the opposition. Where Patriots held sway, mobs often forced Loyalists out of their homes, denying them legal counsel and trial. Loyalists might be jailed, have their property confiscated, their citizenship revoked, and even be exiled. Where Loyalists held power, Patriots suffered similar treatment. At times someone of the wrong political persuasion was even tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.

Mobs played a big part in colonial politics, particularly in Boston, where Dr. Joseph Warren helped to refine mob rule into an art form. But mobs were a force to be reckoned with throughout the colonies. In June 1775, one placed the home of New Hampshire’s last royal governor, John Wentworth, under siege, demanding he turn over his guest, John Fenton, who had urged acceptance of the latest British proposals to avert the crisis. When Fenton understandably refused to comply, the crowd wheeled a cannon in front of the mansion and beat on the walls with clubs until the hapless offender finally gave himself up. Fearing for his and his family’s safety, that night the governor fled with his wife and young child to the fort in Portsmouth harbor, ending decades of British rule in that colony. Nothing like the direct approach to changing your government!

From America's earliest days as a democracy, name-calling and character assassination has been a highly popular tactic, such as when Davy Crockett accused Martin Van Buren of secretly wearing women’s corsets. In 1828, when John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson vied for president, Jackson’s campaign nicknamed Adams The Pimp, based on a rumor that as the American ambassador to Russia he had forced a young woman into an affair with a Russian nobleman. Adams’ supporters responded by circulating a pamphlet claiming that Jackson's mother had been a prostitute brought to this country by British soldiers, and that Jackson was the offspring of her marriage to a mulatto!


The name-calling in the 1800 presidential election between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, however, takes the prize for no-holds-barred mudslinging. Some of the charges and counter-charges are cited in this hilarious YouTube video: Election of 1800 Attack Ads. And you thought our modern political chicanery was bad!

In 1840, American politician Thomas Elder wrote to a friend that “Passion and prejudice properly aroused and directed do about as well as principle and reason in any party contest.” Every campaign season we see the proof of that claim!

So what do you think? Has the political scene improved any today? What are your main (nonpartisan only!) gripes about American political campaigns? What, if anything, can be done to change things?

12 comments:

  1. One thing that always bothers me...
    What we did to the Loyalists, does it discredit our revolution? Does it make our War for Independence wrong because we persecuted Loyalists? How is it in comparison to the other Revolutions?
    These are questions that have always bothered me. Can anybody help me here?

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  2. Honestly, I've had the same concerns. We need to remember, though, that Loyalists did the same things to Patriots where they were in power. And when I start to think that maybe it was just the mindset of the times, I remember horrific incidents throughout the history of humankind up to today. The French Revolution was considerably worse than our own in regard to the horrific treatment of opponents, and eventually even supporters. Our own treatment of Native Americans and blacks, Hitler's rise in Germany, the Communist Revolution and Joseph Stalin's reign in Russia, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia throughout the 19th and 20th centuries provide only a few examples of how evil people can be. It just goes on and on.

    None of that excuses the mistreatment of Loyalists during the Revolution, of course. But we have to understand that it's all a part of the larger picture of sinful humankind. No political or social movement can change that. Only God can change the human heart and make us new creatures who can begin to truly love each other the way He does.

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  3. So well done, Joan. How easily we all fall to the mob mindset. The compelling part to me is always those who were torn between the two by family lines. And, we need a wide variety of opinions along the spectrum between any two extremes. I am fascinated by the story of the attack upon Wentworth's home. Wow!

    The fun never ended, either. I think things barely settled down nationally before the war of 1812...and onward it rolls.

    Thanks for putting a little historic reference into this week's madness!

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  4. Debra, you're so right about us falling into a mob mindset so easily. I am so thankful that my mother preached a constant mantra of standing out from the crowd and doing what's right regardless of social pressures. And yes, when the fault lines run through a family, though, that's especially hard. The discouraging thing is that we never seem to learn from history, but return again and again to the same bad patterns, a point that's made time and again in the Bible.

    Thanks so much for your comments, Debra!

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  5. Great post, Joan. It's easy to get caught up in views we hold passionately, but I'm reminded to disagree without being disagreeable. A wise man once suggested to me that as firmly as we may want to express our opinions, we are called to convey them in a winsome manner. I remind myself of that when I'm exercised on subjects dear to me.

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    1. Janet, thank you so much for this very timely reminder for the current campaign season! I'm so glad you stopped by!

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  6. At least they didn't have to put up with the phone calls back then. Grrr! I got a call from ex-president Clinton yesterday... at work! On the work line. I work switchboard. Hello? I don't have time to listen to politicians blather on when I'm working. I fairly sure it was a recording and I didn't hurt his feelings when I hung up on him. *snort!*

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    1. Oh, good grief, Pegg! That's beyond annoying. Indeed our forefathers were spared the reach of technology that we're subject to today, when you can run, but you can't hide. They didn't know how fortunate they were!

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  7. And junk mail everyday from one politician or another, I have been inundated with so much of it and phone calls that I feel they should just stop all of it.
    thanks for your history lesson, enjoyed reading about times gone by and they and America did survive, suppose this time will be no different.
    I do encourage everyone to get out there and vote and believe that this is one of our responsiblities as adults.

    Paula O

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  8. Pol, I totally agree with you. We will survive the current political campaign, no matter the outcome. I admit I look forward to having the junk mail and recorded phone calls stop! lol! And I join you in encouraging everyone to get out there and vote for the candidates of your choice. We're blessed to have the freedom to choose our leaders in this country, so let's all be good citizens and exercise our liberty!

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  9. Ideally, I wish the mudslinging could stop. Our forefathers could have set a better example in that regard, but such is human nature as you pointed out. Interesting quote by Thomas Elder. Thanks for the informative post, Joan!

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  10. Politics is a huge turn off for me, today, and when I'm doing research for my historical fiction. I try to steer clear of it, except as needed to stay informed as a voter, and the few times it does come into play in one of my stories. I was initially taken aback at the mudslinging that went on in our early national history, but after all they weren't a higher order of human beings, but as prone to wander from God's grace and ways of being as we are.

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