Political Slander is Nothing New

Dirty campaigning has been going on in the U.S. for centuries.

Posted Dec 17, 2011

Psychology Today writes under its headline "PitBull Politics", "This is not your grandmother's Washington".  No, it's your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother's Washington.  It's interesting how we seem to point fingers at how slanderous and defamatory political campaigns are now - when, in fact, this phenomenon has been going on for centuries.  The slander is just moving at lightning speed due to technology.

Political elections breed competition. And everything has its yin and yang.  A flip side to that competitive spirit is that people can tend to play dirty.  Put millions of dollars at stake, and that ugly side shows up even more.  And part of the problem is that slanderous and defamatory campaigns work.  If it didn't work, campaigns wouldn't be spending millions to continue it.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were two of the "pioneers" of political slandering in the United States.  From the article "Founding Fathers' Dirty Campaign" by Kerwin Stint (CNN) (8/22/08):

Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

In return, Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.

The campaign slander and defamation of John Q. Adams vs. Andrew Jackson is legendary.  From "American President: A Reference Resource" by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia:

A good deal of mud was slung on both sides, much of it aimed at Jackson's marriage, his violent escapades, and the incidents of ferocious discipline and of disrespect for civilian authority that dotted his military career. Adams men painted him as a grasping and bloodthirsty character, a budding tyrant in the model of Caesar or Napoleon, whose election would spell the death of the republic. Jacksonians branded Adams as a corruptionist, an aristocrat, and-ridiculously-a libertine.

As you can see, political slander has been a great American pastime for quite a while.

I've almost finished reading All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren.  It's a fascinating look at corruption in politics.  I highly recommend it.  It follows the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a fictional governor.  What started out as Stark's interest in helping his fellow man turns into megalomania on a grand scale.  It gives an inside look as to how political slander and defamation works, and how it is perpetuated. 

Here's an interesting and informative article on what is (and isn't) considered, in legal terms, defamation in political campaigns: "Defamation in Political Campaigns by Saper Law" (2/9/10).

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