Presidential Campaign Insults are Nothing New

By Eric Revell

As the countdown to Election Day continues, this year’s presidential election is shaping up to be one of the most divisive in our nation’s history as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump hurl personal attacks at one another.

While things have been getting personal on the campaign trail for months, the attacks escalated late last week when Clinton gave a speech in Nevada and said that Trump “has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia” while spewing “a steady stream of bigotry.”

Never one to back down from a war of words, Trump fought back during a Saturday campaign stop in New Hampshire, saying the following about his Democratic competitor:

“She is a totally unhinged person. She’s unbalanced… She will cause — if she wins, which hopefully she won’t — the destruction of our country from within.”

Attacks like these aren’t new

For better or worse, personal attacks have been a part of the debate in presidential elections dating back to the earliest days of our country. While that shows no sign of changing in the near future, we’ve decided to take a look back at some of the highlights (or lowlights if you prefer) of mudslinging in past presidential elections.

1800: It was more than just two Founding Fathers facing off in the 1800 presidential election, as Vice President Thomas Jefferson took on incumbent President John Adams, opening a rift between the two friends that lasted decades until they reconciled before their deaths.

While the two candidates largely refrained from attacking each other directly, their supporters held nothing back. An Adams supporter (and president of Yale University) warned the public that if Jefferson were to become president “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.”

James Callender, a journalist who’d been jailed by the Adams administration and was funded in part by Jefferson, called Adams a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite” who had:

“a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness of a woman”

1828: President John Quincy Adams found himself competing against Andrew Jackson once again in 1828 after defeating Jackson and two other challengers four years earlier. To boost his chances, Adams and his supporters released “Coffin Handbills” which were pamphlets that sought to undermine Jackson’s status as a war hero, in addition to making him look immoral.

The first handbills were images of coffins depicted as belonging to soldiers and Native Americans that Jackson had allegedly killed or ordered to be executed during the War of 1812. Another was then published accusing Jackson of adultery, as his wife’s divorce from a previous marriage hadn’t been granted until after she and Jackson got married.

But the most egregious accusation levelled against Jackson came from a Virginia Congressman in a handbill which accused the presidential hopeful of “atrocious and unnatural acts,” including cannibalism. The handbill said Jackson had killed hundreds of unarmed Native Americans, slept amidst their corpses, and ate a dozen of them for breakfast. The lawmaker then speculated that if elected, President Jackson might treat governors and members of Congress in the same fashion.

1964: Incumbent President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign wanted to depict his challenger, Barry Goldwater, as being too aggressive in his pursuit of military action. The two contenders had sparred over the Vietnam War, and Goldwater had refused to rule out the potential use of nuclear weapons if needed.

Those comments led the Johnson campaign to air this ad, which doesn’t actually mention Goldwater by name but implied that he might start a nuclear war if elected:

2004: Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was challenging incumbent President George W. Bush when a group calling itself “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth” began running ads against him seeking to undermine his war record. Kerry had served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, received several commendations, and then accused American personnel of committing war crimes when testifying before the Senate as a representative of the anti-war movement.

The group’s ads alleged that Kerry lied about his service, betrayed his country by accusing Americans of atrocities, and dishonored the military by throwing his military decorations over the fence of the U.S. Capitol.

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