Remember civility in politics? Of course not!

How about that time beloved Martha Washington called an equally beloved “Founding Father” detestable?

The next time someone tells you that the current presidential campaign is destined to be the dirtiest ever, or that television and the internet have dealt a death blow to civility in politics, take a deep breath before pointing out that politics never was a gentle art.

Not in the early days of the American Republic, and not even in the final days of the Roman Republic, when biting invective was already the rule of the day. Historians tell us it was commonplace for rival Roman politicians to pummel one another with charges ranging from drunkenness to sacrilege, sexual “deviance” (as judged by the mores of the day), fraternization with ignoble low-lifes (like pimps, thieves and, um, actors), and, of course, murder.

Sometimes the accusations were blunt and direct. But sometimes they were more cleverly crafted, allowing the speaker to do his dirty work while seeming to stay above the fray. That was the case on the Ides of March in the year 44 B.C.E., when the acclaimed orator Cicero attacked Marc Antony, an associate of the just-assassinated Julius Caesar, with high-minded rhetoric intended to obscure a barrage of down-and-dirty innuendo meant to destroy Marc Antony’s reputation.

To accomplish that, the great orator didn’t revisit the rumors that had long attached to the other man. Not directly, anyway. Rather than rehash the story of a reputed scandalous love affair between Marc Antony and another man, Cicero took the high road. Or so he told his audience.

“But let us not go into these acts of fornication and scandal. There are some things I cannot respectably mention,” he said, before addressing his target directly. “For this reason, you (Marc Antony) have much greater freedom, since you won’t hear from a decent enemy the kinds of things you’ve allowed to be done to yourself.”

Since then, things may have changed in style, but not in substance. Closer to our own time and place, America’s esteemed statesmen have had their moments in the mud too.

The 27th President of the United States, William Howard Taft, was a “fathead” and a “pig brain,” according to Theodore Roosevelt, formerly a close friend and ally but in 1912 an electoral opponent. Taft was known for “political crookedness,” Roosevelt charged; Roosevelt was a “dangerous radical” who was likely to become “the most dangerous man in history,” Taft warned.

From there, Roosevelt turned up the heat, calling Taft a puzzlewit and Taft responded in kind branding his one-time friend a honeyfugler, They just don’t make insults like they used to.

Another losing candidate, Henry Clay, a giant of American political history and and several times a candidate for president in the 19th century, was “notorious for his fiendish and vindictive spirit, for his disregard of the most important moral obligations, for his blasphemy, for his gambling propensities, and for his frequent and bloodthirsty attempts upon the lives of his fellowmen,” according to a rival.

The nation’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, was a “murderer,” the son of a “prostitute” brought to the country by British troops, and the husband of an “adulteress.” His two-time opponent, John Quincy Adams used public money to “buy a pool table and gamble at the White House,” Jackson’s camp claimed.

His successor, Martin Van Buren, was variously labeled effeminate, a dandy, and a scandalous libertine who had turned the White House into a “palace of splendor,” replete with grassy mounds shaped like “AN AMAZON’S BOSOM” with a knoll at the top “to depict the nipple.”

Rutherford B. Hayes had once shot and wounded his own mother in a drunken rage, the rumor mill had it.

Abraham Lincoln was “sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper, and the nightman.”

More recently, Lyndon Johnson’s troops decimated his 1964 opponent Barry Goldwater, not only with a still-famous television ad claiming a Goldwater victory would lead to a nuclear Armageddon but distribution of a child’s coloring book depicting the Republican candidate in Ku Klux Klan robes.

Still, the standard for virulent campaign slurs may have been set much earlier in the country’s history when two Founding Fathers vied for the presidency. One of those distinguished Americans was charged with having a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” The other posed an imminent threat to the life of the new nation, according to his opponent, who asked (via proxy): “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames . . . female chastity violated . . . children writhing on the pike?”

It was the election of 1800, a contest that pitted the incumbent president, John Adams, against the incumbent vice president, Thomas Jefferson, and an election so volatile and consequential that it’s sometimes called the “Revolution of 1800.” It was anything but a straight line, but Jefferson ultimately won the presidency, after a tie electoral vote with yet another candidate, ( Burr, who became his vice president, in keeping with the system then in place) and some deal-making in Congress, which decided the election.

And a lot of mud-slinging along the way.

In those days — and for much of the 19th century — the candidates themselves sat out the campaigning. So it was Jefferson’s surrogates who spread the word of Adams’s “hideous hermaphroditical character” and let voters know that the sitting president was conspiring to marry his son off to British King George III’s daughter to create an American dynasty.

And it was Adams’s stand-ins who warned voters that they would see their “dwellings in flames” if they elected Jefferson, who was, after all, “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw raised on hoecakes.” Even Martha Washington piled it on that year, calling Jefferson “one of the most detestable of mankind.”

But detestable or not, Jefferson wasn’t actually a viable candidate, according to another rumor spread by the Adams team, because he was in fact dead.



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Kenneth Salzmann

Kenneth Salzmann is a poet and writer who divides his time between New York’s Hudson Valley and central Mexico. He is the author of The Last Jazz Fan.