A Brief History of Campaign Mudslinging, From 1796 to Today

Questioning religion, "yo mama" zingers, hooker accusations, and more ways presidential elections have been ugly since the 18th century.

We love to gripe about today’s negative campaigns, but presidential elections have always been dirty, dating back to the 18th century.

It all began in 1796, when Alexander Hamilton, writing under the pen name “Phocion,” attacked Thomas Jefferson on the pages in Gazette of the United States, a federalist paper in Philadelphia. Newspapers then were the Super PACs of today; the charges were not specifically endorsed by candidates, but certainly not refuted by them either.

In this case, “Phocion” claimed that Jefferson was having a love affair with one of his slaves (which, of course, turned out to be true). Phocion went on to call Jefferson a coward and extol the virtues of one Mr. Alexander Hamilton, which is kind of like Don Diego de la Vega giving glowing reviews to Zorro.

In that same election, Adams supporters also claimed that Jefferson’s election would result in a civil war, that he would free the slaves, and that he was an atheist. As for his supporters, they were “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amid filth and vermin.” In other words, Adams’s supporters thought that Jefferson partisans were part of the 47 percent.

Jefferson fans returned the favor in kind. Adams was known in anti-Federalist papers as “His Rotundity.”* The Aurora, a pro-Jefferson Philadelphia paper run by Ben Franklin’s outspoken young grandson, called him “old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams.”

Things would get even more heated in 1828, and once again an Adams (and Philadelphia) would be in the middle of it. This time it was John Quincy running for president against Andrew Jackson. One of Adams’s supporters, a Philadelphia printer named John Binns, produced a variety of handbills, known as the Coffin Handbills, which showed six black coffins and accused Jackson of ordering the execution of six of his soldiers for desertion in the War of 1812. Essentially, the Adams supporters were trying to defeat Jackson by taking his strength (national war hero) and making it a weakness. (And you thought “Swift Boating” was a new phenomenon.)

It gets better. One of the handbills also accused Jackson of being a cannibal, that after massacring over 500 Indians one evening, “the blood thirsty Jackson began again to show his cannibal propensities, by ordering his Bowman to dress a dozen of these Indian bodies for his breakfast, which he devoured without leaving even a fragment.” And you thought calling Obama a Muslim was beyond the pale.

Furthermore, a supporter of Adams named Charles Hammond, in an editorial in the Cincinnati Gazette, wrote (and emphasis is his), “General Jackson’s mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE brought to this country by British soldiers. She afterwards married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which General JACKSON IS ONE!!!” This is believed to be the first ever “yo mama” snap, and may very well have inspired Pharcyde’s first single.

Jackson’s followers, meanwhile, accused Adams of providing an American girl for the “services” of the Russian czar when Adams was ambassador to Russia. They branded Adams (I swear I am not making this up) “Pimp to the Coalition” which, incidentally, would be an incredible name for a rap album.

The election of 1884 provided another example of delightful mudslinging, this time in the form of short rhymes. When it came to light that year that Grover Cleveland had sired an illegitimate child, the Republicans created a cheer, “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha Ha Ha!”** But like in the 2Pac-Biggie rivalry, the Democrats answered back with a dope rhyme of their own. “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine.” OH SNAP! It is on, yo!

Political mudslinging advanced in the 20th century with that advent of TV, which allowed candidates to scare the living shit out of the electorate with ads such as the famous Daisy ad, which essentially said, “If you elect Barry Goldwater, the Soviets will drop a nuclear bomb on your child.” It was really a high water mark in public discourse.

So when you hear the usual handwringing about politics and civility, just remember: Neither candidate’s followers have accused the other of being a cannibal whose mother is a British prostitute.

*Which, by the way, would have also been an excellent nickname for Charles Barkley.

**Sounds like a rhyme you might hear on the “Pimp to the Coalition” album.