Neal: A Two-Century Tradition of Negative Attacks

August 27, 2012

For release Aug. 29 and thereafter (660 words)

by Andrea Neal

Don’t blame Mitt Romney and Barack Obama for the ugly tone of the 2012 presidential race. Blame John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They started it.

The Election of 1800 was the first time candidates campaigned on partisan platforms, and it’s been that way ever since. To paint the current atmosphere as especially poisonous, as a Washington Post writer called it, or as the worst ever, as John McCain suggested, is to forget 212 years of U.S. history.

Most scholars continue to rank 1800 as the dirtiest campaign ever, followed by the Andrew Jackson-John Quincy Adams contest of 1828 and the 1860 campaign that led to Abraham Lincoln’s election.

The candidates disagreed on almost everything ranging from the role of government in citizens’ lives to the role of the United States in the world. Sound familiar?

“The period leading up to the election of 1800 became a witches’ brew of personalities, innuendo, ideology and rumor,” writes The Lehrman Institute’s Richard J. Behn.

The Federalist Party, which backed the incumbent Adams, linked Jefferson to the worst excesses of the French Revolution and attacked him for being an atheist and a coward who had managed to avoid service in the Revolutionary War.

The Jeffersonian Republicans accused Adams of importing prostitutes from London to satisfy his adulterous lusts. They claimed he was a monarchist with plans to create a royal bloodline by marrying off one of his children into the family of England’s King George III.

Both sides routinely stretched the truth on the speaker’s circuit, in handbills, in newspapers and in political cartoons. “The level of personal attack by both parties knew no bounds,” according to scholars at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. It was “an angry, dirty, crisis-ridden contest that seemed to threaten the nation’s very survival,” notes Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman.

Ironically, that bitter election ended up strengthening the nation. After his defeat, Adams handed power over to Jefferson and left Washington D.C., marking the first peaceful transition of government from one party to another.

A similarly nasty campaign involving Adams’ son took place 28 years later. In the 1824 election, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but not an Electoral College majority. This threw the election into the House of Representatives, which preferred John Quincy Adams to Jackson. For the next four years bitter partisanship reigned.

In 1828, Jackson challenged Adams and this time beat him soundly. “A good deal of mud was slung on both sides,” according to the Miller Center, with much of it concerning the two men’s personal lives. The Adams camp depicted Jackson as a future Napoleon with a bad temper and tendency to violence. Jacksonians labeled Adams “as a corruptionist, an aristocrat, and — ridiculously — a libertine.” This was indeed a stretch as Adams was known for obsessive discipline, including waking daily at 5 a.m. to read the Bible and take a walk or swim in the Potomac.

Fast-forward to 1860 and the eve of Civil War. Republican editorials referred to Democrats as thieves, parasites and bloodsuckers, “the enemy of God and man.” Democrats made note of Republican Abraham Lincoln’s “extreme ugliness” and mocked his lack of education and experience. Cartoons depicting Lincoln with African-Americans were blatantly racist, and opponents warned that electing him would lead to forced intermarriage of blacks and whites.

As long as the nation has political parties, there will be negative campaigning and attack ads. Though distasteful to many, there is no reason to fear this harms our representative democracy.

Analyses of voting trends “do not comport with reformers’ notions that attack based campaigning is causing citizens to lose interest in campaigns and disengage from the electoral process,” according to research by Lynn Vavreck of the Department of Government at Dartmouth College.

On the contrary, the more attention given a campaign, even negative attention, the more likely people will vote. Seen in that light, negativity might actually be good for democracy. It worked out that way in 1800.

Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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