A lot of people seem to think the lies and insults unleashed in the current presidential race are unprecedented — one headline the other day declared, "Worst. Campaign. Ever." — and that, by sinking so low, we have sullied the high-minded democracy envisioned by the Founding Fathers.
But here's some perspective: The Founding Fathers actually wrote the book on how to brawl in the streets. In the words of historian Edward Larson, "They could write like angels and scheme like demons." Consider the campaign of 1800 — when, for the first time, two political parties skirmished for presidential power.
Thomas Jefferson looks noble on the nickel in your pocket, but back in the day, he hired hatchet men to do his dirty work. As the challenger in 1800, his goal was to topple the incumbent. His critique of President John Adams included the accusation that he had "neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."
Adams also did his business through surrogates. Jefferson was described as "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father ... raised wholly on hoe-cake (made of coarse-ground Southern corn), bacon, and hominy, with an occasional change of fricasseed bullfrog. ..."
Granted, that menu sounds like something dreamed up by an artisan in the local food movement in 2012. But all that stuff about the squaw and the mulatto — suffice it to say Obama was hardly the first presidential candidate to be tarred as something less than a real American.
Nor is Obama the first president whose detractors have called him a dictator. Adams got the same treatment from the Jefferson gang, which contended that the rumored hermaphrodite was not only "one of the most egregious fools upon the continent" and a "strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness," but a wannabe monarch plotting to destroy democracy.
But that's also how the Adams gang painted Jefferson. He had been an early supporter of the French Revolution; therefore, said Team Adams, he would import the guillotine and sow French-style chaos. Their vision of a Jefferson presidency looked like this: "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes."
Last week, a Texas judge named Tom Head warned that Obama's re-election could trigger unrest and "possibly civil war." Whatever, pal. You can't hold a candle to Adams' Federalist attack dogs.
The biggest dogs wrote for the Gazette of the United States, basically the Fox News of the Federalist Party. They targeted Jefferson's alleged defilement of Christianity. One broadside read: "The only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is, 'shall I continue in allegiance to GOD — AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; Or impiously declare for JEFFERSON — AND NO GOD!!!'"
Based on a couple of sentences Jefferson had penned in the early 1780s — "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." — the Federalists warned in pamphlets that if the "open infidel" were elected, he would buttress his "contemptuous fling at the blessed Jesus" by shuttering the churches.
Jefferson denounced the "lying pamphlets" and "absolute falsehoods," but only in private. He wrote to a friend, "It has been so impossible to contradict all their lies that I have determined to contradict none; for while I should be engaged with one, they would publish twenty new ones." (How old-fashioned: In 2012, candidates are expected to respond to all charges within the same news cycle.)
Jefferson's allies struck back with a rumor that Adams and a colleague had sexually consorted with four women during a trip to Britain. Adams answered that one: He joked that his colleague must have kept all four women for himself, "cheating me out of my two."
And then it was over. On Inauguration Day, the victorious Jefferson called for an end to partisan strife: "We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists." And: "Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are dreary things."
We'll hear the same thing in January. The pleas will go unheeded, of course, but that's OK. We'll survive, just as we have ever since our founding angels schemed like demons.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.