United States

Electoral Invective

In 1800 Abigail Adams lamented that the contest between her husband John and Thomas Jefferson that year had exuded enough venom to “ruin and corrupt the minds and morals of the best people in the world.” In 1864 Harper’s Weekly published a depressingly long list of all the viscous epithets hurled at Abraham Lincoln during his bid for re-election. And in 1884 Lord Bryce, sojourning in the New World, was astonished to find that the Cleveland-Blaine match had come to center on the “copulative habits” of one candidate and the “prevaricative habits” of the other. Bryce was so impressed by the “tempest of invective and calumny which hurtles around the head of a presidential candidate” that he told Britishers they could understand its violence only if they imagined “all the accusations brought against all the 670 seats in the English Parliament” were “concentrated on one man.” Historian William S. McFeely is right: campaigns in recent years don’t seem so outrageous by comparison.

Paul F. Boller, Jr., Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush, 1984

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