The 2018 elections are over. Some voters are happy, some are not.
All are glad the campaigns have ended—sort of. It has been a tough and divisive season, with name-calling, intrigue and struggle for power. It also has seen millions of dollars expended for both winners and losers.
This column was written a couple of weeks prior to the election just past, so it avoids discussing items that were on the ballot. As a weekly look at history, it will concentrate on elections of yore. “Fake news” and personal attacks aplenty have been seen recently; they actually have existed for centuries.
None other than Benjamin Franklin back in the days when the Colonists were fomenting rebellion, engaged in illicit rhetoric. He penned letters to the editor published in various publications under false names. The British forbade criticism, so it was an instance of “civil disobedience,” a term now voiced concerning people who challenge authority.
One letter to the editor of a New York newspaper fomented a duel that ended the life of Alexander Hamilton at the hands of Vice-President Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804. The letter said that Hamilton had called Burr “despicable,” among other things. Heated public exchanges resulted in a challenge from Burr, calling out Hamilton even though the letter had been written by someone else. They and their seconds met on a field in New Jersey at dawn. On cue, they stepped off, with some historians believing that Hamilton, who was thought to be planning to waste his first shot into the ground, paused to taunt his adversary. Instead, at the moment called to commence firing, Hamilton shot high and wide, hitting a tree. Burr fired, fatally wounding Hamilton who would die the next day.
Political conflict even goes back to the administration of our first president, George Washington, who led the successful Revolutionary army overthrowing the English.
He, by the way, was the only person ever to be elected by unanimous vote of the Electoral College. He purposefully chose as secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, the framer of the Constitution, and Hamilton as secretary of the treasury. Those men had opposing viewpoints on how government should work and had bitter arguments during Washington’s administration and thereafter. The internal division did not prevent Washington from being elected to a second four-year term.
Later, these two men ran for president, representing different parties. Jefferson was one of the founders of the Democratic-Republicans and Hamilton of the Federalist Party. They are forerunners of today’s two major parties. Jeffersonians dropped the second part of their hyphenated name and remnants of the Federalists formed the “Grand Old Party” of Republicans.
Jefferson’s party believed strongly in the right of states to retain control of their affairs, with as little interference from the national government as possible. Individuals, they believed, had liberty to choose how they lived without the federal government’s intervention. They were concerned about defending against attack by foreign nations and wanted to have a role in world politics. Hamilton’s Federalists, on the other hand, believed in literal interpretation of the Constitution, a central bank, economic policies that were adopted and controlled by the government, fiscal integrity and credit worthiness. They opposed slavery. They favored keeping the young country neutral, out of international conflicts.
The parties’ platforms appear to have switched over the past century and a half.
Democrats now are said by Republicans to favor “big government.” Republicans are called by those of the other party “racist” and unconcerned for the needy.
One of the nastiest campaigns in early times followed the squeaker of an election in 1854. Five candidates were on the national ballot: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. While Jackson won the popular vote, none of the five garnered a majority of the Electoral College. Under the Constitution’s 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives had to make the choice. Adams was made president despite the numbers being in Jackson’s favor. Clay was a Congressman who threw his support to Adams; he was rewarded by being named Secretary of State.
From that moment on, plans were laid to prevent Adams from winning a second term. Impeachment of the new president may have been considered but no effort in that direction apparently was made. Instead, plotters sought ways to discredit the man who held the nation’s highest office. Both Jackson and Adams were to face off four years later.
A friendly press was quick to publish gossip.
Jackson’ wife Rachel had divorced her first husband. There is some question as to whether the divorce was final when she became Mrs. Jackson. The Washington Daily National Journal published a piece saying that Jackson had fought her first husband and “stolen his wife.” Another Adams-supporting newspaper claimed that Jackson’s mother had been a prostitute brought to America by British soldiers and who fathered several children, including the man sought to be the new occupant of the Executive Mansion, as the White House was then known.
Jackson’s backers retaliated, claiming that Adams, who at age 15 became a translator for Czarina Catherine the Great, had solicited consorts for her. The woman who overthrew her husband to take over the Russian government was known to have had trysts with many partners. Adams was called “nothing more than a pimp.” It was also claimed that he gambled and had installed a pool table paid for with taxpayer money.
Such charges in the Victorian Era when morality was championed, especially in the Southern states where Jackson was revered, weighed so heavily on Adams that he declined to campaign or respond. He was soundly defeated in 1828, getting only 83 Electoral votes to Jackson’s 178 and a landslide popular vote. A note in Adams’ diary some weeks prior to the election read, “In a popularity contest, in a political contest, no man could stand against the Hero of New Orleans [Jackson].”
Adams refused to attend Jackson’s inauguration. He was to say, “Any man who would permit a public journal, under his control, to assault the reputation of a respectable female, much less the wife of his rival and competitor for first office in the world was not entitled to the respect of any honorable man.”
While nasty political campaigns have continued ever since, none other led to duels. Some have even had a humorous side.
In the 1884 presidential campaign, Democrats hit the Republican nominee with the ditty, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! Continental liar from the state of Maine!”
Then, after a newspaper published a story saying that Democrat Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, the GOP gleefully chanted, “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?” When Cleveland won despite the allegation, Democrats added to the chant by yelling, “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”
In the 1950 Democratic primary race in Florida incumbent Sen. Claude D. Pepper, 82, was challenged by George Armistead Smathers, 69. It was a time when the “Red Menace” topped concerns, with Sen. Joseph McCarthy seeking to rid both Washington and Hollywood of communists whether card-carrying or merely suspected of that status.
Smathers was quoted nationally as telling voters in rural areas, “Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, he has a brother who is a known homo sapiens, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.”
Those with limited vocabulary readily reached the intended sinister conclusion. Smathers won the election, ousting the established incumbent. Smathers denied ever saying it, but acknowledged that it was a good story, regardless. It had been widely circulated around the country since Pepper was considered a potential presidential candidate.
The 1944 election ended with a fourth term for an incumbent president for the first time in history. The end of World War II was still almost a year away. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, was bolstered by Allied victories on both fronts. He was being opposed by Gov. Thomas E Dewey, a Republican. Both were from New York. Roosevelt used the slogan Abraham Lincoln coined nearly a century earlier: “Don’t Change Horses in the Middle of the Stream.” He won with 432 electoral votes compared to 99 for Dewey.
This writer remembers schoolmates’ chants from that election: “Dewey, Dewey, Elephant Ears. Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Four More Years!”
Sadly, Roosevelt died before he could see the war came to an end. The Missouri senator he had chosen as running mate, Harry S (There is no period after the initial as it stands alone. Told by the Army that he had to have a middle name, Truman just said “Make it S.”) Truman, assumed the presidency on April 12, 1945. He was faced with the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, forcing the Japanese to surrender. Victory in Europe had come some months earlier.
The use of nuclear weapons became an issue when he faced Dewey in the 1946 election.
Campaigning was fierce but dwelt more on factual than fancied matters. Truman was considered a bumpkin against the dapper New York governor. The Chicago Daily News was to be embarrassed when it published the banner headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” on the evening of the election.
Although he had only a 36% approval rating in the spring of 1948, Truman won the Democratic nomination that year and campaigned on a coast-to-coast “Whistlestop” railroad tour, speaking at various towns along the way. Partisan animosity ran rampant. In a Minnesota radio interview, he spoke strongly:
“Republicans approve of the American farmer, but they are willing to help him go broke. They stand four-square for the American home—but not for housing. They are strong for labor—but they are stronger for restricting labor’s rights. They favor minimum wage—the smaller the minimum wage the better. They endorse educational opportunity for all—but they won’t spend money for teachers or for schools. They think modern medical care and hospitals are fine—for people who can afford them … They think American standard of living is a fine thing—so long as it doesn’t spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.”
Truman won with 303 electoral votes, Dewey 189, and third-party candidate Strom Thurmond 39. In 1951 the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was approved, prohibiting a president from running for a third term. Although Truman was eligible under a provision that exempted the incumbent, he chose not to run. World War II commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had declared as a Republican shortly before the GOP Convention, was nominated and won the presidency.
As Will Rogers said, “Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.”
Even so, public servants are almost universally well-intentioned. Once elected, though, the intentions of a few seem to be focused on getting re-elected, and thereafter to increase their power. But that’s just this writer’s opinion. People who support term limits think one way, those who like having the Dean of the House as their Congressman would disagree.