The Founding Mudslingers

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By Edward J. Larson
Friday, July 4, 2008

With the presidential nominees all but official, partisans on both sides are targeting their campaigns -- and that inevitably means negative ads. Lately they have come in the form of unsolicited e-mails portraying Barack Obama as a Muslim or charging John McCain with abandoning his disabled first wife. Yet, though we decry it, negative campaigning is as much a part of our political tradition as fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Since the time of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, successful politicians have sought to sanctify their candidate and demonize their opponent. After three largely nonpartisan elections, the first campaign for president, in 1800, pitted Adams against Jefferson. Patriots in the best sense of the word, both men were brilliant, successful lawyers who stood out among the surviving heroes of the American Revolution. Devoted family men, they had served their states and country during the war and held high positions in George Washington's administration.

No finer Americans ever faced off for the presidency, yet partisans on both sides immediately went negative. The two best-known authors of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, morphed into opposing party leaders slinging the mud.

Led by Madison, Jefferson's supporters in what would become the Democratic Party portrayed Adams as a crypto-monarchist who would subvert American democracy, establish a state church and perhaps even reunite our fledgling republic with England. It did not matter that Adams had drafted his state's republican constitution or that he hated the British. Democrats pointed to various events from Adams's first term -- including passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and engaging in a sea war with France -- to claim that "the foundation of a monarchy is already laid." Adams's vocal support of a strong, almost imperial, presidency and his party's efforts to centralize power in the national government provided further ammunition.

Hamilton and partisans of his emerging Federalist faction, the ideological ancestor of the modern Republican Party, had honed their tactics four years earlier, when whispers about irreligion and the sex lives of slave owners undercut Jefferson's chances in the last pre-party contest for president. By 1800, the Federalist attack machine was running at full throttle. It portrayed Jefferson as a debauched deist who would import the horrors of revolutionary France.

In reality, although Jefferson questioned traditional church doctrines and held high hopes for the French Revolution, his religious beliefs differed little from those of Adams, and both men sought a neutral course for the United States between the two warring world powers, France and England. Yet the chief Federalist newspaper proclaimed, "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!!!' "

Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison are sainted pillars of American democracy. They authored the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -- and negative ads, in each case striving to help their country by promoting their vision for it.

In any contest, hobbling your opponent helps your cause. Our founders learned it in their propaganda campaign against the British during the Revolution and used it against their partisan opponents. Reread the Declaration of Independence today and note not just the soaring preamble -- but also the charges it levels against Britain. Whatever the faults of colonial rule, the Declaration makes the case for independence by exaggerating Britain's sins.

As Election Day draws nearer in the current campaign, the attacks will sharpen. Even if McCain and Obama try to remain above the fray, their partisans will continue to make their case. Adams privately decried the charges against Jefferson's faith and family life but publicly did nothing to stop them. Jefferson, for his part, secretly funded the most scurrilous of the anti-Adams scandalmongers, James Callender. In a widely reprinted rant that damned the sitting president as a British lackey, Callender concluded, "Take your choice between Adams, war and beggary, and Jefferson, peace and competency!" Some will paint the choice between McCain and Obama in equally stark terms. For good or for ill, negative campaigning is part of the American way.

Edward J. Larson, a professor at Pepperdine University, was awarded the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in history. His most recent book, "A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign," was published in paperback last month.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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