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The Dirtiest Presidential Campaigns in the History of United States Politics

It is a common refrain among American political pundits that we are in a period of severe cultural polarization. Our political discussions have become sharply partisan and we express our disagreements with one another in a more uncivilized fashion than ever before. Indeed, the rancor we often see on display on the campaign trail and in our 24-hour news media may indeed give one cause to desire to return to a time when the stakes didn't seem quite so high and the accusations flung between candidates and their surrogates didn't strike such a personal chord. However, the history of politics in the United States bears out a much different reality. The country has always been subject to bitter partisan divisions, even during times of national crisis, as the competing political factions of those who advocate a stronger, more active, and more centralized federal government and those who advocate a more limited and decentralized version have sparred with one another for control over the direction of the nation for the whole of its history.


John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson, 1800

In his farewell address to the nation in 1796, George Washington issued a warning to future leaders about political parties, remarking that "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism." Almost immediately, his warning went unheeded, as John Adams and the Federalists clashed with Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans over the direction of the country in its infancy.

Adams and Jefferson shared a lifelong friendly rivalry stemming from their days as two of George Washington's key administration officials and their differences in opinion over the proper functions of the world's first constitutional republic. Nonetheless, their disputes occasionally turned bitter as the desire for influence in the government caused them to set aside rules of decorum.

The Election of 1800 was a rematch of the previous election, in which Adams won a narrow victory in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Both men were determined to win at all costs, and it showed in the surrogates they sent out to attack the other. Jefferson secretly hired the famed pamphleteer James Callendar, who had previously seriously damaged the reputation of Adams' fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton, to paint Adams and the Federalist party as a friend to British royalty and Adams as being bent on starting a war with France in order to further an alliance with King George. More to the point, Callender described Adams as a "hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

Adams' Federalist surrogates also brought out the proverbial long knives. A Federalist publication described Jefferson as "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Allegations were made that he cheated his British creditors, was a supporter of French radicalism and assassinations of the aristocracy, and that he made a habit out of sleeping with his female slaves.

Jefferson handily defeated Adams in the Election of 1800, but tied in the Electoral college with his eventual Vice-President, Aaron Burr. The election was ultimately resolved by the House of Representatives.


Rutherford B. Hayes vs. Samuel Tilden, 1876

Though the Civil War is possibly the most accessible example of a time of sharply divided politics in American history, it was the Reconstruction period after the war had ended which resulted in what is perhaps the most bitterly-fought and controversial presidential election in United States History. The Election of 1876 was set against a backdrop of public outcry for reformers to tackle the problem of public corruption. The previous president, Ulysses Grant, served two terms that were marred by allegations of bribery and other improprieties in many of his departments, and was removed from the ticket in favor of Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. The Democrats selected New York Governor Samuel Tilden, who had made a name for himself by sending legendary Tammany Hall boss William Tweed to prison.

The Republicans, marred by the scandals of the Grant administration, took the fight to the South and conjured images of the Civil War, attempting to link the lifetime New Yorker Tilden to the Southern Democrats who had kept African-Americans as slaves and who had fought a four-year war against the United States government, assassinating President Lincoln after their loss. They contended that Tilden was a notorious womanizer who had affairs with married women and who had contracted syphilis from an Irish prostitute.

The Democrats' tactics in the South included instigating race riots and shooting at African-Americans who attempted to vote. They spread rumors that Hayes had stolen money from an Army deserter who was on his way to be hanged, and that the teetotaler governor had shot his own mother in the arm in a fit of drunken rage.

The result of the Election of 1876 is hotly debated to this day. Tilden defeated Hayes in the popular vote, but did not capture a majority of the Electoral College vote thanks to three Southern states failing to ratify their electors. The contest went to a special Electoral Commission, who by an 8-7 vote, awarded all of the disputed votes to Hayes. The Compromise of 1877 was struck, in which Southern representatives would agree not to dispute the election in return for Hayes' withdrawing of all federal troops from the South, thus putting an end to reconstruction.


Herbert Hoover vs. Al Smith, 1928

The Democratic Party's ties to big-city machine politics had been largely diminished by the end of the 1920s. However, some Democratic politicians could not escape the specter that was conjured by the mere mention of their previous influence over American life. New York Governor Al Smith's political career had not even begun during the prime of Tammany Hall's influence over New York and national politics. However, the Hall had backed several of his early campaigns for public office, and though he was not personally touched by any allegations of corruption, had the proverbial black mark of the machine on his record by association.

Smith's ties to Tammany Hall were not the only problem facing his campaign. He was an ardent opponent of Prohibition during a time where it was still considered a very controversial and sharply divisive issue. He was also the son of Irish Catholic immigrants during a period in history where anti-Catholic fervor was at an apex.

The Republicans and their supporters, who had nominated California Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover for their ticket, seized on both of these issues and spread rumors regarding Smith that would seem to modern audiences to be incredulous. Protestant ministers across the country made the claim that a President Smith would be completely beholden to the Vatican, and that the Pope himself would relocate the Holy See to the United States to rule the country if Smith won.

Republicans also characterized Smith as a notorious drunkard, owing to his stance on repealing Prohibition. Hoover's own wife made public statements to the effect that he regularly engaged in embarrassing public behavior and that he would name an alcohol bootlegger to be the Secretary of the Treasury.

Smith was unable to counter these allegations and lost the Election of 1928 in a landslide. Hoover won 40 out of the 48 states in the Union, including Smith's home state of New York. Smith retired to private life and became the president of the real estate development corporation that built the Empire State Building.

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Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater, 1964

The mid-1960s were a time of significant cultural change in the United States and across the globe. The threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union loomed constantly just over the horizon, the country had endured the assassination of one of its presidents, the Civil Rights movement was making inroads into mainstream political discourse and policy discussions, and the nation seemed sharply divided over how to address all of these issues. Against this backdrop, two polarizing figures squared off for the mantle of American leadership in the form of President Lyndon Johnson and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater was, in 1964, an unapologetic conservative and staunch anti-Communist, was the recipient of many televised attacks from his Republican colleagues during the primary campaign. His opponents criticized his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and labeled his call for complete defeat of the Soviet Union as a likely precursor to nuclear war. Goldwater was unwavering in his positions, paraphrasing the Roman emperor Cicero in his convention speech when he declared that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!"

Against this backdrop, it might not have been necessary for President Johnson to employ any kind of dirty tactics against Goldwater. He could and did simply feature the statements made by Goldwater's primary opponents in his ads. However, using the power of his office, Johnson decided to commission both the FBI and the CIA to gather intelligence on Goldwater's campaign, going so far as to order Goldwater's campaign plane to be bugged. Johnson's surrogates linked Goldwater to the Ku Klux Klan, and the news media compared the 1964 GOP Convention to the atmosphere of Germany circa 1933.

Johnson also broadcast what is perhaps the most memorable campaign advertisement in the history of the United States, and perhaps the world as well. The "Daisy Ad" (displayed below) portrayed a small girl in a peaceful meadow picking the petals off of a daisy as she counted down the number of them remaining. Her voice segued into an ominous-sounding launch countdown as the camera zoomed into her eye, followed by a cut to an image of the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. After a voice-over from President Johnson extolling the importance of making a better world for our children, another voice-over informed viewers to "vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

Goldwater lost the election in a historic landslide, ushering in the modern era of negative campaigning.

The "Daisy" Ad

What Can We Learn?

Also the nature of public discourse in modern American politics may seem to take a nasty and unnecessarily personal tone, it is largely a by-product of the wall-to-wall coverage of the daily machinations of public figures and institutions by our news media. The prevalence of recording devices means that a candidate operating on a national stage cannot tie his or her show without the motives and ramifications being discussed by pundits on radio, television, newspapers, and the Internet. American politics has always been proverbial -- and in some cases -- literal bloodsport, and a little hardening of our collective sensibilities would likely serve us well.


Stephen Rakoczy from Pennsylvania on June 16, 2014:

This was a very interesting read. Another good year would have been 1896 between McKinley and Bryan, where many businesses threatened to shut down and fire everyone if Bryan won. I know that's not necessarily a dirty campaign on the part of the candidates but no doubt it affected how people voted.

ziyena from the Somewhere Out There on January 05, 2014:

Since you last wrote this Hub the polarization at present has gotten worse by the minute. Lies from both sides have left the citizens of America in despair, we no longer have faith or love of our leaders. It's very sad times, and though I did not live during Johnson & goldwater times ... I don't think there is any other era in comparison to what is going on in that Hellhole called DC other than just before the onset of the Civil War. Great Hub! UP UP

WesternHistory from California on October 13, 2011:

Thanks for an excellent hub. I have read much about the Hayes/Tilden election and it appears that the vote from the South did go in Hayes favor. There was quite a bit of intrigue because of reconstruction and the election of Hayes I understand came somewhat as a surprise to him.

ThoughtSandwiches from Reno, Nevada on October 10, 2011:

Hi Matt...

This is an excellent first effort. As we approach another Presidential election that is bound to at times...It will do us well to remember some of the other contests that were hard fought and ugly...if only to maintain some perspective.

Excellent Job...If we were adding...I would also include the 1824 contest between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson...also...ugly. Voted all the Ups and a follow. Welcome to Hubpages!

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