by Richard Brown
Election season is coming up in Guatemala, so it’s important to remember that election mudslinging isn’t something new to the media age, and in fact some of America’s beloved founding fathers were pros.
Take the election of 1800. Thomas Jefferson secretly hired a media consultant, journalist James Callendar, to dish the dirty. Soon, publications accused President Adams, up for reelection, of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’ campaign fired back that Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father,” in other words calling him part black, part Indian, and part slut all at the same time. And since Jefferson fought for separation of church and state, loved the French, and was a Deist, which means he believed in a Creator but not necessarily in the God of the Bible, the Adams camp warned that Jefferson would create an atheist, Robbespierrian nation where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly be taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” A prominent minister called Jefferson “a decided, hardened infidel.” A Yale President and supporter of Adams said in a speech that “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution” under Jefferson. Meanwhile, reports said that Adams would definitely launch a bloody, costly war against France if reelected, and that Adams had said so many things in support of monarchy and aristocratic rule that in trying to top them “all the words of our language, nay, all the ideas of the human mind, would be vainly applied.”
White, land-owning American men elected the black Indian slut over the royalist hermaphrodite 41,330 votes to 25,952, in part thanks to Callendar’s use of the day’s social media – letters, newspapers, and talking to people. Callendar soon went to jail for previous slander, and when he got out in 1801, he expected a government post from Jefferson. Jefferson refused, and Callendar published Jefferson’s letters to him, proving that Jefferson had paid him to attack Adams. A year later, while Jefferson was in office, Callendar broke a story that has haunted Jefferson to this day: that he was bedding (at least) one of his hundreds of slaves, Sally Hemings, and had five children with her. (As a slave, she obviously had little say in the matter.) Jefferson’s supporters always called this ridiculous, considering Jefferson’s gentlemanly reputation. But in 1998, DNA testing revealed connections between Heming’s descendants and Jefferson’s. It took until 2003 for white Jefferson descendants to include black Jefferson descendants in Jefferson family reunions.
When Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, ran for reelection against Andrew Jackson in 1828, he took similar shots. It was reported that General Jackson’s mother was “a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a mulatto man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!!!”
This history of race and gender preoccupation in electoral slander continues. For example, prominent Republicans continued to claim that not-white Barack Obama was not born in the US… through to 2011.