PHILADELPHIA – American presidential campaigns are often trimmed in mud and studded with accusations as sharp as nails.

This candidate was a grafter, that one was lecherous. This one was a closet monarchist, that one was godless. This one was barely literate, that one arranged a tryst for a foreign ruler. This one lied about his war record, that one about his National Guard service.

So much bitterness, yet the republic survives.

“If you take the long view, it seems to me that what we’re going through is not extreme,” Richard Norton Smith, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., said of the Bush-Kerry campaign.

Here are a few of the more colorful episodes from what Smith calls our “democratic roughhouse”:

-The election of 1800. Smith described this contest, which pitted incumbent John Adams against challenger Thomas Jefferson, as “vicious.”

Adams’ partisans branded Jefferson an atheist and said his election would undermine not just morality but law and order. “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced,” warned the Connecticut Courant.

Jefferson’s followers said Adams was trying to establish an American monarchy by marrying one of his daughters to a son of King George III, said Smith, whose books include biographies of George Washington, Herbert Hoover, and Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick.

-The election of 1828. John Adams was not the last of his family to be involved in electoral mudslinging.

The 1828 election contest between Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson, is widely considered the dirtiest in U.S. history.

Adams’ supporters labeled Jackson a murderer for engaging in duels and an uneducated clod, falsely called Jackson’s mother a prostitute, and spread the story Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was not yet legally divorced when the two married. (Communication was uncertain in those days, and the Jacksons thought the divorce had gone through. When it did, they remarried).

Jackson’s partisans, for their part, falsely accused Adams of procuring a woman for the czar of Russia and using government money to buy a pool table for the White House.

“The worst accusation was that Adams and Clay had stolen the election of 1824,” said Robert V. Remini, who has written biographies of Jackson and Henry Clay.

The 1824 contest featured four candidates: Adams, Jackson, Clay and William H. Crawford of Georgia. Jackson received the most popular and electoral votes but not enough to be declared the winner.

The election went to the House of Representatives, where Clay was the speaker. Clay threw his support to Adams, and Adams won. When the new president made Clay his secretary of state, the Jacksonians screamed: “Corrupt bargain!”

“I doubt there really was a bargain,” said Remini, professor emeritus and historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

-The election of 1884. Supporters of Republican James G. Blaine and Democrat Grover Cleveland flung mud in the 1884 campaign with a brio not seen since 1828.

Democrats attacked Blaine, a senator from Maine and former House speaker, for improperly profiting from a railroad deal while he was serving as speaker.

Blaine thought he had put the charge behind him in 1876, but Cleveland backers revived it in the form of a memorable chant, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.”

Cleveland, the reform-minded governor of New York, had to deal with his own share of scandal when a newspaper revealed he had had an affair a decade earlier with a woman in Buffalo, N.Y., and supposedly fathered a child by her.

The candidate, who had been supporting the child although he was not sure the boy was his, owned up to the affair – which did not keep the Republicans from using for their own chant: “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”

For all the scandal-mongering, however, the election turned on a bizarre incident. Blaine was attending a campaign rally when a prominent Protestant clergyman blasted the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism (Roman Catholicism) and rebellion.” Blaine remained silent, angering New York’s Irish Catholics. Cleveland narrowly won the election.

If political campaigning seems intense now, it was even more so in the 19th century, when it was a form of “mass entertainment … the water-cooler talk of its day,” Smith said.

What has changed is the way information is spread. Campaign rhetoric is “magnified by the media, particularly by the Web …,” he said. “We’re enveloped by it.”

The pervasiveness of the media may even help mitigate political ugliness since campaign claims are now subject to instant and widespread examination, Remini suggested.

But if history is a guide, nothing will turn presidential elections into sedate affairs. And if history is a guide, the country will survive.



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