Beatings, beratings and boxes of votes


“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

— Abraham Lincoln

“We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”

— Thomas Jefferson

Election season is upon us again. With a primary right around the corner, and the November posturing already well underway, it’s time to steel ourselves against the onslaught of television ads, robocalls and campaign literature. We’ve become quite cynical about the nature of those ads, and the messages contained in them, and now have the added concern of false information and Photoshopped or AI images appearing online and via social media.

In all of our nostalgia for the Halcyon days of honest campaigning, we forget that the history of political campaigns in this country is every bit as ugly, filled with falsehoods, and rank with dirty tricks as the modern day – if not substantially more so.

And where better to begin than with politicians (and their allies) slinging mud at one another. We can go back to the U.S. presidential election of 1800 to find the earliest American examples. One Federalist newspaper said that an election of Thomas Jefferson would result in “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest being openly taught and practiced.” A Democratic paper said that Adams – then the sitting U.S. president – was “blind, bald, toothless, and querulous.” Another said that he, “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.”

Three decades later, Andrew Jackson supporters accused John Quincy Adams of supplying prostitutes to the Tsar of Russia and installing gambling devices in the White House. (The “device” turned out to be a chess set.) Adams supporters produced a pamphlet asking whether “a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband should be placed in the highest office of this free and Christian land,” a reference to the claim that Rachel Jackson had never been properly divorced from her first spouse.

In the 1880s, Grover Cleveland tackled accusations of fathering a child out of wedlock by admitting they were true, even though there was some doubt as to whether he actually was the child’s father. Cleveland supporters weren’t going to be silent, though. In response, they chanted toward the opposition candidate, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine. The continental liar from the State of Maine.” Hardly clever, but still effective.

Political opponents were also prone to physical violence in earlier times. The murder of Alexander Hamilton by Aaron Burr in 1804 is certainly the prime example, but it’s not the only one. In 1798, Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont spit on Roger Griswold of Connecticut. Griswold beat him with his walking stick. In 1856, Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with his cane until the cane broke, then continued to beat him with one of the pieces. Sumner was so badly injured that he did not return to full Senate duty until 1859, whereupon he immediately reinstituted his strident opposition to slavery.

Today, we hear an awful lot about election security and “fake news.” But way back in 1950, Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings lost a reelection campaign in which his opponents took a photo of him listening to the radio and pasted in a photo of American Communist Party leader Earl Browder. The resulting composite made it look like Tydings was earnestly listening to Browder speak. It was a complete fake, but it did was it was intended to do, and Tydings lost to Republican John Marshall Butler.

The U.S. Senate election of 1948 may be one of the best documented instances of election tampering. On the evening of the primary, it appeared that Lyndon Johnson had narrowly lost to Coke Stevenson. But days later, a box containing 202 votes was added to the tally – all but two for Johnson. Later research resulted in claims that the bottom of the list of names was in alphabetical order and all in the same handwriting. Some of those persons, when interviewed, said that they didn’t even vote in that primary. Johnson was declared the winner, defeated his general election opponent in a landslide, and would be elected vice president a dozen years later. Still, with all the research that has been done on that election, false claims still regularly circulate, such as the one that those 200 voters were all dead.

One of the funniest stories of clever campaigning is, similarly, false. The story goes that in 1950, George Smathers, running for U.S. Senate in Florida, was giving a speech in front of some not-so-smart voters. To trick them, he said that his opponent was “a known extrovert,” that his opponent’s brother was a “practicing homo-sapien,” and that his sister was a “thespian.” To top it all off, he said that the man had “engaged in celibacy before marriage.” The crowd was reportedly outraged. The only problem is that none of it ever happened. Smathers, who remained in the Senate until 1969 and active in politics until his death in 2007, offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove the story was true – a safe bet since he knew it wasn’t. But you can still find the story in books and online.

You’ll no doubt be bombarded with political messages for the next seven months. But when you begin to think that politics is getting “uglier” over time, rest assured that it’s been that ugly throughout American history – whatever solace that might be to you.

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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