Thomas Jefferson, Smear Artist: The Bad Old Media
As you head for your polling place, your head filled with all the facts, figures and debate analysis a vibrant 21st century news media has worked so hard to hand you, be glad the media we have is not the media of our Founding Mudslingers, er…Fathers.
Historian David McCullough, interviewed by CBS’s Morley Safer on this past weekend’s 60 Minutes, talked about the election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in which “Jefferson paid a journalist to write that his opponent was a mentally unbalanced hermaphrodite. Adams spread the word that a Jefferson victory would mean murder, rape, and robbery in the streets.”
That’s how they worked it back then. Jefferson paid journalists (notably James Callendar) to write salacious stories about Adams, and Adams returned the favor (With Alexander Hamilton playing both sides against the middle whenever he could). Okay, so maybe there are versions of that going on today, but in the 19th century, muckraking was a well-practiced, no-holds-barred art form, with the best free press money could buy.
In their 2008 paper, “The Effect of the Partisan Press on U.S. House Elections, 1800-1820,” University of Georgia professors James L. Carson and M.V. Hood III, write, “In nineteenth-century America…the newspaper press was the political system’s central institution, not simply a forum or atmosphere in which politics took place. Instead, newspapers and their editors were purposeful actors in the political process, linking parties, voters, and the government together, and pursuing specific political goals. Newspapers were the ‘linchpin’ of nineteenth-century party politics…”
The editorialists of the day dipped their pens in purple prose. In Edward J. Larson’s A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign, reviewed last month by L.A. Times book critic David Ulin, we have this:
“Citizens choose your sides,” a New York Federalist newspaper declared in the spring of 1800. “You who are for French notions of government; for the tempestuous sea of anarchy and misrule; for arming the poor against the rich; for fraternizing with the foes of God and man; go to the left and support the leaders, or the dupes, of the anti-federal junto. But you that are sober, industrious, thriving, and happy, give your votes for those men who mean to preserve the union of the states, the purity and vigor of our excellent Constitution, the sacred majesty of the laws, and the holy ordinances of religion.”
Makes me want to put my quill back in the goose to read stuff like that.
As bad as it got in 1800, the election of 1864 really brought out the partisan media’s long knives, as Sidney Blumenthal noted last month in Newsweek. “The New York World, the leading Democratic newspaper in the country and one that was strongly behind McClellan’s campaign, published a sensational story of a fabricated event, ‘The Miscegenation Ball,’ complete with an illustration of ‘colored belles’ shimmying with Republicans and Union officers at the Lincoln Club. Perhaps the most popular piece of campaign literature was entitled ‘Abraham Africanus I; His Secret Life Revealed Under the Mesmeric Influence; Mysteries of the White House,’ featuring his dialogues with Satan.”
Hermaphrodites, Satan, Mesmeric influences, dupes and juntos. Those were the media darlings of another age. And aren’t we glad they stayed there?
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