Negative Politics


During the early days of this country, two Washington politicians had this to say about each other:
One referred to the other as having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

In response, the supporters of the maligned man referred to the accuser as being “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Like boxers trading counter-punches, the second man was in turn labeled as “a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant.”

In retaliation the first man was characterized as a “weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.”
Happening early in the country’s history, this name- calling has been referred to as the birth of negative politics. The war of words could not have gotten much uglier, which is ironic since one of the men would be renowned for his skill with eloquent words of a universal importance and the others would be remembered for his persistence in creating the nation. The two men were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, patriots who had stood together in creating the Declaration of Independence and, with home addresses in Virginia and Massachusetts respectively, united the northern and southern ends of the colonies. But by the 1800s with a government formed and everyday politics running its course, the two were bitter enemies.

Jefferson and Adams come to mind in looking at the politics of the recent times. Once again, the rhetoric is ugly, though not so far as referring to one person as ‘hermaphroditical.” Calling the other person, a “half-breed Indian squaw sired by a mulatto” could today end the accuser’s career.

Still, there is plenty contemporary ugliness to go around. Where today’s words might not be as biting, the ways of spreading those words are endless. Imagine if Thomas Jefferson had had a Twitter account. Facebook? Would the Adams people have used it to spread the Sally Hemmings rumor?

Throughout history wherever there is government, there is politics, and wherever there is politics, there is usually a fight of some sort as competing interests want more of the share. With fights come words and accusations. In the United States there were many periods of divisiveness, including the rise of Jacksonian Democracy and the fall of the old ruling class; prohibition, which created gang warfare; Civil rights riots; Vietnam war protests. The Cold War? The thought of Russians on the nuclear triggers make the thought of Russians on Google seem absolutely mild.

We have no evidence that politics today is more negative than ever before (indeed we think not); what’s different is that we are inundated with the negativity from 24-hour cable news; the internet and politically pointed talk radio.

In their older ages, Jefferson and Adams renewed their former friendships and became incessant letter- writers commenting to each other. Their 14-year correspondence has been a treasure trove of information to historians. In one of American history’s most ironic anecdotes’ both died the same day, July 4, 1826, which happened to be the 50th anniversary of Independence Day. Jefferson’s final words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” (Actually, Jefferson had died five hours earlier.) A relationship that had been, at different times, a close friendship and a bitter rivalry ended. Political battles, fought by others, would continue.

It can all be annoying, though wars of word are superior ways of settling disagreements than wars of tanks and bombs.


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