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You want to see ugly politics: Jefferson vs. Adams

| Friday, Aug. 31, 2012, 8:54 p.m.

A lot of people seem to think the lies and insults unleashed in the current presidential race are unprecedented and that by sinking so low, we have sullied the high-minded process envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

But here's some perspective: The Founding Fathers actually wrote the book on how to brawl in the streets. In the words of historian Edward Larson, “They could write like angels and scheme like demons.”

Consider the campaign of 1800 when, for the first time, two political parties skirmished for presidential power.

Thomas Jefferson looks noble on the nickel in your pocket, but back in the day, he hired hatchet men to do his dirty work. As the challenger in 1800, his goal was to topple the incumbent. His critique of President John Adams included the accusation that he was “a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

In 2012, at least, neither candidate has been accused of having the sex organs of both genders — although we still have two months to go.

Adams also did his business through surrogates. Jefferson was described as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father ... raised wholly on hoe-cake (made of coarse-ground Southern corn), bacon and hominy, with an occasional change of fricasseed bullfrog.”

Barack Obama is not the first president called a dictator. Adams got the same treatment from the Jefferson gang, which contended that the rumored hermaphrodite was not only “one of the most egregious fools upon the continent” and a “strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness,” but a wannabe monarch.

The opposition's vision of a Jefferson presidency looked like this: “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The biggest dogs wrote for the Gazette of the United States, basically the network news of the Federalist Party. They targeted Jefferson's alleged defilement of Christianity. One broadside read: “The only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is, ‘shall I continue in allegiance to GOD — AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; Or impiously declare for JEFFERSON — AND NO GOD!!!'”

Jefferson denounced the “lying pamphlets” and “absolute falsehoods,” but only in private. He wrote to a friend, “It has been so impossible to contradict all their lies that I have determined to contradict none; for while I should be engaged with one, they would publish 20 new ones.” (How old-fashioned: In 2012, candidates are expected to respond to all charges within the same news cycle.)

On Inauguration Day, the victorious Jefferson called for an end to partisan strife: “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” And: “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are dreary things.”

We'll hear the same thing in January. The pleas will go unheeded, of course, but that's OK. We'll survive, just as we have ever since our founding angels schemed like demons.

Dick Polman is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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