Column: Nothing new under the sun

Commentary by Jonathan Matthes

It can be excused; at least I think it can. This election season has been a head-scratcher. We get so frustrated that we turn off the news. Throw the newspapers in the trash bin. Can’t our politicians just be civil, like they used to be? For old times sake!

We want to put on our sepia-tinted glasses and see the America of yesteryear as a more pastoral place where debates were calm and respectful. Back when we weren’t inundated with attack ads. Where there were candidates that stood for something. You know, the good old days.

I don’t want to burst your nostalgic bubble, but those days never existed.

Ever since George Washington bid the country adieu, American presidential politics has been a largely unforgiving arena. Even some of our most venerable statesmen were consumed in the fray.

Thomas Jefferson spent his entire term as Vice President blatantly undermining everything that President John Adams did. He we quickly rewarded with the presidency in 1800 and eventually a place on Mt. Rushmore.

Or, the time in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt cannibalized the Republican ticket, when he could have just waited for 1916 and won his third term then. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won that election with 1.3 million less votes than what a united Republican ticket would have conceivably received.

But these were not the most cringe-worthy of elections. That distinction belongs to two elections exactly a century apart: the lamentable 1828 and 1928 slugfests.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an established Secretary of State, with a famous last name, facing off against a political outsider who made a fortune in real estate? That was the script for the 1828 election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

The key issue on the table was which candidate was the most American. Adams was the son of a founding father. He was cosmopolitan, spoke multiple languages fluently and was a deft diplomat after spending most of his life in foreign lands. He was also the sitting President.

Then there was Jackson the heroic general of the battle of New Orleans. He was the definition of a self-made man. Orphaned during the Revolution, he moved out to the frontier in Tennessee where he became land rich although his wallet was never overflowing. People flocked to him in droves.

Important to note: until 1896 it was viewed as unseemly for a candid to campaign for himself, so surrogates would make the pitches on their candidate’s behalf. Both Adams and Jackson had obvious strengths.

Those surrogates did their best to contort the opponents’ strengths into weaknesses.

Jackson’s people latched on to Adams’ foreign affairs experience. How American could this guy actually be? He practically grew up an ocean away from America, where there were stories that he procured women for the Czar. How could this man know the hearts, minds, and souls of Americans if he barely was one himself?

While wives may not have been fair targets, there were targeted nonetheless. While oversees, Adams had married an Englishwoman. His mother had warned him this could be politically costly. She was right. How American could a guy be if he wasn’t even married to an American, the Jacksonians asked? Adams was even caricatured as being infatuated with the trappings of wealth after the White House had to be refurbished.

The Adams contingent hit back hard. They questioned Jackson’s military leadership. Jackson had several of his own men executed during his military campaigns for various reasons. Adams’ people widely distributed Coffin handbills, flyers that featured coffins on them, one for every man executed under Jackson’s leadership. If he was that heavy-handed with power as a General, imagine what he would do as President?

They too launched particularly vicious attacks at Jackson’s beloved wife, Rachel. Rachel had a terrible relationship with her first husband and Andrew had stood up for her honor. But Rachel and Andrew were married before her divorce was technically finalized. While this was resolved, it was regurgitated venomously during the ’28 campaign. Rachel was labeled an adulteress, a bigamist, and worst. Jackson was portrayed as someone who could not contain his appetites and had poached her from her husband.

Jackson would win the election. Adams would spend a couple years lost, before landing in the House of Representatives launching a successful second stint of public service.

But the election hit Rachel the hardest.

She was not expecting her dirty laundry to be aired out for the nation to see, and the personal attacks burrowed deep into her soul. She would die of a heart attack just before Jackson left for his inauguration. Everyone blamed her death on the campaign. Jackson would never forgive Adams or himself.

Exactly a hundred years later Herbert Hoover was looking to cap off the Republican ‘20s with victory in 1928. His opponent was four-time New York Governor, Al Smith. Smith was already an underdog, but he had been one all his life. He was a kid from a poor Manhattan neighborhood that had ascended all the way to the Governor’s mansion in Albany. My how high he had risen and he thought he had a shot. And he did, in cities.

But America was ruraler then and by 1928 radio had become a factor in the election. While Smith was as gregarious as Hoover was gruff, he also spoke with a raspy New York accent that scratched the ears of rural America. Smith was for the repeal of prohibition, which clashed with the strong national support for prohibition. The rural people also resented that Smith was from the big city of New York. But there was another aspect about Smith that drew out the nation’s collective ire.

Al Smith was Catholic.

The vitriol was immense.

Across the country ministers took to the pulpits imploring their congregations not to vote for Smith, that it wasn’t American to vote for a Catholic. In Oklahoma, The Ku Klux Klan lined Smith’s train route with burning crosses. They also set crosses ablaze in Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas and in some counties in Smith’s own home state, New York. Frequently Smith’s stump speeches were received with icy silences. Political cartoons featuring Smith as the Pope’s pawn flooded newspapers nationwide. In Virginia, a congressman wrote an editorial begging the readers that if they were not going to vote for Smith, that they should come up with reasons other that his faith. Many actually believed that if Smith won, the Pope would move to Washington D.C. and America would be submitted under his rule.

Hoover did not participate in the religious furor but he didn’t need to. The anti-Catholic grassroots campaign swept the country.

While Al Smith won in most of the major cities, he was obliterated nationally. He won only eight states. His political career was over.

You can put those sepia-tinted glasses back on if you choose, but just keep in mind that politics did not become a blood sport in 2016. Slander, libel, assaults and assignations of character have been a trademark of American elections for almost as long as we have been having elections. To paraphrase an old biblical saying, in presidential politics, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Special thanks to the following sources:

  • David Rodgers, teacher at Zionsville Community High School
  • Barbara Bair and Ryan Reft, of the Library of Congress
  • Ken Burns films, “The Roosevelts, an Intimate History” and “New York: A Documentary Film”
  • Robert Caro, “The Power Broker”
  • David McCullough, “John Adams”
  • Jon Meacham, “American Lion”
  • Lillian Cunningham, the “Presidential” podcast from the Washington Post.

Jonathan Matthes is a columnist for Current and can be contacted at