Freedom of Speech: Negative campaigning

posted at 8:36 am on July 4, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

When did negative campaigning and attack ads start?  The television era?  Maybe when radio became a national media?  In fact, negative campaigning has a long history, as long as the Republic itself.  Edward Larson wrote a book about the first contested, partisan election in American history, one that featured two giants of the American Revolution, and how their campaigns painted each other as traitors and atheists:

Since the time of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, successful politicians have sought to sanctify their candidate and demonize their opponent. After three largely nonpartisan elections, the first campaign for president, in 1800, pitted Adams against Jefferson. Patriots in the best sense of the word, both men were brilliant, successful lawyers who stood out among the surviving heroes of the American Revolution. Devoted family men, they had served their states and country during the war and held high positions in George Washington‘s administration.

No finer Americans ever faced off for the presidency, yet partisans on both sides immediately went negative. The two best-known authors of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, morphed into opposing party leaders slinging the mud.

Viewers of the excellent HBO miniseries John Adams will already know this, but others may find themselves surprised at the ferocity of the founding fathers of this nation.  Adams himself avoided participation in the vilification of Jefferson as a “debauched deist” and the rumor-mongering regarding Jefferson and his slave Sally Heming, while Jefferson quietly funded attacks on Adams as an Anglophile likely to reunite the US with Great Britain, or perhaps proclaim himself as monarch rather than President.  Larson makes the point, which should be rather obvious in retrospect, that revolutionaries do not tend to be calm, mild, and milquetoast, and points to the somewhat hyperbolic list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence as proof.

So negative campaigning, as it turns out, has a long and storied history in the United States.  As both Adams and Jefferson found out, it works, and not just in elections.  Jefferson started the attack machine after Adams won in 1796, continuing to fund the negative press against Adams throughout his presidency with an eye to winning in 1800.  When Adams discovered it, he stopped talking to Jefferson for years, but the man from Monticello had created yet another tradition thought much more modern: the perpetual campaign.

Remember this when people try to reform the political process by restricting political advertising, such as with the BCRA.  The founders respected free speech enough to allow for all of its political manifestations, and they even invented most of what people now call “abuses” in political speech.  They abided the negative aspects of politicking because the alternative — government-controlled speech — would eventually lead to tyranny.  Free speech may create affliction, but it also serves as the greatest cure for any of the ills it produces.


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Political ads and satire from the colonial days is quite entertaining. They held back nothing! Too bad society today doesn’t have the tolerance or wit so prevalent long ago.

Happy Independence Day!
(we are’t celebrating the fact that it’s July 4th, we are celebrating u independence).

cannonball on July 4, 2008 at 8:41 AM

Jefferson didn’t stop the attack machine once Adams won in 1800

Um, Adams won in 1796(the third election, after Washington’s two) and Jefferson won in 1800 (the fourth election).

Otherwise, great article. Contentious elections are not a modern invention. For more on that election, I’d recommend reading John Adams. I’d also be interested in reading about that election from Jefferson’s perspective. Anyone know of any good biography’s of Jefferson of the caliber of McCullough’s book on Adams?

Alia on July 4, 2008 at 8:43 AM

The Founders were not pansies, that’s for sure. I often wonder what they’d think of the nation they created today. I think they’d practically burst with pride about how it’s become the wealthiest, most prosperous, and freest civilization the world has ever known. But I also think they’d be in sheer panic at how close we are to embracing socialism. They’d wonder where our brains went to toss aside such an obviously winning model in favor of what history has shown repeatedly simply does not work.

I have no problem with negative campaigning, and I wish they’d do more of it. I think it’s the rise of moral relativism that makes candidates less willing to say, “I’m right, he’s wrong, that’s it.” And it makes voters less willing to hear that there is a right and a wrong and that they have to choose.

In order to establish that you’re right, you have to point out that the other guy is wrong. Duh.

aero on July 4, 2008 at 8:52 AM

Anti-Jefferson attack ad(video link)

Gaurav on July 4, 2008 at 8:55 AM

No finer Americans ever faced off for the presidency…

Isn’t that the truth!

Zorro on July 4, 2008 at 8:57 AM

Captain and all, Happy Independence Day!

Good to remember that freedom of speech has been one of our American demands as a right from our onset. Common Sense by Thomas Payne was an amalgamating force. “We hold these truths to be self evident” energizes our commitment to honor our Constitutional integrity as our founders made agreement for us in mind. Thank God for all that is good, and endeavor to persevere.

maverick muse on July 4, 2008 at 9:02 AM

When did negative campaigning and attack ads start? The television era? Maybe when radio became a national media? In fact, negative campaigning has a long history, as long as the Republic itself.

Well, that’s sort of true I guess.

But I think you are comparing apples and oranges. Jefferson’s slander of Adams (I see HBO is setting the standard for history now) was because he genuinely believed that the fate of the nation was to be determined by the results of the election. The intensity and legitimacy of the concern of the course, ie “desperate times call for desperate measures”, of the Republic by this men is not comparable to today. Statesmen vs. politicians – different times. Hamilton was definitely comfortable in the mud, though, to be sure.

Spirit of 1776 on July 4, 2008 at 9:07 AM

Human nature being what it is, it is inevitable that in a situation where peaceful solutions are used to change leadership folks must appeal in other ways that are not always savory. These great men that founded this country would shake their heads to see what the Democrats keep running up the pole each time change of leadership comes up for election. The character of campaigning along with the unrealistic attributes that are considered necessary for a valid candidate are foreign to what this nation was founded on. Jefferson would hardly have identified with modern day Liberals.

Hening on July 4, 2008 at 9:16 AM

Spirit of 1776 on July 4, 2008 at 9:07 AM

I still think the fate of the republic is at stake. We have a Marxist about to step into the Oval Office, with the backing of what’s likely to be a filibuster-proof Dem majority in Congress and a looming economic crisis that will make the people turn to government for help and answers. They are literally poised to take us the rest of the way into socialism, and I really don’t think that’s hyperbole. Obama and the Dem party will change the course of this country forever, like FDR did in his time. I wish McCain would unleash that famous temper of his and start fighting harder. I wish to God we were running an actual conservative, but we’re not. So I’m just praying McCain will at least hold back the tide. He’s going to have to take the gloves off to do it. Obama is trying to erase the distinctions between them–McCain needs to point them out fiercely.

aero on July 4, 2008 at 9:16 AM

Alia on July 4, 2008 at 8:43 AM

Yes, of course, you’re correct. Need my first cup of coffee, obviously …..

Ed Morrissey on July 4, 2008 at 9:18 AM

Statesmen vs. politicians

That’s it in a nutshell Spirit. There are no Statesmen in this year’s election.

Zorro on July 4, 2008 at 9:21 AM

I still think the fate of the republic is at stake.

aero on July 4, 2008 at 9:16 AM

Sure, the some of the citizenry think that, but do you think McCain does? Or Obama? No, not even Fred with all his “for the children” rhetoric thought it was important enough to campaign hard.

Spirit of 1776 on July 4, 2008 at 9:22 AM

Freedom of Speech and the monopoly owning the media is a matter of concern as the marxists dictate what is said against the constitutional patriot, mutely strangling the oppositions’ voice and presentations.

aero is spot on. McCain needs to confront his opposition the way that Teddy Roosevelt did; get real!

maverick muse on July 4, 2008 at 9:27 AM

Freedom of Speech does “not even” make lunacy sanity @ 9:22.

maverick muse on July 4, 2008 at 9:29 AM

Spirit of 1776 on July 4, 2008 at 9:22 AM

I get your point. The sense of urgency and mission–and therefore the grandiose statesmanship–is lacking now.

aero on July 4, 2008 at 9:33 AM

The Dems want to celebrate Independence Day by taking away this freedom of speech via the mis-named “Fairness Doctrine”. If BO wins, the FCC will bring it back in a heartbeat.

jgapinoy on July 4, 2008 at 9:35 AM

Sure, the some of the citizenry think that, but do you think McCain does? Or Obama? No, not even Fred with all his “for the children” rhetoric thought it was important enough to campaign hard.

Spirit of 1776 on July 4, 2008 at 9:22 AM

I definitely think that Obama does think this way – but his designs on the Republic are repugnant to those of us who cherish liberty.

On our side, I do think that Mitt Romney gets it. He understands what’s at stake and is willing to work his tail off to secure our future. Too bad we’re stuck with “weekends off” McCain.

Buy Danish on July 4, 2008 at 9:45 AM

Though I abhor your vile vituperations, expletives and outright lies about my record, I will defend with my life your right to call me a @#%*!#@#*%!-ing sonofabitch.
Happy 4th.

whitetop on July 4, 2008 at 9:51 AM

To pin the tail on the donkey, don’t get stuck with McCain’s “weekends off” as Obama is absent from view on his days off as well. Arguments stem from the packaged media presentation of what you see, think you see, or omit to be seen.

If McCain has enough sense to designate Romney or Palin et.al. he’d have his weekends covered by his VP. As is, at least announce the posse and let them cover weekends off. Thompson’s doing what he can, as is Lieberman. But McCain needs to utilize his squadron leadership skills right now, so he’d better organize his squadron or stay in the shadows of what could have been. Get enough voices, the message gets through even an MSM blackout.

maverick muse on July 4, 2008 at 9:55 AM

I always love telling people that bipartisanship is a myth and how cutthroat our earliest elections were. They are often surprised by this, which only proves how much people base their political decisions from a place of ignorance.

NotCoach on July 4, 2008 at 10:02 AM

I always love this argument. In the 1800s, there were entire newspapers dedicated to one political point of view or another. If you lived in New York or any other big city, you could choose from among dozens of newspapers depending on your ethnic background, political party, etc. These papers slung gallons of mud at the opposition all the time. They ran vitriolic editorials on the front pages with incendiary titles. Thomas Jefferson secretly bankrolled such a newspaper to print libelous and outrageous claims about John Adams and his followers.

There were entire campaigns for President run on slogans like “Rum, Romanism, and Rebeliion” and people singing songs like “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”

Today’s politics is marshmallow fluff in comparison.

rockmom on July 4, 2008 at 10:15 AM

and points to the somewhat hyperbolic list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence as proof.

Heh. Gandhi wasn’t the only one lucky to be fighting the British.

JiangxiDad on July 4, 2008 at 10:25 AM

maverick muse on July 4, 2008 at 9:55 AM

Lieberman is for cap and trade and other Big Liberal/Big Taxes ideas, so other than the W.O.T. he’s more harmful than helpful. He just makes it harder for McCain to make a clear distinction between the candidates, especially as Barry slithers to the right.

Buy Danish on July 4, 2008 at 10:28 AM

Lieberman is for cap and trade and other Big Liberal/Big Taxes ideas, so other than the W.O.T. he’s more harmful than helpful

I think he’s the reason McCain is for those things. McCain doesn’t know about the stuff, and looks to Lieberman for guidance.

JiangxiDad on July 4, 2008 at 10:32 AM

In the 1800s, there were entire newspapers dedicated to one political point of view or another. If you lived in New York or any other big city, you could choose from among dozens of newspapers depending on your ethnic background, political party, etc. These papers slung gallons of mud at the opposition all the time.
Today’s politics is marshmallow fluff in comparison.

rockmom on July 4, 2008 at 10:15 AM

Yeah, but somehow in the 20th C., we came to believe the media was impartial.

I was a student in France for a time during the late ’70′s. There it was clear that the newspapers had a point-of-view.
It didn’t seem to me that people there got as angry about what was printed as we do here. Everyone understood it was biased. Luckily, we’re moving to that situation here. The Times rarely makes me mad anymore. I usually laugh at it, if I even read it, like most do here.

JiangxiDad on July 4, 2008 at 10:40 AM

Jiangxi, that is exactly my point. This is why I am actually happy about the emergence of both Fox News and MSNBC. Keith Olbermann doesn’t bother me at all, unless he is calling for someone to be killed. There is more to be gained by having explicitly biased media than by media which are biased but continue to claim they aren’t. I don’t know anyone who thinks either the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal is objective.

I call the Times the New Gay Times now. Almost all of its writers and reporters are militant homosexuals, and that’s really all you need to know about the paper. It’s the Identity Politics Daily.

rockmom on July 4, 2008 at 11:06 AM

rockmom on July 4, 2008 at 11:06 AM

I doubt Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather expected exposure of the media’s bias to be their lasting contribution to journalism, but there you have it.

Happy 4th :)

JiangxiDad on July 4, 2008 at 11:35 AM

It is worth noting that John Adams thought partisan politics was the greatest threat the young Republic faced.

Terrye on July 4, 2008 at 11:41 AM

It is worth noting that John Adams thought partisan politics was the greatest threat the young Republic faced.

Terrye on July 4, 2008 at 11:41 AM

Washington and Madison, too. Both warned strongly of the dangers of political “factions.”

aero on July 4, 2008 at 11:47 AM

When did negative campaigning and attack ads start?

The Election of 1828.

Funny how that’s the first year that the Democrats ran a candidate for president.

darclon on July 4, 2008 at 11:48 AM

But I think you are comparing apples and oranges. Jefferson’s slander of Adams (I see HBO is setting the standard for history now) was because he genuinely believed that the fate of the nation was to be determined by the results of the election. The intensity and legitimacy of the concern of the course, ie “desperate times call for desperate measures”, of the Republic by this men is not comparable to today. Statesmen vs. politicians – different times. Hamilton was definitely comfortable in the mud, though, to be sure.

Spirit of 1776 on July 4, 2008 at 9:07 AM

Don’t forget in Adam’s administration the “Alien and Seditions Acts” were passed, which Jefferson politicized for political gain.

Robert Kagan’s ‘dangerous nation’, is a fascinating book. especially for those of us with a political IQ. he points out that the Adams/Washington/Hamilton faction truely beleived that France was plotting to takeover our country after they defeated the british(if they did) AND that there were some on the Jefferson/Republican side that were working with them and starting political trouble domestically. This is how we got the Seditions Acts, it forced over 25k French immigrants to leave and several politicians and newspaper editors were charged and convicted…some acquitted.

at the same time, the Jefferson/Madison/Burr faction truely beleived that the federalist were plotting their own Monarchy thanks in part to their pragmatic approach to allying with the British..Jay Treaty, etc..

the Alien and Seditions Acts make the Patriot Act look like child’s play.

jp on July 4, 2008 at 11:53 AM

Happy 4th To All, And remember the Troops.

Texyank on July 4, 2008 at 12:15 PM

Happy Independence Day!

By the way, it figures that the first campaign for president turned negative when 2 lawyers were involved.

Vince on July 4, 2008 at 12:25 PM

It is worth noting that John Adams thought partisan politics was the greatest threat the young Republic faced.
Terrye on July 4, 2008 at 11:41 AM

Washington and Madison, too. Both warned strongly of the dangers of political “factions.”
aero on July 4, 2008 at 11:47 AM

Jefferson too –
“I fear [political difference] is inseparable from the different constitutions of the human mind and that degree of freedom which permits unrestrained expression. Political dissention is doubtless a less evil than the lethargy of despotism, but still it is a great evil, and it would be as worthy the efforts of the patriot as of the philosopher, to exclude its influence, if possible, from social life. The good are rare enough at best. There is no reason to subdivide them by artificial lines. But whether we shall ever be able so far to perfect the principles of society, as that political opinions shall, in its intercourse, be as inoffensive as those of philosophy, mechanics, or any other, may be well doubted.” –Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney, 1797. ME 9:389

[And incidentally that is an ideal stock response to lefties who credit Jefferson with Howard Zinn's "dissent is the greatest form of patriotism" nonsense.]

Laura on July 4, 2008 at 1:10 PM

Oh, and Happy Independence Day!

Anyone else going nuts with fireworks later?

Laura on July 4, 2008 at 1:14 PM

Eric Burns also describes the post-Colonial press in Infamous Scribblers. It may be a little too exhaustive, but the level of journalism back then was … well, something to behold. His account of the mechanical parts of printing and publishing are also revealing.

njcommuter on July 4, 2008 at 1:59 PM

John Adams said of Alexander Hamilton during Hamilton’s sexual scandal:

“He has a super abundance of bodily fluids not all the whores of Philadelphia could draw off”

Anyone who thinks that todays political rough and tumble is the be all end all, hasn’t read history.

mylegsareswollen on July 4, 2008 at 3:01 PM

A resent visit to the Lincoln library revealed this type of campaigning was still the norm well into the 19th century.

Zaire67 on July 4, 2008 at 3:10 PM

Lieberman is for cap and trade and other Big Liberal/Big Taxes ideas, so other than the W.O.T. he’s more harmful than helpful. He just makes it harder for McCain to make a clear distinction between the candidates, especially as Barry slithers to the right.

Buy Danish on July 4, 2008 at 10:28 AM

We agree that McCain has the weakest grip on conservatism, prefering the limelight of “non-partisan” RINO work; and we agree and that Lieberman is appreciated as an ally of McCain’s, certainly not because of his penchant for the mommy-state. Less government intrusion is our mutual point of reference, I believe. For the record, McCain would have done so much more honorably as a Senator had he followed Fred Thompson’s Constitutional lead rather than fawning over his democrat fair weather friends’ tendencies.

BHO has no point of reference other than CHANGE FOR MARX.

Still, to you and yours, Buy Danish, Happy 4th!

maverick muse on July 4, 2008 at 5:53 PM

Anti-Jefferson attack ad(video link)

Gaurav on July 4, 2008 at 8:55 AM

Wow… they really knew how to sling mud back then.

Maxx on July 5, 2008 at 12:20 AM