The presidential contenders seem to be making some especially crude personal attacks against one another this year. Can you provide a little historical perspective?
—Sonya Willoughby, Portage, IN
I consider it both an act of Sagacity and a performance of Civic Duty to deduce the following truth from the Election Season which we are presently in the midst of: The imprecations which our candidates for public office hurl upon one another, devolve in inverse proportion to the stature of the Office in question. In other words, the more dignified the position, the more retrograde the Discourse of those in competition to accede to it. Allowing that there is no more exalted post in the Public Life of our Country than the Presidency of the United States, it follows that there is none other whose vacancy provokes the same level of vitriolic barbing, jockeying—CAMPAIGNING.
As the most recent jeremiads of our Presidential Hopefuls leaden your very soul, it may come as small consolation (though consolation nonetheless) to learn that the Annals of American Politics are replete with political office-seekers affixing mean-spirited epithets to their opponents in a cyclical tango of recrimination. Human beings tend to regard their travails—as much as their triumphs—as having no precedent; what folly this is. The novelty of today’s Epithets derives from the manner—rather than the mere fact—of their expression. Name-calling for Political Gain extends far into America’s past.
For an example, allow me to adduce the 1840 presidential election, wherein decorated military hero William Henry Harrison encountered the Incumbent, President Martin Van Buren. Partisan newspapers, on either side, proliferated (lest you believe the press, by necessity, must pursue its civic function in Absolute Objectivity).
One such paper, The Old Soldier, began its first issue with a defense of its candidate, in a section titled “Gen. Harrison and His Calumniators.” A rival Publication had assailed Harrison as an “old woman,” “the petticoat candidate,” and “the granny of Ohio.” The editors of The Old Soldier, having forewarned their readers of the mortifying slurs awaiting them down the page, further allayed their Editorial Consciences by asserting an obligation to reprint the nefarious ramblings of Harrison’s detractors in order to properly begin the process of Refutation and Character Rehabilitation.
In spite of the rhetorical attacks he suffered (or, perhaps, because of them), Harrison prevailed in the election against Van Buren, who had his own share of Calumniators: they called him “VAN RUIN,” for the damage they believed he had wrought upon the American economy.