"...Everywhere, the scum rose to the top."
- Elizabeth L. Johnston, 1775
So, you think twisted truths, insults and other forms of negative campaigning are a modern invention? Or, if not modern, then at least the nasty tone of this year's election was nonexistent during the reign of our kinder, gentler Founding Fathers, right?
Sorry, but rather than wallowing in the dregs of the campaign barrel today, we just might have cleaned it up a bit.
As far as I can tell, hardly a negative word was ever written about George Washington, and if he had a negative thought about those who served with him, he kept it to himself. Our first president was, above all, a gentleman, but it seems he had few peers.
To recap: Following the 18-month process of writing, rewriting and ratifying the U.S. Constitution, George Washington was the unanimous choice of the Electoral College for the presidency. Also chosen were John Adams as vice president, Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, and Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury.
At the end of Washington's second term, both Adams and Jefferson ran for the presidency, which Adams won by three electoral votes. Owing to the system in place at the time, the candidate who came in second automatically became vice president. Four years later, Vice President Jefferson ran against Adams and won the first of his two terms as the country's third president.
Hear now a litany of opinions each of these men expressed about the other.
Thomas Jefferson on John Adams: "He is vain, irritable... profound in his views... except where knowledge of the world is necessary to form a judgment." (This may explain why, by the end of their term, this president and vice president were no longer speaking to each other.)
Alexander Hamilton on John Adams: "Not denying Mr. Adams' talents of a certain kind... he does not possess those adapted to the administration of government, and there are great defects in his character, which unfit him for the office of chief magistrate."
John Adams on Alexander Hamilton: "Although I have long since forgiven this Arch Enemy, (his) vice, folly, and villainy are not forgotten because the guilty wretch repented in his dying moments, (though) with a pistol bullet through his spinal marrow, he died a penitent." (Hamilton was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr.)
Alexander Hamilton on Thomas Jefferson: "His politics are tinctured with fanaticism... he has been a mischievous enemy (of) our past administration; he is a contemptible hypocrite."
Thomas Jefferson on Alexander Hamilton: "Hamilton was indeed of acute understanding, honest, amiable... yet under thorough conviction that corruption was essential to the government of a nation."
Moving forward to 1824 when five men, including Columbia County's William H. Crawford and South Carolina's John C. Calhoun, were among the candidates for the presidency, the following words might have appeared in a candidate forum, or "tell-all" book in mid-term.
Henry Clay to former Gen. Andrew Jackson: "I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans (War of 1812) qualifies you for the difficult and complicated duties of the chief magistracy."
Andrew Jackson on Henry Clay: "He is the basest, meanest scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of his God. (There is) nothing too mean or low for him to descend to, to carry his cowardly and base slander into effect."
And the winner, John Quincy Adams, on his vice president, John C. Calhoun: "Calhoun looks like a man racked with furious passions and stung with disappointed ambition, as undoubtedly he is."
P.S. You'll be happy to learn that, years later, Jefferson and Adams shared a warm friendship, full of memories of the events they helped shape. Interestingly, these two signers of the Declaration of Independence died on the same day: July 4, 1826.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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