Sure, this election’s candidates have been called some names (lipsticked pig? terrorist? woman?). But however much we complain that this political campaign is sinking to a new low, it is, in fact, not even close to approaching old ones. The 2008 race’s relatively unscurrilous insults would’ve had the 19th-century campaigners, and Karl Rove, calling even Ann Coulter—well, these days, it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word “pussy”
Herewith, in the final ramp-up of negative ads, how far we have (or haven’t) come in a couple hundred years of presidential contests:
10. 1832 National Republicans say incumbent Andrew Jackson took for himself “a power no Monarch in Europe dared attempt,” “the most absolute despot now at the head of any representative government on earth” who exercised “indiscriminate removal of public officers, for the mere difference of political opinion.” As 172 years later, it is not enough to lose the president the election.
9. In the 1828 race, John Quincy Adams supporters call Andrew Jackson a slave-trading, gambling, brawling murderer. (Though these slurs are pretty serious, they occupy a low place on the list because they were—being about a man who was shot several times in duels and bar fights—true.)
8. Whigs senselessly call 1848 presidential hopeful Lewis Cass a “pot-bellied, mutton-headed cucumber” in response to Democrats’ accusations that opposing candidate Zachary Taylor is, among other things, a crappy dresser.
7. Whigs “prove” that James K. Polk was a slave trader in 1844—by quoting extensively a completely fake excerpt from a book.
6. 1844 Democrats backing James K. Polk claim that Henry Clay had sex with whores and, furthermore, broke all 10 of the commandments; in lieu of evidence, they declare simply that the details are “too disgusting to appear in public print.”
5. 1828, again: Jackson supporters accuse Adams of having premarital sex with his wife and being a pimp, claiming he arranged an American hooker for Czar Alexander I.
4. 1800 Federalists claim Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson is dead.
3. Whigs portray incumbent (and son of a farmer) Martin Van Buren as an effete snob with a penchant for really nice perfume and strutting in front of $2,400 mirrors like a peacock. He is, in fact, the lowest-spending president yet, as far as White House purchases are concerned; his opponent, rich kid William Henry Harrison, wins the 1840 race on a (bullshit) platform of loving log cabins and hard cider.
2. Karl Rove-engineered robo-calls help Bush win the 2000 Republican nomination by asking primary voters if they would be “more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew that he fathered an illegitimate black child?” Negative points for not outright declaring, but just implying, the charge. Bonus points for slinging it inside own party. McCain speculates that “there is a special place in hell for people like those.” You know what happened after that.
1. And the 1828 race, again, takes it: Adams supporters attack Jackson’s family, calling his dead mother “a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers,” after whose service she “married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children of which number General JACKSON IS ONE!!!” Jackson’s wife, who was previously married and (accidentally) not completely divorced prior to her second marriage, they call a “convicted adulteress.” When she dies within days of Jackson’s victory, he blames Adams’ vicious campaign practices, exclaiming at her funeral, “May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them. I never can.”