“We’ve never had times like these before.” It seems we hear statements of concern like this from someone in the media almost every day. In this era of 24 hour news networks and the ever present internet, more than ever it seems like we live in the “now.” I know history is so “yesterday,” but an honest look back in the past of our country might calm some of those fears. Because we’ve been there before.
Learning specifics about our country’s history can help put the times we live in today in proper focus. A book I recently read, “Under This Roof,” by Paul Brandus, about the White House and the Presidents who lived there, helped with information for this column. (Remember, library cards are still free.)
“This is the nastiest U.S. election in history.” Really? You probably heard that last fall during the heated presidential election. There have been worse, much worse. Probably the nastiest was the 1800 presidential campaign between two of our country’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
The two, who were instrumental in writing of the Declaration of Independence, were now bitter political enemies. Adams had won the presidency in 1796 against Jefferson in a heated contest. The race in 1800 was a rematch that was even more hotly contested.
Similar to the TV networks today, back then, newspapers were the primary source of information for the public. The major newspapers cared little about being objective in their coverage of the election, and were used as tools by the two campaigns to slander the other. (See Fox News and MSNBC.)
Supporters of John Adams wrote about Jefferson, that he was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” That, if Jefferson was elected, “we would see our wives and daughters victims of legal prostitution.”
Not to be outdone, a Jefferson newspaper wrote that Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force nor firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams was accused of wanting to marry off his son to the daughter of the King of England, go back to a monarchy in the U.S., and go to war with France.
Jefferson won the presidency in a disputed contest. Adams was so bitter that he wouldn’t hang around for Jefferson’s inauguration. He left early that day and headed back home to Massachusetts, not waiting to see his rival sworn in as President.
So, maybe there have been nastier elections.
“We have never had a person with that type of character as President.” Are you sure? You probably heard something similar said during the last election. Another look back in our history can easily challenge that claim. There have been a couple of Presidents over the past fifty years, whose actions can be used as an example. But a prime example is from back in the “Roaring Twenties,” President Warren Harding.
Harding was elected President in 1920 by a large margin. Relatively unknown, Harding was a handsome and outgoing Senator from Ohio. Married, he had already had several affairs before being elected President, and was blackmailed about one of them during the presidential race.
Once elected, Harding continued his reckless ways. Affairs continued with women sneaking into the White House to visit the President. The White House Secret Service agents did what they could to protect Harding, mainly from his wife, during these “visits.” These affairs continued throughout his Presidency.
This was during the time of Prohibition, and Warren Harding presented himself to the public as a nondrinker. But that was not the case, especially during poker nights at the White House. Booze flowed during those rowdy nights, with some of the games being for high stakes. It was said that Harding even gambled away a set of china left from the Benjamin Harrison administration. The party was over in 1923, when Harding died suddenly, not completing his term in office.
Not surprisingly, Harding’s administration turned out to be one of the most corrupt in history. While he may not have been involved personally, several members of his administration were involved in corruption, bribes, and kickbacks, fleecing millions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury.
So, it looks like we have had times like these before, and the country survived. But maybe it is the character of the country, not necessarily the President, which is now different. Maybe that’s what we should really be concerned about.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]