A Letter from America XXXIII: Hardball Politics in the Federal Era (May)

From the Rare Book Review

There’s a Texas tale of hard-ball politics that dates to one of Lyndon Johnson’s first campaigns. Lyndon was the underdog against a well-liked and respectable incumbent who was the odds-on favorite to win (there were no polls in those days). At a strategy session Johnson instructed his staff to spread the rumor that the opponent had a proclivity for sex with animals, pigs in particular. “My God, we can’t say that,” protested a staffer, “it couldn’t possibly be true!” “I know,” said Lyndon, “but let’s make him deny it.

Six months after our most recent election, this country is still deeply divided, a fission made deeper by the rancor and bitter personal attacks of the campaign. Pundits wrung their hands and proclaimed it the nastiest campaign ever, especially the use of surrogate groups to do the dirty work of flinging the slime to see what would stick. This just goes to show how little sense of history most of these experts have. Anyone who has spent some time with the political literature of the Federalist era will realize how mild the present day is in comparison. Back then, politics was really ugly.

During the era of the Constitutional Convention and the formation and beginning of the Federal government, from 1787 to 1790, it was the oft-expressed wish of Washington and all of the leading figures who favored the Constitution that the United States be free from the invective of the party system, or “faction”. At the same time they did their best to suppress or ignore the significant minority who opposed the Constitution. The principal authors of The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (writing under the pseudonym Publius), suggested that parties would not be necessary or even possible in the new American system. But by 1790 these two former friends and allies were diametrically opposed and leading the warring factions. With the bruising fight over Hamilton’s proposed Bank of the United States in 1791 the party system came into being, and the insults, muck-raking, and invective began to fly.

In the late 18th century many argumentative tracts were written under assumed names, usually a classical allusion to some Greek or Roman citizen who was famous for fairness or speaking the truth (Aristides or Phocion for example). As the discourse of the Federalist era deteriorated, these became more colorful; Henry Hedgehog, Peter Pepperbox, and Dick Retort all let readers known by their names that strong opinions were to be found within. The collector and bibliographer Pierce Gaines (whose collections are now at the University of Connecticut) provides a handy chronicle of these works in his Political Works of Concealed Authorship, 1789-1809, an indispensable guide to sorting it all out.

Gaines is also the bibliographer of the English social reformer, journalist, and gadfly William Cobbett during his sojourn in the United States from 1792 to 1800. English readers who know Cobbett as the agrarian democrat of the famous Rural Rides and the Parliamentary reform movement will recognize the vigor of the prose but not the politics of Cobbett in his earlier incarnation as Peter Porcupine, the upholder of Federalist principles and scourge of the Republicans (equivalent of modern-day Democrats). Besides his magazine, The Political Censor, he wrote such slashing attacks as A Bone to Gnaw for the Democrats, an Antidote for Tom Paine’s Poison, and A Kick for a Bite. He finally went too far in The Rush-Light, his attack on Benjamin Rush, a leading Republican and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Cobbett suggested that Rush, a doctor who had courageously ministered to the sick throughout the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic at great personal risk, had actually used it as an opportunity to kill off his political opponents. This was too much even by the standards of the day, and Cobbett, found guilty of libel, fled back to England to escape the fine.

Perhaps the easiest way of get a sense of the vicious journalism of the early United States is in William Safire’s novel Scandalmonger. A long-time observer of and writer about modern hard-ball politics (and a collector of William Cobbett), Safire is one of the few present-day journalists deeply versed in how they did it in the old days. Although fiction, Scandalmonger closely follows the facts (such as we know them, because there are still plenty of unresolved points, most famously Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings or the mysterious death of journalist James Callender). Read Safire; modern American politics may be nasty, brutish, and seemingly endless, but it ain’t got nothing on our forefathers.

                                                                 – William S. Reese