Tuesday 23 May 2017

Grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre? Yes. Unprecedented? Not at all

From accusations the first female presidential candidate was the 'Queen of Prostitutes' to the first Catholic runner being an alcoholic, Patrick Geoghegan charts some of the vitriolic abuse served up in elections through the ages

Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for the US presidency, but was in jail on polling day
Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for the US presidency, but was in jail on polling day
The first Catholic to run for president, Al Smith, whose grandparents were from Westmeath, was accused of building a secret tunnel linking the Vatican with the US
Thomas Jefferson
John Adams
Patrick Geoghegan

Perhaps the best way to describe the recent American presidential election is to borrow three of the four words Charles J Haughey used about an Irish crisis: grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre. However, a review of American presidential campaigns throughout history shows that the level of vitriol and abuse is not unprecedented.

In 1800, when the outgoing president, John Adams, ran against another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, there was so much slander and name-calling that the first lady said enough "abuse and scandal" had been unleashed "to ruin and corrupt the minds and morals of the best people in the world".

"Murder, robbery, rape and incest" would become the law of the land if Jefferson won, according to one report, and "the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crime". It was claimed that Jefferson was an infidel, a coward who had run away during the War of Independence, and a conman who had cheated a widow out of her inheritance.

In response, it was alleged that Adams secretly planned to marry off one of his sons to a daughter of King George III, create a dynasty, and reunite Britain and America. The story went that he was only prevented in this by George Washington, who threatened to run him through with his sword.

One rumour did not get any traction. It was claimed that Jefferson was in a long-term sexual relationship with one of his slaves, and had fathered a number of children with her. Few wanted to believe this about the writer of the Declaration of Independence (and the inventor of the swivel chair) and Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States. [It would take 200 years before DNA evidence would establish the truth of that particular story].

The first woman to run for the presidency of the United States was Victoria Woodhull, all the way back in 1872. There were a number of problems with her candidacy. She was a divorced woman, in a country where women wouldn't get the vote for almost 50 years. She was only 34, and didn't meet the constitutional age requirement. And she was in jail for the day of the election.

Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, was named as her running mate, but he refused to accept the nomination and spent the election campaigning for the eventual winner, Ulysses S Grant.

Woodhull was a remarkable woman. With her sister she set-up the first all-female-owned stockbroking firm on Wall Street, and used the profits to establish her own newspaper. The level of abuse she sustained during the campaign was appalling. She was called 'Saint Vickie', the 'Queen of Prostitutes' and, worst of all, 'Mrs Satan'.

Arrested for publishing details of a hypocritical reverend's affair, she was in jail on the day of the election. However, a number of people across the country wrote in her name on the ballot paper, and although the votes were not counted, she made a number of cracks in the glass ceiling, long before it became a cliché.

In 1928, the first Catholic to run for the presidency, Al Smith, whose maternal grandparents hailed from my own homestead of Parkwood, outside Moate in Co Westmeath, suffered extraordinary levels of abuse after he won the Democratic nomination.

He was called 'Alcoholic Smith', in the era of Prohibition when there was a clear divide between those on the 'wet' and 'dry' side of the debate. A photograph was found of him celebrating the completion of the Holland Tunnel in New York, and it was claimed that this was a secret tunnel linking the Vatican with America which would be used by the Pope to travel back and forth.

One concerned voter even wrote to Smith's protégé, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, asking him whether it was true that the Pope intended to marry one of his sons to a daughter of Al Smith and create an American dynasty. A bewildered FDR wrote back asking the man how many sons he thought the Pope had. Smith suffered an incredible wipe-out in the election, losing to the disastrous Herbert Hoover, and even losing in his own home state of New York, where he had served as governor with distinction for many years.

The 1972 election campaign was one of the dirtiest, in part thanks to Richard Nixon's covert committee to re-elect the president which had the unfortunate acronym CREEP. Some of this dirty-tricks campaign came out during the Watergate investigations, but some were only revealed much later. A smear campaign prevented Edmund Muskie from winning the Democratic nomination, and, when George McGovern was eventually chosen, he lost his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, after it was revealed that he had been treated for mental health issues.

In 1944, when FDR was running for an unprecedented fourth term as president, he delivered a speech at a venue that has recently become iconic in modern Irish history. At Soldier Field in Chicago, in a passionate, inspiring piece of oratory, Roosevelt took the opportunity to speak "about the future of America". Inviting the crowd to imagine "the America of tomorrow", he spoke "in a spirit of faith - a spirit of hope - a spirit of confidence", and warned that no matter what happened "We are not going to turn the clock back!"

His words may provide some comfort for people still trying to come to terms with the results of the election on Tuesday. In the history of the US there have been other campaigns full of rancour and bitterness, where division rather than unity has prevailed, and the promise of America has not died. The clock may have stopped, but it will not go back. Incidentally, in that speech FDR described the 1944 campaign as "the strangest" one he had ever seen in his life. We can only imagine what he would have made of this year's run for the White House.

Patrick Geoghegan is professor and head of history at Trinity College Dublin and the presenter of the award-winning Talking History on Newstalk. This is an edited version of two talks he delivered on election night, at the Kildare Street and University Club, and at an American Embassy event

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