Mudslinging, 19th-Century Style

By Erin Carlson Mast

Every election season the partisan and personal attacks heat up, and this year is no exception. But what are jabs about old age, inexperience, or even the recent exchange of attacks for smearing and lying compared to the attacks of the 1860s? A quick glance at newspapers from the 1860 election reveals the exchanges between Democrats and Republicans could cross the line in dramatic fashion.

In a June 1860 New York Tribune editorial, the Republicans claimed the Democrats formed, “the rendezvous of thieves, the home of parasites and bloodsuckers, the enemy of God and man, the stereotyped fraud, the sham, the hypocrite, the merciless marauder, and the outlaw renegade and malefactor.”

That’s a bit more colorful than what we’re used to hearing from mainstream media today. President Lincoln’s Cottage staff member Jeffrey Larry read that gem in Richard Carwardine’s Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power.

Surely the Democrats were capable of equally imaginative retorts, and they delivered a personal one in the Valley Spirit, a Democratic newspaper in Pennsylvania, which in September 1860, explained to its readers the truth of why Lincoln emigrated to Illinois. “Old Abe’s extreme ugliness has been remarked by all who have seen him or his picture….At length the slaveholders resolved that they would no longer submit to the scaring away of their servants…[Lincoln] was advised to go to Illinois, where his ugliness might be turned to good account in scaring away the wolves.”

Naturally one can find even more severe and offensive rhetoric, then and now. And then, as now, many of these rants do not provide or promote any substantive debate on pressing issues of national importance.

For more in depth reading on the 1860s election, take a look at the “Valley of the Shadow” project presented by the Virginia Center for Digital History: where you can search Democrat and Republican papers from the North and the South.

Ms. Mast is the Curator for President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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