We in the 21st century are no strangers to attack ads during election season. In fact, it's almost impossible not to see one on every channel come September of an election year. In these attack ads and at debates, one candidate does their best to make the other candidate look like they aren't cut out for the job. Most of the time it's about the issues, but sometimes it gets personal. Many in the public feel that the personal attacks are a little bit below the belt, but what we witness today is nothing compared to what went on in the early years of the republic. Instead of the prim and proper politics we all think about when we picture early America, it was more like an all out brawl.
Take for instance the elections between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two sides had handed out handbills and articles accusing each other of misdeeds during the 1796 election. This was but a prelude. Jefferson was just a little bitter that he lost to Adams and when the 1800 election rolled around, Jefferson decided to get personal. Jefferson and his followers called Adams a hypocritical, bald, blind, crippled, and toothless old fool. In his bid to become "King of America" he would marry his children to those of King George III and would rule over the country like a tyrant. Not only was he a monarchist, but a whoremaster, too, and had sent his running mate to Europe to procure prostitutes. Adams' side was not any kinder to Jefferson. They accused Jefferson of bilking creditors and business partners; giving in like a coward as governor of Virginia when the British invaded his state during the Revolutionary War; and cheating an old widow out of her husband's pension. They claimed Jefferson was a "howling atheist," and if he were elected he would confiscate and burn all the Bibles in America; tear down all the churches; put an end to the institution of marriage; and clap the country's women into bordellos. The Hartford Connecticut Courant warned that if Jefferson was elected "murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest would be openly taught and practiced. The air will be filled with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." Dang! Can you imagine any of our presidential candidates saying those things about another candidate? Sure some things are insinuated, but nobody thinks that if Gingrich is nominated that the soil will be soaked with blood and the air will be filled with the cries of the distressed.
The elections between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were no less severe and personal. Adams' side claimed that Jackson was an adulterer, a liar, a bigamist, and a murderous drunk who gambled on cockfights. They went as far as to point out all the American citizens that Jackson had "killed, slashed and clawed" to death in various brawls and duels. Jackson wasn't the only target; they also went after his family. They called Jackson's mother a prostitute who'd been imported by the British as comfort for the English Revolutionary War troops. Worst of all for Jackson, they picked on his dear wife Rachel, who was vulnerable due to a problem with her divorce from her former husband, which wasn't granted until after she'd married Jackson. They called Rachel an adulteress and a paramour, causing the Jacksons great personal pain. Jackson's side shot back by calling President Adams an elitist tyrant who lived in a "presidential palace" in "kingly pomp and splendor." He traveled on Sunday instead of going to Church; installed "gambling tables and furniture" in the White House on the public's bill; and had premarital sex with his wife Louisa. Jackson ended up winning the 1828 election, but it came at a cost. His wife died soon after from a heart attack. Jackson lived the rest of his life believing that it was because of the slings and arrows she weathered during the campaign.
Now these are two extreme examples, as these candidates really hated each other. Candidates these days may not like who they run against, but its nothing personal in most cases. Not so in the old days. Some of the old school presidents were extremely bitter people who had nothing better to do then make the other candidate look like the anti-christ. Sure, some candidates today may bring up embarrassing family members or a string of divorces, but it's hard to compare attacks today to those of the past. Enjoy the election this year!
Information from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into the Presidency, "Getting Dirty" pgs. 116-117. Sorry, I don't have more precise sources.