Every time I see an article about how divided we are as a country and how uncivilized our campaigns have become, I think of a book one of my professors gave me when I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon. I’m not sure why he gave me the book, but I value it both as a resource and a reminder of the person who gave it to me. The title of the book is Presidential Campaigns, written by Paul F. Boller, Jr., copyrighted in 1984. It begins with the startling assertion that, “Presidential campaigns are a lot nicer today than they used to be.”
Cable “news” and the Internet were largely unknown to the public in 1984; but even considering these developments, Mr. Boller makes a strong case that we have yet to reach the levels of our ancestors’ partisanship. He points out that, “In 1800, Abigail Adams lamented that the contest between her husband John and Thomas Jefferson that year had exuded enough venom to ‘ruin and corrupt the minds and morals of the best people in the world.’” Boller contended that politics, although taken seriously, were also regarded as entertainment or a sport with no-holds-barred. I think we have inherited this legacy, and many of today’s practitioners are just indulging their own baser instincts in the same way they might yell obscenities at a baseball umpire. I hope I’m right because some of the things I see and hear today would be depressing if I thought the people who spoke or wrote them actually believed they were true.
At least politicians and pundits today generally refrain from physically attacking one another. Following the election of 1824, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Henry Clay challenged Senator John Randolph of Virginia to a duel. While bullets flew, none struck home and the combatants lived to resume “social relations.” The attack on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in 1856 by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the U.S. Senate nearly killed Sumner and left him with a permanent disability. A few years later, Harper’s Magazine published a list of the names Abraham Lincoln was called by critics in the election of 1864: “Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Fiend, Butcher.” Lincoln once remarked, “It is a little singular that I, who am not a vindictive man, should have always been before the people for election in canvasses marked for their bitterness.”
Lincoln’s death just over 150 years ago, on April 15, 1865, was caused by political zealots who convinced themselves that killing him was justified by the terrible things he had done. They were abetted by rhetoric dehumanizing the President to the point where he might no longer be considered human. I hope as we remember the man many consider our greatest president and as we begin another long presidential campaign, we temper our own partisan thoughts, words, and actions with his humility, patience, and tolerance.