Hilary, Bernie or Trump—no matter where you stand on the modern political spectrum, undoubtedly you've noticed the mudslinging hashtags, tweets, posts, and ads. While modern social media might make the smear campaign a bit more annoying, candidates have been using similar tactics for centuries, with surprisingly little reserve. 

The Election Of 1800: Where It All Begins

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A bitter feud began during the 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Sitting Vice President Thomas Jefferson would eventually defeat President John Adams once all the votes were cast, but both candidates left a trail of lies, innuendos, and just plain bizarre rhetoric in their wake.

Friends Turned Enemies

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Strangely, Adams and Jefferson had been good friends during the fight for America's independence just a few decades earlier, but with the esteemed position of President on the line, any love between the two was quickly lost. In an effort to keep his own hands clean, Jefferson enlisted the services of a professional mudslinger by the name of James Callender to do his dirty work. Callender, a known "scandal-monger" and controversial writer of rabble-rousing pamphlets, immediately set about spreading rumors about current President John Adams.

Adams Is Labeled A Fool, A Hypocrite And A Tyrant

The History Junkie

At first it seemed that the President was above responding to the vicious rhetoric that was being said about him, but soon the campaign taunts from Jefferson and his crew took a very...personal turn. Jefferson called Adams out as a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Unsurprisingly, Adams was unable to let those remarks go unanswered.

Jefferson Is Labeled A Coward, An Atheist And A Weakling


With no fancy hatchet man to manage his smear campaign, Adams had to sling his own mud upon the character of his opponent. He responded to Jefferson in turn by calling him "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Things were really heating up! Adams also capitalized on the rumors of Jefferson's past romantic relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, and worked to perpetuate Jefferson's reputation as a liar and a "man without Christian faith."

Whether it was as a result of his professional mudslinger or not, Thomas Jefferson beat incumbent President Adams in the election. And the nature of campaigning would never again be the same.

The Showdown Of 1828: Andrew Jackson Vs. John Quincy Adams


It had been four years since Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams had first forged a bitter contest for the highest office in the land and as the election of 1828 rolled around, neither party seemed to have forgotten their past animosity. While Adams had claimed the role as President then, the 1824 election was the very first time in America's young history that the candidate who received the most electoral votes (Jackson) was not elected. Jackson also had won the popular vote—Adams position as President had ultimately decided by the House of Representatives. As the 1828 election drew near, Jackson had spent four years believing his opponent had stolen the job of President right out from underneath him.

1828: The Spoiled Rich Kid And The Humble War Hero

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The differences between candidates John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson on the surface were readily apparent and hugely monumental. Adams was the well-educated son of a former president, who had spent much of his life learning, dining well, and traveling throughout Europe. Jackson was a gritty character, who could barely read and could hardly spell, a beloved—but humble—"war hero."

Jackson Goes After Adams, Adams Goes After Jackson's Wife

Boston Globe

Some historians claim the election of 1828 was one of the most aggressive in history—particularly because each of the candidates extended beyond attacking their opponent's character and were willing to attack each other's entire family. While Jackson rallied the people to help him take back the office that he felt should have been his in the first place, Adams openly accused Jackson's wife of being an adulteress and a bigamist. Adams cited the fact that Rachel Jackson had unwittingly married Andrew before the divorce to her first husband had been finalized.

A Victory And Then A Devastating Loss

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Andrew Jackson easily defeated Adams in 1828, but he barely had time to celebrate his victory. His wife Rachel died of a sudden heart attack just days after the election, before Jackson even made his way to the White House to assume his Presidency. Jackson bitterly maintained that it was the stress from Adam's accusations against her that killed his wife. Although Andrew Jackson had won the election, he took the oath of office in the darkened sadness of his mourning clothes.

The Election Of 1864: Honest Abe And The General


1864 was a tumultuous year in the United States, as an election for President was held against the backdrop of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, went head to head with Democratic candidate George B. McClellan, who he had removed from command of the Union army in 1862, after McClellan had failed to effectively pursue the Confederate troops.

The Original Gorilla

Harper's Weekly

The 1864 election was fueled by the constant presence of political caricatures in the press, with cartoons making fun of both candidates in nearly every newspaper. McClellan was particularly adept at capitalizing on the negative press. After a well-known scientist traveled to Africa and toured the United States with several gorilla skeletons, McClellan suggested that scientists "simply had to go to Springfield to find the first gorilla." Soon newspapers were publishing cartoons with a gorilla's head on Lincoln's tall frame.

Take Your Choice: Election 1884 Between Cleveland And Blaine


The election of 1884 brought a new element of defamation into the mudslinging mix: a paternity scandal. The hotly contested race came down to Republican nominee James G. Blaine of Maine and Democratic New York Governor Grover Cleveland. Almost immediately the attacks became personal. Republicans challenged Cleveland's lack of participation in the Civil War, citing how the Governor had managed to escape his obligation to service by hiring a substitute for $300. And Cleveland, for his part, directed the attention to Blaine's history of involvement in several financial scandals, most recently one involving railroad stocks.

A Scandal Erupts

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But Blaine's big break came on July 21, 1884, when the Buffalo Evening Telegraph reported a story that Governor Cleveland, a bachelor, had been involved in an affair and fathered a child 10 years earlier with a woman named Maria Halpin. The story alleged that after the child had been born, Halpin had been committed to a mental asylum and the child had been adopted by a different family. The Cleveland campaign refused to dispute the story.

'Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?'

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Blaine's campaign seized the opportunity and sent the salacious tale around the country, even making up a catchy slogan to further capitalize on Cleveland's "crime." "Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” was the catch phrase meant to taunt the Democratic candidate. But the Cleveland campaign only laughed it off, responding with their own hopeful verse: "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"

And of course, when Cleveland easily won the election later that year...they were right.