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An imprint of St. Martins Press.

AND WHO IS BEHIND THEM . Copyright 2012 by Bill Press. All rights reserved. Printed in
the United States of America. For information, address St. Martins Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
ISBN 978- 0-312- 64164-1 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4299-4125-9 (e-book)
First Edition: February 2012


Barack Obama, of course, is not the first president to have experienced withering personal attacks. They are as old as the presidency itself. In some ways, they are a tribute to our American
experiment. Unlike forced allegiance to a monarch or tyrant,
criticism of elected leaders is not only tolerated here; it is considered a necessary function of our democracy. And from the moment the first president took office, U.S. presidents have had to
deal with sometimes-nasty attacks. In this day and age, all of us,
Democrats, Republicans, and Tea Partiers alike, revere our Founding Fathers. We even put them on a pedestal. But thats not how
they were treated in their own day. Not even Saint George Washington.
It was an open secret that Thomas Jefferson, as our first secretary of state, tried to undermine President Washingtons declared
policy of neutrality in the matter of war between France and
Great Britain. From his position in the cabinet, Jefferson worked
behind the scenes, helping orchestrate Republican opposition to
Washington and trying to turn public opinion toward the position of siding with France.
Once Washington left the White House, our first president
became an open target of abuse. He was publicly mocked and



criticized as being weak and ineffective. Rumors resurfaced that

he had enjoyed an affair with a young cleaning woman, whom
he called pretty little Kate, the Washer-womans daughter. The
Philadelphia Aurora, the chief Republican newspaper, heavily
influenced by Jefferson, described Washingtons farewell address
as the loathings of a sick mind. Its publisher, Benjamin Franklin Bache, revived charges that Washington had assassinated an
unarmed officer during the French and Indian War and accused
Washington of offering America nothing better than a despotic
counterfeit of the English Georges.
Writing in the Aurora, the one and only Thomas Paine even
questioned Washingtons leadership of the Revolutionary army,
deeming him worse than a sunshine patriot. You slept away
your time in the field till the finances of the country were completely exhausted, he charged, and you have but little share in
the glory of the event. Paine demanded that Washington ask
himself whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether
you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had
Ouch! Watching from a distance, Abigail Adams was appalled by the attacks on our first president. It just proved, she
wrote her husband, Vice President John Adams, that the most
virtuous and unblemished Characters are liable to the Malice and
venom of unprincipald [sic] Wretches. And, of course, she was
afraid of what level of attacks might fall on her husband, who
enjoyed nowhere near the popularity of the haloed Washington.
She later warned Adams that, as president, he might well find
himself being fastned [sic] up Hand and foot and Tongue to be
shot at as our Quincy Lads do at the poor Geese and Turkies.
And, indeed, he was.
Adams was no fool. He knew he would be in for a rough time.
As he wrote Abigail of the departing George Washington after his
inauguration, He seemed to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought



I heard him think, Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See
which of us will be the happiest!
As vice president, Adams had already endured his share of
ridicule, some of which he brought on himself. After suggesting
to Congress that Washington be called Your Highness, rather
than the populist Mr. President, Adams was henceforth called
The Duke of Braintree, or simply His Rotundity. Privately,
Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania dismissed Adams as
a monkey just put into breeches.
After eight years of running interference for President Washington against Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the last thing
John Adams needed when he himself assumed the presidency
was having to put up with Jefferson as vice president. But thats
what the electoral vote delivered, after a noncontested and practically nonexistent presidential campaign. Still trying to figure
out the proper way to choose leaders in the new republic, neither
Adams nor Jefferson declared their candidacy or campaigned for
the office. Once their new roles were decided, however, the two
leaders, from different political parties and with separate agendas,
were bound to clashand did.
At first, heeding his wife Abigails advice, Adams held forth
an olive branch to Jefferson, offering him cabinet status, a major
voice in foreign policy, and designation of him or his ally James
Madison as the new American envoy to France. But Jefferson rejected all three, choosing to pursue his Republican party agenda
As Joseph Ellis reports in First Family, Jefferson was, in fact,
already in clandestine conversations with the French consul in
Philadelphia, urging him to ignore any peace initiatives from the
new presidentsince, according to Jefferson, Adams did not speak
for the true interests of the American people. Just imagine! Today,
this act would be considered treason.
There followed a rocky four years, during which Adams was



constantly fighting rear-guard actions by his disloyal vice president, who was busy plotting with the French, and by his own
cabinet (he had mistakenly retained all appointees of Washington, believing the cabinet should be a permanent body). It was
all too much for First Lady Abigail Adams, who lamented the
steady stream of Lies, falsehoods, calamities and bitterness
and denounced Philadelphia as a city that seems devoted to
And it led, inevitably, to the first contested election for president, in 1800, and one of the ugliest presidential campaigns ever.
For the incumbent vice president to challenge the incumbent
president for reelection was, in itself, a direct personal attack.
Itd be as if Dick Cheney had dared to run against George W.
Bush in 2004. Today, that would never happen. It would be considered inappropriate, in bad taste, even treacherous. But back
then, the country was new, and people were still feeling their way
around the political process.
Even before the campaign, intrigue began. Adams first had to
defend himself from a scurrilous attack by fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton that he had, in effect, begun to lose his mind.
Adamss ungovernable temper, matched by his disgusting egotism and distempered jealousy, Hamilton charged in his Letter
from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States, were characteristics that unfit him for the office of chief magistrate.
But his strongest challenge came from Vice President Thomas
Jefferson and Republicans. Determined to weaken, if not destroy,
Adamss reputation ahead of any actual campaigning, Jefferson
commissioned fiery pamphleteer James Callender to wield the
political ax.
As I noted in my first book, Spin This!, Callenderwho would
later turn on Jefferson and charge him with sexual abuse of
slave Sally Hemingspublished The Prospect Before Us, in which
he accused Adams of corruption and secretly attempting to lead



the United States into war, which was the exact opposite of what
Adams was fighting for. In his private life, charged Callender,
Adams was one of the most egregious fools upon the continent.
Then, in typical Callender style, he vilified the president as a
repulsive pedant, . . . a gross hypocrite, . . . a wretch that has neither the science of a magistrate, the politeness of a courtier, nor
the courage of a man.
With that, the stage was set. And once the Adams-Jefferson
campaign got under way, neither side held back. Because of his
known aversion to any established religionhe was a Deist
Jefferson was accused of being an atheist. Not to mention a Francophile (guilty), a revolutionist, and a man devoid of morals,
whose election would deliver the country to licentiousness and
debauchery and who, if elected, would immediately order the
confiscation of Bibles and the burning of churches. Almost in
anticipation of the questions raised about Barack Obamas birth
certificate, Adams supporters called Jefferson a mean-spirited,
low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a
Virginia mulatto father. George Washington stayed above the
fray, but not Martha. She couldnt resist jumping on the bandwagon, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was one of the most
detestable of mankind.
The Jefferson camp, meanwhile, responded in kind, accusing President Adams of being unpatriotic because he opposed
joining France in another war with Great Britain and, here at
home, wanted to maintain a standing army. He was also charged
with wanting to turn the presidency into a monarchy and with
planning to marry one of his sons to a daughter of George III,
thus starting an American dynasty that would reunite the country
with Great Britain.
As the great historian Page Smith relates in his magnificent
two-volume life of Adams, another rumor more amused than annoyed him. Republicans accused Adams of sending Gen. Charles
Pinckney to England in a United States frigate to procure four



pretty girls as mistresses, two for the general and two for himself. I do declare upon my honor, Adams responded, if this be
true General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated
me out of two.
At the same time, Jeffersons backers also questioned Adamss
sexuality. Campaign brochures repeated James Callenders description of Adams as being of hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the
gentleness and sensibility of a woman.
Jefferson, of course, won that round and became our third
president. A bitter Adams didnt wait around for his archenemy
to take the oath of office. On Inauguration Day, 1801, he left early
in the morning to return to Massachusetts.
Once in the White House, Jefferson had his own political
enemies to deal with, and few more lethal than the beast he
created, notorious once and future mudslinger James Callender.
When refused a presidential appointment, Callender turned on
the man who had once paid him to smear John Adams, accusing
the refined gentleman of Monticello of having sexual relations
with his slave Sally Hemings and fathering her children. Which,
of course, was true. For Abigail Adams, this was the revenge
shed been looking for. The serpent you cherished and warmed,
she wrote much later to Jefferson, bit the hand that nourished


The point is, over-the-top political invective was here from the
beginning, directed against, and even exercised by, some of the
most revered figures in the American political pantheon. And it
wasnt always just verbal. Too often, it got physical. Not yet in
the White House, perhaps, but, from its earliest days, on the
floor of the United States Congress. Norm Ornstein, who follows
Congress from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute,



has documented many cases where debate over issues degenerated into acts of physical violence between members of Congress. Among the more colorful and memorable are:

Lyon v. Griswold. On January 30, 1798, debate over whether

the United States should enter the ongoing war between
France and England on the side of France escalated into a
shouting match between Matthew Lyon, Republican of Vermont, and Roger Griswold, Federalist from Connecticut. At
one point, Lyon, a tobacco chewer, like many other members
of Congress, spit tobacco in Griswolds face. Two weeks later,
on February 15, Griswold responded by attacking Lyon with
a hickory cane. At which point, Lyon picked up a pair of fireplace tongs and struck back. Neither one was expelled from

Black v. Giddings, 1845. We only know about this incident

thanks to John Quincy Adams, who recorded it in his diary.
As Representative Joshua R. Giddings, an Ohio Whig, was
speaking on the floor, Representative Edward J. Black, a Democrat from Georgia, crossed over from his seat . . . and, coming within the bar behind Giddings as he was speaking, made
a pass at the back of his head with a cane. Adams reported
that Representative William H. Hammett of Mississippi then
threw his arms round [Black] and bore him off as he would
a woman from a fire.

Brooks v. Sumner, 1856. This is the most notorious incident

of congressional violence in our history. Pro-slavery senator
Andrew Butler of South Carolina was the subject of strong
verbal attacks from abolitionist senator Charles Sumner of
Massachusetts. Over the course of a fiery three-hour speech,
Sumner argued that Butler had taken a mistress who, though
ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the
sight of the world, is chaste in his sightI mean, the harlot,



Butlers relative, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, rallied to his defense. Brooks walked from the House to
the Senate floor and beat Sumner senseless with his gutta-percha
walking cane. When other senators tried to come to Sumners
defense, they were stopped by Representative Laurence Keitt,
also of South Carolina, who pulled out his pistol and kept them
away. After an attempt to expel Brooks from the House failed,
he nevertheless resigned his seat, but he ran again and was reelected the following November. Indeed, Brooks subsequently
received dozens of canes in the mail from admiring southerners.
For his part, Sumner could not return to the Senate for three
years due to his injuries, but he was reelected in 1856 regardless
by an equally angry Massachusetts state legislature.

Tilman v. McLaurin, 1902. South Carolina strikes again. This

time, violence between two Democrats from South Carolina.
On the Senate floor, Senator John McLaurin accused a fellow
South Carolinian, Senator Benjamin Tillman, of telling a
willful, malicious and deliberate lie. Tillman, known as
Pitchfork Ben, hauled off and punched McLaurin in the

Thurmond v. Yarborough, 1964. One of the strangest of all

physical encounters between members of Congress was a
wrestling match between segregationist Strom Thurmond of
South Carolina (again!) and Ralph Yarborough of Texas. Thurmond was so determined to prevent the confi rmation of
LeRoy Collins as President Johnsons head of the Community
Relations Ser vice that he stood outside the door to the Commerce Committee hearing room, blocking other senators from
entering. When Yarborough tried to get around him, Thurmond threw Yarborough to the floor. At which point, Chairman Warren Magnuson came to the door and broke up the
scuffle. Thurmond won the wrestling match but lost the vote,
sixteen to one.



There were many other times, of course, when members of

Congress engaged in angry debate. But, perhaps mindful of losing their seats, they stopped just short of coming to blows. In
2003, all but one Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee walked out to protest Chairman Bill Thomass lack of
notice about markup of a pension bill. Pete Stark of California
was left behind to observe the proceedings and report back to his
fellow Democrats. When Stark attempted to speak, Congressman
Scott McInnis of Colorado told him to shut up. At which point,
Stark, known for his temper, shouted back, You think you are big
enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here
and make me, I dare you. You little fruitcake. In earlier days, that
could easily have led to blows with a hickory cane, or worse.
Senator Patrick Leahy showed similar restraint in his famous
contretemps with Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004. After a
heated exchange over Cheneys ties to his old firm, Halliburton,
and President Bushs judicial nominees, the veep ended the
debate by telling Leahy to go fuck yourself and walked away.
Cheney later said, Thats sort of the best thing I ever did.
Leahy did not return fire, which was probably for the best, given
that Cheney later shot hunting partner Harry Whittington in the


These are just the fisticuffs that happened in the halls of Congress.
Too often in our early history, political disagreements escalated
from the verbal to the physicalall the way to the fatal.
By the late 1700s, in fact, settling disputes with a duel had become an accepted part of the culture, especially in the South, as
a way of finally deciding an argument. Like many other features
of American politics, the practice was introduced from Europe,
where the codo duello contained twenty-six rules governing proper
etiquette between dueling partners.



Most duels were usually conducted in a remote location, with

just the principals and their seconds present. But duels among
politicians were often widely publicized in advance. For members
of Congress, the preferred location was Bladensburg, Maryland,
only eight miles from Washington, favored both for its isolation
and its proximity to the Capitol, where dueling was already banned.
As the century turned, public opinion began to turn against
dueling in state after state. But not before several members of
Congress had fallen victims to it. In The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals, & Dirty Politics, Kim Long documents some of
the more famous cases.

July 31, 1802. In the middle of a heated reelection campaign,

Senator DeWitt Clinton of New York challenged his political
opponent, John Swartwout, to a duel. Neither was apparently
a good marksman, because both men survived the exchange
of five rounds. But Swartwout was hit twice in the legand
went on to lose the election.

September 5, 1802. Nearing the end of a nasty reelection campaign, North Carolina congressman Richard Dobbs Spaight
complained about his opponent, John Stanly: I must now
gentlemen, declare to you, that in my opinion, Mr. Stanley [sic]
is both a lyar and a scoundrel. To which Stanly responded
with the classic challenge to a duel: To your disappointment,
this letter informs you, that humiliating as it is to my feelings, to fight a man who can descend to the filth contained in
your handbill, I shall expect that you will meet me as soon as
may be convenient. But fi rst came the vote. Spaight lost.
The next day came the duel. Spaight lost that one, too. He was
wounded, and died the following day.