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You're An Atheist, Madam! 9 Unforgettable Moments in Political Mudslinging

A look at memorable political attacks through America's history.

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Smear campaigns. Muckraking. Last-minutes lies and dirty dealings. As the GOP primary battle turns nasty, we turn to the venerable tradition of American political mudslinging. A recent Pew Center survey says that half of Americans already think the presidential campaign has been too negative. But it’s nothing new.

Back in the 19th century, anonymous pamphlets wreaked havoc on politicians, much like comments left on today’s blogs. Then, as now, slurs centered on sexuality, origins and religion. And woe to the candidate with a funny-sounding name. Sometimes accusations were true, sometimes half-true, and often times as fanciful as unicorns. And they worked. One day a candidate was up, the next day, sayonora.

This list brings you a few of the nastiest moments of American political mudslinging. The following is by no means exhaustive -- there have been scores of down-and-dirty elections we didn’t have space to cover. Tell us your favs in the comments section.

1. Andrew Jackson v. John Q. Adams

The 1828 presidential campaign sent a tsunami of mud through the land. The Democratic-Republican party had split. Jacksonians called themselves Democrats and Adams supporters called themselves National Republicans. And they called each other anything they could think of, so long as it was nasty.

The Democrats painted JQA as a secret monarchist and a fancy pants who lived in “kingly pomp and splendor.” They claimed he was irreligious -- he was a Unitarian, after all! Even worse, they spread the rumor that Adams, as Minister to Russia, had procured a young American girl to service the czar. Yikes.

Not to be outdone, an Adams supporter produced a pamphlet describing Jackson’s alleged youthful indescretions, from brawling to gun-fights. The editor of the Philadelphia Democratic Press upped the ante by printing a handbill suggesting that Jackson had murdered six militiamen accused of deserting in the War of 1812 (these and subsequent posters are known as the “ Coffin Handbills” for their depiction of the dead men’s caskets). The National Republicans also didn't hesitate to brand Jackson’s wife an adulteress due to a delayed divorce filing on the part of her first husband. Jackson won, but his wife died soon after and Jackson blamed it on her vicious attackers. (See: Rosmarie Oslter's Slinging Mud for more on this and many other mudfests.)

2. Martin Van Buren v. William Henry Harrison

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz shared with AlterNet his opinion on the wildest political attack of the Republic’s early days -- the one leveled at President Martin Van Buren by his Whig opponents. Van Buren was a widower, and his antagonists accused him of being a voluptuary. A famous speech called the “ Gold Spoon Oration” given by Congressman Charles Ogle, a Harrison supporter, denounced him for the “regal splendor of the President’s Palace.” Quite memorably, Ogle charged Van Buren with having the White House landscaper build rounded mounds on the grounds with little gazebos on top, which at a distance supposedly resembled a woman's erect nipple. Ogle had tens of thousands of copies of the speech printed up and distributed. Harrison clobbered Van Buren in the election. But his victory dance didn’t last long. He died of pneumonia a month after taking office.

3. Al Smith v. Herbert Hoover

In 1928, Al Smith found that his Irish ancestry, working-class roots and thick New York accent were prime fodder for his political foes. His support for ending prohibition led to accusations that he was an alcoholic. But it was his Catholicism that really stirred the creativity of his rivals, who distributed literature claiming that the Holland Tunnel, built while Smith was governor of New York, ran 3,500 miles under the Atlantic Ocean straight to the Vatican, where Smith could hold secret meetings with the Pope. In Daytona Beach, Florida, the school board sent a note home with every student containing the following message: “We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the Presidency. If he is elected President, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.” And so on. Smith lost to Hoover in a landslide.

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