Today’s politics civil by historical comparison

David MoonBlog

If your news diet looks anything like mine, every day you run across multiple articles proclaiming that the United States has never been more divided than it is now. That’s 20 or more times each week, or at least 500 times since the start of the year, that you (and I) have been told that the incivility of current political discourse is unprecedented. It would be natural to start believing this narrative.

And it would also be wrong.

Most people know that the murder of our country’s first Treasury Secretary by the sitting Vice-President is the most famous duel in American history, but it is less well-known that an Illinois State Auditor once challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel after the future president used a fake name to pen a newspaper article denigrating the auditor’s character. The president who saved the union was essentially the 19th century version of an anonymous, unhinged message board troll.

Politics has long been a brutally uncivil affair.

Like Trump v. Biden 2024, the 1828 presidential election was a rematch, pitting incumbent John Quincey Adams against the loser of the 1824 contest, Andrew Jackson. The campaign was notorious for its mudslinging. Jackson accused Adams of sex trafficking an underage girl to a Russian czar, while Adams labelled Jackson’s wife an adulterer and a bigamist. In stump speeches, Adams regularly described Jackson as a murderer – which wasn’t completely off-base, as Jackson had indeed killed a man in a duel 22 years earlier.

The accused murderer won the rematch.

In 1884, Republican presidential nominee James G. Blaine referred to Grover Cleveland as a “moral leper” for fathering a child out of wedlock. After his election, the 49-year-old Cleveland married the 21-year-old daughter of a friend, giving his critics more ammunition to attack his character, likely contributing to Cleveland’s defeat in 1888.

While most presidential candidates call their opponents liars, some describe their opponents as outright crazy. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign painted challenger Barry Goldwater as an unstable extremist who would start a nuclear war, using the slogan, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” Four years later, vice-presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton was removed from the Democratic ticket for the unpardonable sin of having been treated for depression.

The political divide in 2024 is nothing compared to the Civil War, in which almost 5% of the adult male population was killed.

Political division has always been part of the American experience. This week we are reminded that that the birth of our nation was perhaps the ultimate act of political division – 13 British colonies in North America seceding from their governing authority and fighting an eight-year war to establish what would become the greatest self-governing sovereignty in the history of mankind.

 

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.