Who Played the First Dirty Tricks in American Presidential Politics?

History Q & A
tags: dirty tricks

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN. This essay is adapted from his book, Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power at any Cost.

Until the 1840s dirty tricks had been all but unknown in American politics. The first presidential election in which dirty tricks were played was in 1844. One involved a newspaper story put out by the boss of the Whigs, Thurlow Weed, about an alleged slaveholder named Roorback who supposedly came across some of Democrat James Polk's slaves cruelly branded with Polk's initials--proof allegdly that Polk had sold slaves to raise money for his campaign. It wasn't true. Another involved an attempt by the Whigs to demoralize leading Democrats; to persuade the Democrats that the campaign was going badly the Whigs sent out a letter to that effect supposedly written by some high party muckety-muck. Still another involved the printing up of phony ballots; the ballots mixed up the names of Democratic and Whig electors, which was intended to confuse voters.

After the Civil War dirty tricks became nastier and more insidious. In 1880 the editor of the Truth, a New York scandal sheet, published a letter James Garfield had supposedly written to H. L. Morey, the head of the Employers Union of Lynn, Massachusetts, endorsing the right of a corporation to hire the cheapest labor available, including Chinese labor. Garfield had not written the letter. It was a forgery. But it threatened to undermine his candidacy in the West by tapping the powerful and destructive force of immigration. Garfield, like most politicians at the time was still naive about immigration politics and at first ignored the controversy, hoping to be able to avoid breaking his self-imposed vow of silence during the campaign (a vow most presidential candidates still made). Then he began hearing that the controversy was undermining his campaign in the West, where he already was vulnerable. Fortunately for Garfield, there was a quick fix. All he had to do was prove he hadn't written the incriminating letter. And he was able to do this by releasing a sample of his own handwriting. Newspaper readers were then able to compare for themselves the handwriting in the Morey letter with Garfield's own. That settled the matter; upon close inspection the handwriting was obviously different. Garfield added that he couldn't possibly have written the Morey epistle. It contained a spelling mistake. Garfield, a former teacher, fluent in both Greek and Latin, convincingly was able to claim it would be unlikely he had made such an error. That November Garfield lost California, but he remained strong enough elsewhere to win the White House.

The first election in which a dirty trick apparently altered the outcome was in 1888. Grover Cleveland was running for re-election against Republican Benjamin Harrison, grandson of Tippecanoe. Cleveland already was having problems because he had taken a strong position against a high tariff, weakening his support in the business community. Then the Republican Senate, just two and half months before the election, robbed him of the one victory he'd had in foreign affairs, voting down a treaty he'd signed with Canada (the Bayard-Chamberlain Treaty) that settled a long simmering dispute over fishing rights, a dispute that had become so heated the Canadians had begun seizing American sailing ships.

By rejecting the treaty the Republicans put Cleveland in the position of defending it, which was politically untenable, as it put Cleveland on the side of the British Empire, damaging his appeal to the British-hating Irish. Withouit the Irish vote Cleveland could not take New York. Without New York, he could not win.

The treaty's defeat, of course, seemed on the surface to present Cleveland with anything but an opportunity. But Cleveland , maybe alone in the country, saw how it could be made into one. And he moved quickly to seize it. The treaty was rejected August 21st. On August 23rd Cleveland sent over his response.

It was unlike anything anybody expected and was utterly brilliant, politically brilliant. Instead of defending the treaty, as the Republicans had predicted he would, which would have cost him greatly in the Irish community, he attacked Canada for the depredations on American shipping that had given rise to the treaty in the first place, which put him in the enviable position of attacking a member of the British Empire. Then he went on to demand that the Republicans give him extraordinary emergency powers to deal with the issue, including the right to suspend all trade with Canada . Cleveland explained that if he was to have any hope of curbing Canadian perfidy he needed to be able to back up his tough talk with the threat of action.

Cleveland suspected the Senate wouldn't give him the authority he demanded. And he didn't really want it. What he wanted was to be turned down. By turning him down the Senate Republicans would make themselves look pro-British. And that would make Cleveland appear anti-British. And that would appeal to the Irish.

It was a simple political trap but the Senate Republicans fell into it. Just as Cleveland had hoped, the Republicans, unwilling to let him start a trade war with Canada —a trade war that would appeal to American patriotism and redound to his credit—turned down his request for emergency powers. And just as he had hoped, this put him in good stead with the Irish. In the days following his message to the Senate he received hundreds of letters from Irish families congratulating him on his “devotion to old Erin .”

But then, just two weeks before the election, the Republicans released a letter that Sir Lionel Sackville-West, the British ambassador to the United States, wrote to Charles F. Murchison in September. Murchison, who described himself as a naturalized Englishman now living in California , had asked which candidate for president would be good for Great Britain. The ambassador indiscreetly suggested that he favored Cleveland's election. When the word spread that the British ambassador prefererred Cleveland, the Irish abandoned his campaign. In November Cleveland lost New York and the election (though he won more popular votes than Harrison).

The dirty trick? The Englishman who wrote Sir Lionel Sackville-West was not really an Englishman at all. His real name was George Osgoodby. And he was a California Republican. Cleveland had been undone by a Republican hoax.


Related Links

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    Jason Allen Odom - 10/25/2010

    i'm sorry to inform you of this, but you are incorrect as to when the first dirty tricks were used in United States politics. The Presidential election of 1828 used dirty tricks 16 years earlier than the article stated. Serious mud-slinging between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams flooded the media. Adams administration claimed that Jackson's mother was a prostitute and serviced British officers and that it was also rumored that Jackson was a mulotto. Jackson's administration tried to make it seem that Adams conducted back door dealings in order to procur his status in politics, such as: a "corrupt bargain" and also he was a "Pimp" to the Czar of Russia.