4 Historical Elections That Prove We're All Petty Morons
Let's say that one day you find yourself face-down on the floor of the outhouse beside a Thai ladyboy emporium next to two unknown corpses. You can't feel all the cocaine you just took because the meth has pretty much dulled out your senses, there's a broken condom on the floor -- and another you're still wearing -- and you can't tell what the police are screaming from the helicopter outside because it isn't in a language you speak, but the helicopter definitely belongs to Interpol, so you must have done something pretty bad.
You would, at this point, probably retrace your steps and figure out how, exactly, you got here. Maybe think about some of the choices you made.
Currently, the American presidency is having its "find yourself high on meth next to dead hookers" moment. The two probable candidates have a combined disapproval rating in excess of 100 percent. As an average American, you disapprove of the next aggregate president 110 percent. There is 10 percent of you that does not exist and still disapproves of the next president. If this election were Sophie's Choice, Sophie's choice would be to murder both her children and then console herself that she isn't voting in 2016.
So now that we have turned Washington's dream into a Kafkaesque clown show, maybe we ought to look back at some of the highlights of how we arrived here.
1852: Mr. Faints-A-Lot Versus Mr. Unwilling-To-Murder-A-Former-President
Remember earlier this year, when Ben Carson -- the sleepy teddy bear who was iffy on whether or not his campaign was a pyramid scheme -- was running for the Republican nomination? Remember when he insisted he had tried to stab someone to death and -- for some unfathomable reason -- his opponents accused him of lying? It's not the first time that's happened.
The election of 1852 was essentially a stopgap measure. The Civil War was on the horizon and the nation -- like many couples just before a divorce -- was trying to find something irrelevant to fight about. Enter Generals Franklin Pierce and Winfield Scott. During the Mexican-American War, the Democratic candidate, Pierce, fainted twice. This would come back to haunt him. It also ought to haunt every man who has ever lived, since the reason he first fainted was because his horse reared and jammed the pommel of Pierce's saddle so far into his groin that he fell unconscious from the pain. Yes: Franklin Pierce's testicles were crushed until he passed out.
Just one of the many, many, many reasons nobody's ever filmed
a Franklin Pierce biopic.
This would be -- I think most people would agree -- ample punishment for a lifetime. But Pierce clearly had some really rough karma to pay off.
It's one thing to have your gonads shoved so far into your pelvic cavity that your brain shuts down all consciousness. It's another to have that be the central issue upon which a nation of your peers will decide whether you are fit to govern. But that is very much what happened. No less than the New York Times asked whether it was physical weakness or cowardice that was "the cause of his being unhorsed." The Whigs made it their central campaign issue.
That's Winfield Scott taunting Pierce with, "Don't you wish you had my cock."
Not even Trump was that blatant.
And the Democrats fought back. Their strategy: Accuse Winfield Scott of not being a murderer. Back in his early years, Winfield Scott -- whose military nickname, "Old Fuss And Feathers," came from his obsessive attention to protocol -- served with General Andrew Jackson -- whose military nickname, "Old Hickory," came from the renowned texture and toughness of his genitals in an age before sandpaper. In 1817, Jackson challenged Scott to a duel and Scott refused for a number of reasons including, no doubt, the fact that guns refuse to fire at Andrew Jackson.
The duel was essentially forgotten until 1852, when the Democrats accused Scott of cowardice. (Cowardice was a big issue in 1852. If you didn't punch any man that gave you a sideways glance, you had your job and family revoked.) In case the relevance of this has worn off with the dates and names in the previous paragraph, let me restate what happened: The Democratic party thought someone was unfit for the presidency because he had refused to murder their own presidential candidate 35 years earlier.
"He fought in a war and now doesn't feel like killing? How can
the American people trust such a flip-flopper?"
Pierce ended up winning the presidency, proving the old adage "You can't not assassinate the president and still expect to be elected, especially if a horse has humiliated your opponent." And speaking of 19th-century Democrats and their foibles ...
1830-31: Society Ladies Versus Executive Power
Andrew Jackson, our nation's seventh president and the current stand-in for Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, was not an easy man to anger.
No, wait, I have that backwards. Andrew Jackson was the easiest man to anger who has ever lived. He was anger incarnate. He was to anger what James Bond is to venereal disease: its emblem and proudest avatar. Andrew Jackson without anger would just be a deflated hickory-bark penis. When a would-be assassin shot at him, Jackson chased the man down the street and beat him with a wooden cane. Jackson fought a duel in the midst of holding his chest wound closed. Then he fought in somewhere between 10 and 100 other duels. Jackson was angry before he got out of bed most mornings.
"He tried to kill me" was simply a convenient excuse for something he was planning to do anyway.
But Jackson was at his best when he could just go ahead and needlessly slaughter his political enemies or send countless thousands of Native Americans to their deaths. He didn't care much for social gatherings where he couldn't be rendered furious and willing to murder. A critical weakness, it turned out.
In 1830, John Eaton -- an old friend of Jackson's as well as his newly appointed secretary of war -- stopped getting invited to dinner parties. The problem was that Eaton had married a widow and former tavern maid by the name of Margaret Peggy O'Neal. Marrying a widowed tavern maid was, to 19th-century women, the moral equivalent of a necrophiliac rampage through a family graveyard. Washington society ladies, led by Floride Calhoun and Emily Donelson, Jackson's niece, led a social embargo against the Eatons. They wouldn't speak to them, call on them, or have them over for dysentery and yellow fever (the primary social activity in the fetid swamp of 1830s Washington, D.C.).
"You can't shit with us!"
Jackson sided with the Eatons, but he and Martin Van Buren were the only members of his cabinet who did. The very real result of this very stupid fight was that Jackson A) asked for the resignations of his entire cabinet, B) accepted all of those resignations, and C) essentially promised Martin Van Buren the presidency once Jackson was finished with it.
What he lacked in wanton bloodlust, he more than made up for in mutton-chopped glory.
Now, of course, we can look back at this whole silly fight as the exercise in sexism and classism that it was. In the many years since, our collective cultural imagination has softened toward poor Peggy Eaton -- a woman socially ostracized merely for marrying too soon after her first husband's death. Early Hollywood demonstrated what a difference a century of hindsight and reflection can make when they tastefully titled a 1936 film about the whole affair The Gorgeous Hussy.
Whose best scene is, naturally, Jackson beating the dog shit
out of someone who annoys him for 10 seconds.
1912: Teddy Roosevelt Versus All Things Living (And Wilson And Taft)
There have been times in our nation's history when a reformer is needed. The weight of social injustice becomes too much and someone must rise up to unfetter the toiling masses. In such times, you need a man like Teddy Roosevelt, who spent seven long years reforming everything about the modern executive branch and then, his mission accomplished, left office for a one-year celebratory death rampage.
When TR left office in 1909, he went to Mombasa, Kenya, for a safari with his son Kermit. Accounts differ as to how many animals they killed in the course of the year that safari lasted, but Teddy's own tally was 512, including nine lions, eight elephants, and 15 rhinos. Other accounts have put their expedition total in excess of 3,000. The point here is that Roosevelt, based on the low-end tally, killed an animal-and-a-half a day for a year. He slaughtered an entire BBC documentary. And, based on the high-end tally, Roosevelt was to African animals what Perdue is to chicken animals.
Then: Slaughter an entire jungle, get your face on a mountain.
Now: kill one lion, social exile forever.
Having exacted a blood sacrifice from the African Savannah, Roosevelt returned home. Of course, none of this is relevant to the 1912 election, unless you are an animal on the African Savannah. The real significance of the 1912 election was Roosevelt's third-party candidacy. Anyone complaining about modern superdelegates take note: It could be worse. Roosevelt actually garnered more delegates in the primary elections than Taft did. When the 1912 Republican convention in Chicago rolled around, though, Taft's men simply refused to let Roosevelt's delegates onto the convention floor. Infuriated, Roosevelt withdrew his name from consideration. Two weeks later, also in Chicago, he announced his candidacy as part of the newly formed Bull Moose Party, named after two of the many animals that were terrified of Teddy Roosevelt.
Taft, meanwhile, was a moose who just didn't give a fuck.
The campaign of 1912 was the first time that a candidate actively campaigned on his own behalf. It was also the first and only time that a candidate -- clearly Roosevelt -- was shot and delivered a 90-minute speech with a bullet still lodged in his chest. The results of the election, to the relief of animals everywhere, were that Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote and Woodrow Wilson -- a moderate, if incredibly racist, Democrat -- won the presidency.
Calvin Coolidge Interlude
While this in no way affected his retention or loss of the presidency, it's important for everyone to know that Calvin Coolidge once wore spangly, embroidered "Cal" chaps. This was a man who once said, "As long ago as I can remember, I would go into a panic if I heard strange voices in the kitchen. I felt I just couldn't meet the people and shake hands with them." Yet, painful shyness be damned, Cal was forced by the demands of presidential pandering and by the people of South Dakota to wear these. Look at his face. Really look at it.
Silently Seething Cal.
1840: Just All Of William Henry Harrison. All Of Him
Remember that stage of adolescence that terrifies parents? The part where your brain is just between the developmental stages where it understands that it is humanly possible to jump off a set of stairs with a bicycle but doesn't necessarily get that it's a bad idea to do so? Just imagine that state of mind, and you have discovered the psychology of William Henry Harrison, a man who essentially lived his life on a dare.
Harrison, America's shortest-serving president, is perhaps best known as the man who delivered a two-hour inauguration address wearing shirtsleeves in the middle of winter, only to die of pneumonia a month later. He was the presidential equivalent of those X-Files episodes where Mulder and Scully fight large alligators or bug swarms in between those important alien episodes.
Commander-in-chief of the Week.
But how did Harrison manage to rise to his position as a historical punchline? What events conspired to bring to power this object lesson in the consequences of ignoring common sense? What feats of silliness elevated Harrison into the position of America's most irrelevant president?
One answer is booze. Or, more precisely, Booz. Harrison's 1840 campaign was the first since 1828 where a candidate opposing Jackson's Democratic party stood a real chance of winning. Andrew Jackson's big innovation -- the discovery that led to his two-term presidency and the election of Martin Van Buren -- was populism. Populism, for anyone who hasn't been following Donald Trump's potentially apocalyptic rise to power, involves an appeal to the base instincts of the masses. It involves a narrative of elites versus the common people and the myth of a self-made man pulling himself up by his bootstraps. It's a presidential campaign by way of a Garth Brooks chorus.
Pictured: The old-timey equivalent of a guy who calls a million-dollar loan "small"
and actually gets people to agree with him.
Harrison's populism, like Trump's, was complete balderdash. Harrison ran as a man of the people -- a rough-and-tumble emblem of the newly expanding West. In point of fact, he was raised in a wealthy Virginia family. His major claim to fame was the battle of Tippecanoe, a battle where Harrison's primary military achievement was to defame a whole host of Native-American graves, initiating a violent backlash against Western settlers and an entire franchise of Poltergeist movies.
Still, rather than painting him as an out-of-touch aristocrat with a middling military record, Harrison's opponents played right into his hands. A Democratic paper accused him of being a backwoods yokel: "Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of 2,000 a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin." This was a real zinger for a 19th-century editorial.
"He would live within his means and not bother anybody, and the American people deserve better than that!"
Rather than deny the charge, Harrison's Whigs positioned him as the "log cabin and hard cider" candidate. Some Whigs actually started handing out miniature log cabins filled with whiskey -- cabins made by none other than the E.C. Booz Distillery, which, with the addition of an E, is where the word "booze" comes from.
(Another American phrase, "keep the ball rolling," also emerged from this election. Some Harrison supporters created a 10-foot ball covered with Harrison campaign slogans out of newspaper and tin. Then they rolled it for hundreds of miles across the country, presumably demonstrating something that was clear at the time.)
More clear is that, even back then, people loved voting for presidents they'd like to get shitfaced with.
So what can we learn from all of this? What do we make of the fact that a man who didn't have the good sense to put on a fucking coat in freezing weather won the presidency because he handed out liquor? Or that the hobnobbing habits of 1830s socialites actually determined the eighth president? Or that an entire dialogue of an election can center around a horse rearing into your penis?
Probably nothing more than that the cocaine-fueled jug band of American politics continues apace, and that our current election is just one more droplet in an ocean of absurdity.
For more ridiculous things that happened during election season, check out 5 Insane Strategies That Won Elections (And Changed History) and Daniel O'Brien's classic 5 Presidential Elections Even Dumber Than This One (Somehow).
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