More Noise

When primaries wind down, campaigns shift to political party conventions of the summer.  Americans running for office will make noise and more noise, positive for themselves and negative for their opponents.  Name-calling and rumors are nothing new.  But perhaps they are more hard to ignore in our time because of the many and diverse kinds of media, and it is harder to decipher the truth.  Unless you’re up in the mountains off the grid (which often sounds superlative) you’re probably not going to avoid the spin.

When Aaron Burr fatally shot Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel of 1804, it was after a dozen years of high profile conflict.  Like Thomas Jefferson, Burr was a Democrat-Republican.  Then he ran for the governor of New York as an independent, and Hamilton, the Federalist, set out to thwart the campaign.  His mistrust of the candidate was great.

The two were still insulting each other as Burr, now Vice President, challenged Hamilton to a duel.  A meeting of seconds was not successful.  At the chosen site in New Jersey, Hamilton was said to have fired prematurely; however moments later it was he who was wounded, and died the next day.  Burr was arrested but never tried for murder.  He was later tried and acquitted for treason and his final years were spent in obscurity.

In this 1834 cartoon, Kentucky senator Henry Clay tries to sew Andrew Jackson’s mouth shut to stop his talk of ending the Bank of the United States.  Jackson believed its purpose was to benefit the wealthy.  He had conflicts with many and was never afraid to address them directly.

Ten years earlier, Old Hickory had won more popular and electoral votes for the presidency than John Quincy Adams, but lost in the House of Representatives with the help of – Henry Clay.  In the 1828 election, which Jackson won, his opponents publicized Rachel Jackson as a bigamist and she literally died of humiliation before her husband was inaugurated.  This naturally added more fuel to the fire of his political ire.

Most all of us have the image of lanky Abraham Lincoln debating squat Stephen Douglas before the Civil War (there was a one-foot difference in their height, exaggerated by Lincoln’s hat).  Seven times the two engaged in a three-hour debate to help Illinois voters decide who they wanted to fill their senate seat.  Though the incumbent Douglas won, the publicity propelled Lincoln to the presidency in 1860.

Douglas was author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave settlers in new territories the right to decide whether to allow slavery.  He considered Lincoln a radical, who with the new Republican Party believed the country could not endure “half slave and half free.”

According to, both men were adamant about preserving the union, but differed in philosophy as to how it could be done.  Douglas died of typhoid fever in 1861, never knowing that his adversary would accomplish the goal.

I’ll bypass the Theodore Roosevelt/Woodrow Wilson rivalry which transcended the 1912 election to World War 1, to talk about T.R. Jr. and his run-in with first cousin Eleanor.  Her husband, Franklin, was not a candidate for the New York governorship in 1924, but they supported Al Smith rather than Ted.  Franklin was critical of Ted’s performance as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Ted’s brother Archie was involved with the Sinclair Oil Company, which had been implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal about oil leases in the west.  Eleanor and her friends drove through the state in a car with a giant steam-emitting papier mache teapot on the roof and denounced her cousin over a loudspeaker.

Smith won and Ted continued in business ventures.  In World War II, though, he was once again a soldier on Utah Beach, on D-Day.  He suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after on the eve of a promotion to Brigadier General.

Amid upheavals there are always small victories, as shown by a favorite story of my aunt’s.  She worked in a senator’s office on Capitol Hill in 1948.  Her boss, angry that Truman had pulled off the presidency, refused to go to the inauguration and gave his tickets to her and her brother.  The two obscure twenty-something Indiana Republicans were ringside at the president’s swearing-in ceremony, much to the chagrin of prominent Democrats who wanted the seats.

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