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Is Civility Disappearing in Congress?

This mechanical pull-tab card caricatures Martin Van Buren

This mechanical pull-tab card caricatures Martin Van Buren, the Democratic candidate in the presidential election of 1840. (Collection of Allen Frey)

We’ve just posted online an exhibition about American presidential campaign materials. This should help our readers measure the severity of the political dissent we see every day as the campaigns of 2010 reach a crescendo. We have borrowed materials from local collector Allen Frey.

Are today’s politicians too vitriolic? We see the venom on cable television, 24-7. And there have even been physical incidents in the House: in 1997 Tom Delay and David Obey engaged in shoving, in 1995 two former boxers did the same (“the brawl in the hall”), and in 1985 Majority Leader Jim Wright grabbed a colleague by the arm and threatened to punch him in the mouth. Sadly, that’s an improvement. On the eve of the Civil War, Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner so severely that the victim was incapacitated for three years. In 1832, Sam Houston did the same, as have others, in 1789 and 1840. Duels of course were much worse—they led to deaths in 1793 and 1838. We’ve actually come a long way since the antebellum era.

Let’s compare a few recent political statements to material from the Frey collection. On October 8, House Republican leader John Boehner attacked President Barack Obama: “Your government is disrespecting you…. Your government is out of control…. Do you have to take it? Hell, no, you don’t. That’s what elections are for!” A vitriolic letter in the Boston Repertory on October 7, 1806 attacked President Thomas Jefferson for “unexampled feebleness” and called his policy “wretched.” By comparison, Boehner seems civil.

Are the posters that depict George W. Bush as the grotesque “Joker” from the movie Batman, and more recently Barack Obama in the same guise, much different from the pull-tab card that in 1840 caricatured Martin Van Buren?

The Great Democratic Show of 1896/1900

"The Great Democratic Show of 1896/1900" portrays presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan as a joker. (Collection of Allen Frey)

Last week, senatorial candidate Rand Paul was accused by opponent Jack Conway of being “a member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible a ‘hoax’”—twenty-five years ago when Paul was in college. In 1880, presidential candidate James Garfield was accused of hanging cats when he was a child. In the same cartoon we are told that Garfield, if elected, will transform the White House into a church. Which is worse—a false accusation or the intermingling of church and state?

On September 3, 2008, Alice Miles wrote in the London Times about Sarah Palin: “They have selected a female candidate who is a cartoon—the joker in the pack who will end up just a joke.” The joker on playing cards derives from the court jester of the Middle Ages who provided entertainment. That’s the way William Jennings Bryan was often portrayed during the presidential campaigns of 1896, 1900, and 1904. Bryan terrified Republican businessmen and bankers as much as Palin horrifies intellectuals. Slick oratorical skills and tireless national speaking tours have a way of reaching the masses and frightening many others.

Check out the online exhibition of selections from the Frey Collection to read more about outrageous charges and vitriol from the past.

William M. S. Rasmussen is Lead Curator and Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Marilyn von Kuhlberg permalink
    11/12/2010 5:34 am

    Interesting, informative and fun on-line exhibit, Bill. History does repeat itself with action and reaction….many surprises. Appreciate having this put together for those of us unable to physically attend in house exhibits. Found this format gives one time to read, contemplate and digest the material rather than running through a live exhibit not taking the time to read thoroughly. Thanks, Marilyn


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