When we take a very long very close look at it, American politics really hasn’t changed all that much since our first presidential election, and our treatment of presidential candidates is still a lot like it was back in 1789.
George Washington unwittingly laid the foundation for a constitutional amendment two centuries later, when he refused to run for a third term as President of the United States. His reasons were personal but very valid.
It is true that he was (and still is) America’s first national hero.
George didn’t look at it that way.
He’d done his best for the country in his two terms in the office and, even though he was a shoo-in for re-election should he decide to run again, he’d had it. He couldn’t take the job any more.
No matter how good a government is, there’s always an element trying to get rid of the incumbent president and try some one else in his place.
George had done a good job. The young nation was doing well and the future looked bright. He could go for another term and ride through it on his laurels, but the next president would not be George Washington. He’d had it. He was being accused, falsely, of debauchery in the presidential residence. That involved his family, and he wouldn’t stand for that. Still, others were leveling charges of stealing from the Treasury at him, and there were further charges of corruption and, of all things, treason! He was, according to Thomas Jeffeson, “much inflamed!” so he wanted to get out of colonial politics and he wanted out at the end of this term.
Candidates in those days had to be more thick-skinned than an elephant. Even though it was common practice, no one of those on the receiving end really enjoyed it, and duels were a not uncommon occurence. Aaron Burr, who had killed Alexander Hamilton in an open duel, was called a murderer when he ran for office; Andrew Jackson was accused of marrying a “convicted adultress,” while John Quincy Adams was painted as a “depraved gambler,” because he had purchased a billiard table for the President’s House.
There was plenty of name-calling of incumbents, too:
Andrew Jackson became “King Andy;” John Adams, was known as “His Rotundity,” while John Tyler must have lived down “His Accidency,” even though mail so addressed reached him at the president’s house. Franklin Pierce’s own party called him a “reckless blunderer” and campaigned against him with “Anybody but Pierce” signs. He was also known as the “hero of many a well-fought bottle”.
James Buchanan had to live down being called “Miss Fibb” and the “Old Maid,” while he was being accused of buying votes.
Abraham Lincoln received so many threats that he kept them in a special file which was found after his assassination. He used accusations of being “two-faced” to his advantage at least once in his campaigning. That was when a heckler called him two-faced. Lincoln replied that he wished he were because he certainly didn’t like the one he had to wear every day.
U. S. Grant rode a tide of popularity to the presidential office despite being called “Useless.” from his initials, only to be faced with accusations of corruption while he was in office.
Rutherford Hayes was called “Granny Hayes” and received quantities of death threats and was called “His Fraudulency” after an election, much like the one we had in Florida a few years ago. Hayes and Samuel Tilden tied in the election of a president so congress appointed a committee consisting of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and one Independent. The Independent resigned before the committee could act and a Republican was named to take his place, giving Hayes the election. He was known as “His Fraudulency” throughout his term in office.
There were nicknames for sitting presidents, too. James Garfield was known as “The Preacher” in his short term as President; Chester Arthur, the first president to have a valet, was called “Elegant Arthur,” while 250-pound Grover Cleveland became “Uncle Jumbo.” Benjamin Harrison was the “White House Iceberg,” William McKinley was known as “Wobbly Wally,” and Teddy (he hated that name) Roosevelt became “That Damned Cowboy,” while 325-pound William Howard Taft answered to “Big Bill.”
Woodrow Wilson was “The Schoolmaster” and Warren Harding was known as “Wobbly Warren.” Then there were the more recent ones — “Silent Cal” Coolidge, “The Great Engineer” Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt who became the “New Dealer.” When he died in his fourth term, Vice President Harry “The Haberdasher” Truman stepped up to the plate. Then came Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, who became president when Kennedy was shot in Dallas, both of whom were known by their initials: “JFK” and “LBJ.”
Then things became a little tougher. Richard Nixon was better known as “Tricky Dicky” and voters were being asked, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” When he resigned the presidency he was followed by Gerald Ford, who was succeeded by James Earl Carter. Both of them were known simply as “Jerry” and “Jimmy.”
Ronald Reagan, the “Great Communicator” was also known as “The Gipper” from one of his many movie roles. George Herbert Bush was known as “Pappy,” while George W. Bush went by “Dubya.” William Jefferson Clinton answered to “Bubba” from his friends and called “Slick Willie” by the Republicans.