Attack Ads, Circa 1800

Have this year's negative political ads really "taken dirty to a whole new level, as CNN's Anderson Cooper frets? Is a "return to civility...a relic of a bygone era," as President Barack Obama laments?

Er, not exactly.

If anonymous political speech, the other widely decried villain of this political season, helped found the United States, attack ads are as American as apple pie. If you fancy yourself a patriot or a history buff, you will most certainly approve this message, which is taken from statements made by, for, and against the nation's founders. For historical sources, go here.

Approximately 1.45 minutes. Written and produced by Meredith Bragg. Voiced by Caleb Brown, Michael C. Moynihan, and Austin Bragg.

Check out "The Positives of Negative Campaigning," why "Attack Ads Are Good For You." and Reason's 2006 list of the "Top 10 Dirtiest Political Campaigns" in U.S. history.

Go to for downloadable versions and subscribe to's YouTube channel to receive automatic notification when new material goes live.

Originally posted on October 29, 2010 at 9.30AM ET.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Ramsey||

    I would start watching television again if political ads were this cool.

  • Wind Rider||


  • ||

    have you not seen John Dennis' ads??? His 'wizard of oz' one is an instant classic, and his 'a few good men' one is also good.

  • ||

    Shit sandwich coming on Tuesday for all fake libertarians, I mean left-libertarians (Balko). Go Quayle!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I don't know who the Prefident Jefferfon is, but he sounds like a dick. I'm voting for the other guy.

  • ||

    It's not Prefident Jefferfon; it's Preſident Jefferſon

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Looks like weird characters I see on a taxi license. Check his birth certificate.

  • Kyle Brandt||

    It's not Ryan; it's Ryne.

  • ||

    If I understand the rules, it would be Preſident Thomas Jefferſon. I think the 's' at the end of a word is supposed to be a short 's'.

  • ||

    Correct. That was certainly the case when I was reading the 1776 edition of the Wealth of Nations in Duke's Rare Book Room.

  • ||

    Anybody else tempted to bring back the ſ in their personal writings, or is it just me?


  • ||

    Sounds like an idea for a new font.

  • Alan||

    Goodneſs Gracious! I didn't even know there was a unicode character for the old-faſhioned non-final s. Reſt aſſured that I will not forget this fact the next time I aſſeſs a ſituation and find this character is required.

  • Ayn_Randian||

    Ah, I believe when using a double "s", the second one should be the "new" 's'.

  • Pink Coſmotarian||


  • Ted S.||

    I believe that comes from the same ligature as the German ß (look at the ß in a font like Herman Zapf's Palatino to see it more obviously).

  • ||

    Screw it--I'm voting for Jefferson.

  • BakedPenguin||

    He's the better of two evils. Still I bet he seeks to expand the country through unconstitutional means.

    Better than the Alien and Sedition Acts, though.

  • ev||

    Raddest shit I've seen in a while.

  • ||

    American politics has never been especially civil. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with American history should know this. Either Anderson Cooper is a lot less educated than he lets on, or he's a lying, hatchet-faced nutmeg dealer.

  • ||

    c) All of the above.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with American history

    ...which sadly rules out the vast majority of U.S. citizens.

  • Gabe E||

    If you want to see uncivil, watch Israeli Kennesset sessions.

  • ||

    Or Taiwan's Parliament: at least two major brawls this year.

  • Correct spelling, indeed||

    Kennesset? Where's that - New England?

  • Yonemoto||

    I think you mean Kneſset.

  • Citizen Nothing||


  • ||

    Prefident Adamf was nuttier than a fhithoufe rat.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    You'll note that those guys were very clever in formulating their insults so that they sounded outrageous, yet they were completely defensible against a libel suit.

    They really were simply better at creatively insulting the other guy back then.

    Plus I think people were a little more thick-skinned back then and did not expect a lawsuit at the slightest, merest, potentially offensive statement.

  • EasyPeasy||

    That's slander! I'll see you in court.

  • ||

    ""Plus I think people were a little more thick-skinned back then and did not expect a lawsuit at the slightest, merest, potentially offensive statement.""

    They would bitch slap people today for being such crybabies.

  • ||

    We really need to bring back dueling.

    I'd watch on PPV.

  • ||

    Or at the very least, a Steel Cage Death Match Battle Royale. It's all fixed anyway....

  • ||

    I vote for the Holmgang. Unfortunately, so many of the people I would walk the island with are not even worth the weregild.

  • creech||

    No, they'd be called out to duel.
    Love to see Angle and Reid or Coons and O'Donnell duel it out at 10 paces.
    Sell tickets and retire the national debt!

  • ||

    There is a (probably apocryphal) story about the best insult ever to NOT be ruled unparliamentary in the House of Commons. I do not remember which MP the story refers to, but the exchange goes something like this:

    MP: Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Could you please clarify a point of parliamentary procedure for me?

    Speaker: Go ahead.

    MP: Thank you. Would it be considered unparliamentary language if I were to refer to the member opposite as a dirty, lying bastard?

    Speaker: Yes, that would be unparliamentary.

    MP: Thank you Mr. Speaker.

  • kinnath||

    In one of my favorite Dave Barry columns, he said the Keating 5 were called the Keating 5 because it would be a serious violation of the libel laws to call them prostitutes with lawyers.

  • ||

    Also they were subject to a challenge to duel....lets bring that one back.

  • Bush vs Obama||

  • Pelosi vs Palin||

  • Maxx||

    Palin would win. Libs hate guns

  • Maxx||

    Bush would win

  • ||

    Ma, ma, where's my pa?

  • ||

    "Gone to the White House, haw haw haw!"

  • ||

    Blaine, Blaine,
    James G. Blaine,
    The Continental Liar
    From the State of Maine!

  • ||

    Blaine House is the governor's mansion in Maine.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Anderson Cooper is a girly man and an idiot. Anyone who believes American elections have been anything but a bloodsport has never studied history.

    1828 was the worst presidential campaign in American history. No presidential candidate in my lifetime has been accused of being a bigamist, a murderer, an embezzler, or a pimp.

  • Sudden||

    The bigamist thing was raised about Romney.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Sure it's not POLYgamy you're thinking about? Mitt's only been legally married once.

  • ||

    John Kennedy was accused of bigamy. Supposedly, he'd had a previous marriage that was improperly annulled, or something like that. I'm not aware of any real evidence for it, but the story was widely spread by many of his detractors.

  • Andy||

    And I won!

    Those charges against me weren't strictly true.

  • Ted S.||

    Don't you mean Anderson Vanderbilt?

  • ||

    ""No presidential candidate in my lifetime has been accused of being a bigamist, a murderer, an embezzler, or a pimp.""

    Bill Clinton?

    Well, I dont' think he's been accussed of embezzling.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Bill Clinton?

    Bill Clinton would never engage in bigamy. He already has one wife too many.

  • ||

    I thought the Clintons were accused of taking furniture from the White House on the way out.

    Embezzlement: "the act of dishonestly appropriating or secreting assets by one or more individuals to whom such assets have been entrusted."

  • ||

    What's funny and entertaining in a sick sort of way is how the most angry and vicious liars in mainstream media (MSNBC's Olbermann, Schultz, Maddow) are the ones who are getting their panties (or in Maddow's case, boxer shorts) in a bind over the allegedly violent and angry electorate. I've been around for awhile, and I've never seen such a pile of filth masquerading as objective journalism.

  • Wind Rider||

    Don't make us drag out examples of Hearst journalism!

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Bingo. This works just as well with teh "Journalism has never been so biased/uniniformed/idiotic" charge.

  • Ed Schultz||

    “You’re damn right, Dick Cheney's heart's a political football. We ought to rip it out and kick it around and stuff it back in him. How come Dick Cheney’s health care isn't being dropped? Do you realize that if you had five heart attacks, hell, you wouldn't get past two heart attacks and they’d dump you. But because you're a war criminal and because you are on the take from Halliburton, you can get the best health care on the face of the earth.”

  • ||

    Another idiot conflating health care with health insurance.

    One more time for all of those with a less than fully functional brain: Health care is the treatment or prevetion of disease or injury. Health insurance is a financial risk management instrument. They are not the same thing.

    Regardless of your inability to make that distinction, Eddie; Dick Cheney is a very wealth man. Rich people can keep health insurance dispite poor health, because they can: a) pay very high premiums, or b) pay for treatment out of pocket.

  • Pope Jimbo||

    Maddow has to wear boxers. The dickhole in the tighty whiteys is too hard to open with her small hands.

  • ||

    ...The dickhole in the tighty whiteys...

    You mean Keith Olbermann???

  • Ted S.||

    I don't need a mental image of Olbermann in briefs, thank you very much.

  • Anderson Cooper||

    Speak for yourself!

  • Media Hater||

    "I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast."

    --William Tecumseh Sherman

  • ||

    Now that's friggin' awesome!!

  • Jeffersonian||

    A clear-eyed dude, Billy.

  • Kevin||

    I am surprised that John Adams didn’t do an attack Ad about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. That would be a political winner in 19th Century America.

  • Charles 3E||

    Probably not (if you're being serious) -- everybody was ruttin' a slave if they had one, and bringing it out would have been unseemly, much like running an ad about someone's affairs would have been in the 1950s. Nobody ran an ad attacking Kennedy's numerous, well-known dalliances for the same reason.

  • Lord Jubjub||

    There weren't ads, but I thought that a few editorials showed up hinting at Jefferson's dalliance.

  • scott clark||

    those attacks came during the election campaign of 1804.

  • ||

    I think the ads this year have been entertaining and witty ... for a change.

    I used to cringe at the awful, low-budget ads from the past five elections, or more.

    I think the ads this year have been a breath of fresh air, quality-wise.

    I suspect it's at least partly thanks to affordable HD cameras and low-cost computer graphics.

    Because the cost of entry into the professional political advertising industry has been so dramatically reduced, more people with different creative points-of-view can break into the industry and produce ads we haven't seen a thousand times before.

    It isn't just the old time consultants who have been doing the job since the 1970s. It's new people with fresh, creative ideas.

  • ||

    Well, some of 'em are, but too many still rely on the "Wizard of Oz" schtick:

    Begin commercial with horrible photo of opponent in black & white (or better yet, grainy B&W video).

    Then cut to oversaturated color footage of smiling candidiate.

    Rinse & repeat.

  • ||

    And don't forget to make the black & white footage run in slow-motion, so the opponent looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

  • Ted S.||

    I thought running the footage in slow motion was to make it look like a perp walk.

  • ||

    The only "wizard of oz" ad I liked was John Dennis' ad, with Pelosi as the Wicked Witch of the West and Bernancke (or was it Guitner) as the Wizard.

  • Wind Rider||

    The thing not mentioned is that the recourse for downright insults back in the day involved guns and 20 paces as an acceptable option. . .now THAT would make political campaigns worth watching!

  • ||

    I'd look forward to a follow-up article from Reason entitled, "In Praise of the Taiwan Parliament".

  • ||

    Awesome. There are a bunch of youtube vids too.

    This one's kinda sexy:

  • ||

    From what I've read, the 1828 Presidential Campaign between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams is still considered the nastiest of all. Adams was accused of pimpimg American virgins to the Czar while minister to Russia. Jackson's mother and wife were both called whores and bigamists.

  • ||

    I am SO going to bring this up the next time someone complains about growing incivility in politics. THANKS!!!

  • BakedPenguin||

    Funny thing is, the attack ads usually make me want to vote for the candidate being attacked. I remember when attack ads against Charlie Crist came out. they made him sound like a libertarian. Then he came out with ads that assured everyone, that no, he wanted government, all the time, in every orifice.

  • ||


    Sometimes I want to vote for the guy who gets attacked even if I don't like him, just because the attacker sounds like SUCH a douche. Do these ads really work? I mean, my reaction as a thinking person is generally, "If THAT is all you can offer as a reason to elect you, you must be a real shitbag."

    Of course, it's generally safe to assume that a politician is a shitbag.

  • Nash||

    I've had this response with Fiorina here in California. Boxer is running "attack" ads that state Fiorina..

    1) Wants to roll back assault weapon bans.
    2) Wants to repeal emissions laws
    3) Wants to re-instate off-shore drilling
    4) Wants to slash social security and medicare.
    5) Outsourced jobs when she worked at HP.

    This inspired me to vote for Fiorina over the Libertarian.

  • ||

    Rubio calls Windsock Charlie a Democrat. Meek calls Windsock Charlie a Republican. Chuck pretends he left the RPOF to stand up for his beliefs. And that's actually true, because what he believes in is doing whatever is necessary to get elected to the next political office.

    Alex Snikter calls them all exactly what they are; corrupt career politicians.

  • Jeffersonian||

    And to reinforce that theme, Crist now says he'd caucus with the Democrats should he be elected.

    Is Crist in a race with Arlen Specter to see who can whore himself out more?

  • Mr. Slave||

    Jesus Christ!

  • ||

    Haven't seen too many of the FL senate race ads. I do see the ones between Alex and Rick.

    Also, several of the local US Reps. Whoever is running against Allen West seems to only run attack ads. I don't think I've seen an ad from him explaining or promoting HIS positions (the fact that I can't recall his name should tell you something).

  • ||

    It depends on the facts being promoted, and the ideological preconditions of the electorate in your area.

    I remember an election up in Soviet Canuckistan where a Conservative candidate was criticized for running a newspaper ad that reminded the electorate that his opponent was a Liberal.

    In that particular riding, in that particular election, some people considered it an "attack ad" to merely remind people which party the incumbent belonged to. At the doors, the incumbent was apparently referring to himself as a "conservative-minded" Liberal.

    On the other hand, under other circumstances pointing out facts about an opponent that YOU think are negative might actually help your opponent if the electorate thinks the facts are positive.

    For example, in many districts when the Dems accuse a Republican of being a "Tea Partier" it might help the Republican, even if the Republican in question isn't actually a Tea Partier.

  • Lord Jubjub||

    What campaign was it that had one candidate accusing the other of being a heterosexual?

  • ||

    There was one was the opponent was accused of being a practicing philatelist.

  • ||

    I have philetalized in the past. If I were to run for office, I'd appreciate it if nobody mentions that.

  • Jeffersonian||

    Not sure, but I'm guessing it was about an election to the office of Bishop in the Episcopal Church.

  • Adamson||

    In Florida, George Smathers attacked Democrat Claude Pepper as a shameless "extrovert" with a brother who was known to be a "homo sapien" and a sister who was a "thespian" in New York.

  • KingTaco||

    A lazy fall Friday suggestion along the lines of this thread: Pick up Henry Adams 'History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson'. It's much less a general history than an in-depth analysis of political machinations of the period.

    One of the best books you'll ever read on politics, and touches on all the things being discussed in here (party/political attacks, back-room deals, etc.). There's a second volume that covers Madison that's also equally solid, but the first volume on the Jefferson era is most readable and covers most of what's being talked about in here. Also an illuminating corrective for those who confuse Jefferson the Philosopher with Jefferson the President.

  • MNG||

    I'm not sure I'd trust any evaluation of the Jefferson Presidency written by one from the Adams family...It would be like reading an assessment of the Clinton Presidency written by Jeb Bush (but with fewer "ya'lls").

  • ||

    They system works!
    Attack ads!
    Embrace the status quo!
    Pay no attention to the issues!
    Vote for one of two parties!
    If anybody on our currency did it, we should be doing it, too!
    Suspend habeus corpus!
    Have sex with our slaves!
    Put down tax rebellions--with prejudice!
    Extirpate the natives!

  • ||

    Well...I checked the sources on for this clip, and while I agree with the overall point, but the "Jefferson is the son of a half-breed Indian squaw raised on hoe-cakes" source actually states that the quote was not spoken in 1800. There's plenty of legitimate info our there to make this point, does Reason need to specifically cite a source that refutes its claim?

  • Around That Time||

    Does someone not know what "circa" means?

  • Accuracy||

    Well, according the to source that was previously used, the the first recording of the charge was in 1879, so if by this definition it is "circa" 1800, suppose we are "circa"
    the election of FDR. In fact the original source said the quote was made up in 1879. Reason changed the source from the original one that was listed.

  • Progressive||

    But we do need to return to the good old days:

    We should start arresting people who print libels.

  • Brett L||

    Prove that you aren't having relations with a sheep, otherwise its just your word against mine.

  • ||

    Surely we can solve this dispute with mandatory arbitration.

  • ||

    I took it upon myself to meet with the arbiter and she recommends all parties agree Progressive did not have relations with a sheep after all. It was only a chicken.

  • sheep||

    That was no chicken; that was my Progressive!

  • Robert||

    It's not just politics. If you look at advocacy literature in general from the 19th C., there's a level of stridency you just don't see in more recent serious writing.

  • The Bearded Hobbit||

    I was just up in the Lab and they had the radio on. While I was there a bunch of political commercials came on:

    "My opponent, Jack Johnson, says the titanium tax is too high!"
    "My opponent, John Jackson, says the titanium tax is not high enough!"

    Jesus, how does anyone listen to that stuff and not want to cram ice picks into their ears???

    ... Hobbit

  • Goldilocks||

    The titanium tax is just right.

  • Rrabbit||

    There is a difference between telling the truth about a political opponent, even in a somewhat exaggerated way (legitimate), and slander and libel (not).

    I then do not see any point in voting for anybody whose message is limited to "my opponent is evil", rather than actual political positions, with a track record that supports those political positions, rather than a track record of lying.

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  • Apogee||

    I find your opinion fascinating, and would love to subscribe to your newsletter.

  • ||

    How about for a constitutional amendment:
    Every qualified candidate gets government funding for one letter to all qualified voters. The letter can state what the person has done in the past, if an incumbent, and what he or she will do if elected. No other ads or contributions will be allowed.
    It the letter mentions an opponent in a negative way, the candidate will immediately be removed from the ballot, fined $100,000, and given a 25 year, no parole prison sentence.
    I thought of adding that any candidate who lies in the letter would get capital punishment, but the resulting blood bath would make the country look bad.

  • tarran||

    Yes, let's fuck freedom of speech, freedom of the press.

    While we're at it why not add life time appointment of senators and congressmen to you little amendment? As currently written your amendment only ensures a 99.99% re-election rate.

  • Apogee||

    I pick the letter b.

  • Springfield||

    That would not stop attack ads, unless you plan on repealing the first amendment at the same time.

  • ||

    Jefferson was raised on "ho-cakes"?

    I don't know what that means, but I know what I'm going to start calling my friends when they make me mad!

  • ||


    hoecakes are basically pancakes made from corn meal.

    kind of a cross between corn bread and pancakes.

    At the time, rural fare of poor folk & indians.

  • Ernie the Bear||

    "Winky Dinky Ho Cake - 'Cause Hoes Gotta Eat, Too!"

    Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

  • Some Guy||

    I'd still take this over the tripe we have now. At least they were creative and not cookie-cutter.

    You'd think Nancy Pelosi is running in every district since every other ad I see is about her, with like 3 seconds dedicated to mentioning whoever the guy is that they're associating with her.

  • ||

    Before everyone starts whining too much about attack ads, try to remember that attack ads have been shown to have more actual policy information content than the press coverage.

  • rhea||

    Politician on both sides don't give a rats ass about the people in this country. Both sides are spending billions on attack ads, so they can be the one to run this country into the ground. Have the nation's problems gotten fixed yet? I mean, with both political parties SO concerned over the American public's welfare, somebody should have solved at least ONE problem. Hasn't even one problem been solved?

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