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'Don't Know Much About the American Presidents': Kenneth C. Davis reveals strange facts about America's leaders

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One of the points you make is that campaigns and elections have been fraught with ugliness from the beginning. Why do Americans forget that each time another election comes around?

Because we do have short historical memories and most of us have no historical memory for this. Also, there’s a very important point about the early years of the republic and the early presidents. We tend to paint a picture of the past that is filled with pride and patriotism that leaves out the seamier side of the story.

This started before Washington left office. The two parties began to form. Washington warned against it before he left, most of the Founding Fathers, the framers of the Constitution, talked about how bad the party [system] was. Washington warned against the “baneful effects” of party. But it is, as Washington himself said, human nature, that we seek out those who are like-minded and form alliances. Just like on “Survivor,” [that’s] how I explain it to kids who want to know about [political] parties. We band together out of mutual self-interest and find those people who are going to achieve our ends. That is essentially what the parties are.

What you can see right away in 1796, the first contested election, is that as soon as parties form, the knives come out. And they were sharp and they were very deep in people’s backs. This notion that somehow the good old days were gentlemen who debated fine points and there was none of this mudslinging is simply a myth, one of the many myths that we have about American history.

In 1796, John Adams was being assailed in the newspaper as an overweight monarchist. He was publicly accused of sending a vice presidential candidate – although they weren’t specifically called vice presidential candidates at the time – his running mate was sent to procure four young mistresses for the two of them. Adams had the good humor to say he didn’t know what the general who had gone to do this had done with his two, but he never saw them. But you also had around this time Thomas Jefferson being called a deviant, a Jacobin – which at that time meant a left-wing terrorist – and, worse, a coward. This was the Swift-boating of its day.

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