Donald Trump has clinched the Republican presidential nomination for the 2016 election. On issues including immigration, race, and terrorism, supporters applaud Trump for saying what many Americans think but are afraid to say, while opponents charge him with inciting bigotry and hatred.
On this episode of BackStory, we trace what it has meant to be “politically incorrect” throughout American history. The hosts look at how American society and culture has shaped what topics could– or couldn’t– be talked about, and how Americans have both celebrated and tried to restrict “politically incorrect” speech.
View Full Episode Transcript
ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. If you’ve been following the news, you’ve probably heard one phrase a lot: political correctness. It’s been invoked so often about so many issues, that in March, one commentator declared on Fox Business.
MALE SPEAKER: I don’t even really know, given the election campaign, if I know what politically correctness means anymore, when you have a lot of these people talking about a campaign of small hands and attacking each other’s wives.
ED: There were plenty of precursors to today’s battles over political speech. During the Civil War, Northern politicians in both parties avoided even saying the word slavery.
DAVID BLIGHT: What they’re really shying away from is having the final language that’s actually about racial equality.
ED: Today on BackStory, we’ll explore the power of words and how the term PC went from an inside joke to an insult. A History of Political Correctness, coming up on BackStory.
MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the Shia Khan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER: Hey there, Brian.
BRIAN: We’re going to begin today with the origins of a phrase that’s been in the news a lot lately.
FEMALE SPEAKER: The latest on political correctness gone totally inane.
FEMALE SPEAKER: This country is so dang politically correct.
MALE SPEAKER: Americans are sick of political correctness.
MALE SPEAKER: We have entered the world of politically correct lunacy.
BRIAN: Today we hear the term politically correct all the time, but where does that term come from? Well, American newspapers printed the term as far back as the 1930s in reference to the Nazi party. But those mentions were few and far between. Historian John Zimmerman says the phrase political correctness really took off here several decades later, thanks to the pages of one tiny book.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: Where it comes from is, believe it or not, Mao’s Little Red Book.
BRIAN: In 1964 China’s revolutionary leader, Mao Tse-Tung published his pocket sized collection of slogans which quickly became the second best selling book in the world. And behind its red vinyl cover, readers found slogans about how to be a proper, that is correct, communist.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: What it was was a statement of party ideology. Certain kinds of art work are correct politically, because they reflect the sentiment of the workers. They did the same thing for education and for history. Right? And you would say, so the politically correct view of history is that we had these horrible feudal regimes, and then they created a workers society. Then we had a revolution.
BRIAN: OK. So that was politically correct?
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: Exactly.
BRIAN: And they actually use that term in the book?
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: Definitely. This is the correct way. Sometimes it would be called the party line.
BRIAN: Chairman Mao’s slogans dictated every aspect of Chinese life and thought. Citizens suspected of being politically incorrect, which could mean anything from hiding extra food for your family to criticizing the party, could be killed. Millions of Chinese citizens were.
Meanwhile, American communists in the 60s and 70s snapped up copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, but they didn’t take his commandments quite as seriously.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: What’s fascinating though, about the term PC is, it gets picked up largely by the American left as an ironic and self-deprecatory term.
BRIAN: Yes. Political correctness was an inside joke. That’s because, for American leftists in the 1960s, free and open debate was essential. They were highly skeptical of political theories acclaimed to be, quote, universal truths.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: I mean if you grow up in a culture of critique– right? If you grow up in a culture that emphasizes a kind of radically individualist search for a kind of authentic truth, party lines are going to be anathema.
BRIAN: In other words, Mao’s totalitarian version of political correctness wasn’t exactly a natural fit for American communists.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: And indeed, when I was researching the history of this, I came upon this great account by Maurice Isserman, who’s a very prominent left wing historian. And he’s interviewed about PC, and he says, well, we used to this a way to make fun of ourselves. And the example he gave, I think, is very telling. He said, we’d say things like, well, we could go to McDonald’s for lunch, but that wouldn’t be politically correct.
The reason McDonald’s wasn’t, quote, politically correct had to do with the fact that it was a large corporation, it was part of the food industry that was a huge focus of critique by the left. It had a massive advertising presence.
BRIAN: But Isserman is also suggesting he’d like a Big Mac.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: Right? Politically, it was problematic, and he’s acknowledging that in the same breath as he’s saying, and boy, that would taste really good right now.
BRIAN: Zimmerman points out this humor also took aim at American communists who did follow the party line.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: The thing about the American Communist Party is they were very good on race, pretty good on gender, not so good on genocide. Because some of them were of course, apologists for the awful things that were happening in the Soviet Union. So there were a lockstep party line American leftists, absolutely. But they were a minority, a very slim minority among American communists and among American leftists, who cultivated again, this kind of self-deprecatory, highly individualist, critical look on the entire thing. And that’s where, quote, PC comes from. Right
Quote, because obviously, they’re developing it as an ironic critique of the kind of party lineism that they saw around them.
ED: The end of the 20th century, that inside joke had broken loose. Today, the phrase political correctness echoes throughout the presidential election, gets batted around in debates over transgender bathrooms and the names of public buildings.
PETER: So today on the show, we’re going to look at the evolution of political correctness. We’ll also hear about some of the things Americans could and could not say before the term PC existed, because language and what constitutes permissible speech often changes from one era to the next.
We’ll hear how American sailors in 18th century shocked middle class sensibilities with their salty language. And how Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans deliberately avoided saying the word slavery in order to win re-election in 1864.
BRIAN: But first, let’s take a moment to chart how the term PC went from a joke among leftists to a nationwide flashpoint. The first chapter begins at America’s college campuses. Starting in the mid 60s, the number of women and minorities attending universities increased. That was thanks to co-education and desegregation.
Universities quickly became hubs of activism for students interested in rights movements, from civil rights and free speech to feminism and disability issues. By the 1970s and 80s, academia became a testing ground for a movement that focused on words as containers of political power.
NICOLE HEMMER: That the words that you used both created and recreated systems of oppression.
BRIAN: This is historian Nicole Hemmer.
NICOLE HEMMER: And so the idea was, if you could change the words that people used, you could actually begin to dismantle those systems of oppression.
BRIAN: Hemmer says the change could be as simple as saying Native American instead of Indian or person instead of man. John Zimmerman points to lots of commonly used words that were packed with negative meanings.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: When I was a kid, somebody who was a homeless person was referred to as a bum. And the language does have ideological connotations. If you call a person who you see living on a street a bum, I think you’re making a statement about their culpability for their condition.
ED: In the late 1980s, universities started adopting speech codes.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: Which said essentially, that you can’t use speech of behavior, they said, that stigmatizes people according to race, class, age, sexual orientation, a whole laundry list.
ED: For liberals, speech codes were a way to enforce the progressive ideas that grew out of the Civil Rights and women’s movements. To conservatives though, campus speech codes stifled free speech. When universities went beyond speech and turned a critical lens on curriculum, conservative academics pushed back.
NICOLE HEMMER: So the entering wedge here was in 1987. When Allan Bloom came out with a book, The Closing of the American Mind.
WILLIAM F BUCKLEY JR: Alan Bloom has written what is probably the most provocative book of the decade. The subtitle of his book is how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.
ED: That’s from a Bloom appearance on the PBS show Firing Line. His book spent four months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Other writers followed suit. Roger Kimball penned Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D’souza wrote Illiberal Education.
NICOLE HEMMER: And each of them is making the same critique of the academy, which is that the academy is biased towards liberalism. And those books, written by prominent conservatives get a lot of attention.
ED: Liberal politics and policies did permeate some academic fields. These liberal professors thought that the humanities curriculum should be expanded to include more than just stuff written by dead white guys. We could also learn from women and minorities and people of working class and people from other cultures. But to Allan Bloom, all of this smacked of cultural relativism.
ALLAN BLOOM: I think that cultural despair is a result of too much exploitation of the transformation of society particularly, if you’re going to live in a democracy. You really have to decide what really counts.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: Part of the worry about diversity is that diversification of the messages that we send about who we are. Right? And those messages, before the era we’re talking about, had been overwhelmingly oriented towards a male, white Protestantism. And so the idea that you’re not just diversifying the campus in terms of who the students and faculty are, but you’re actually diversifying the messages that we put out about who we are as Americans, as Westerners, as human beings.
ED: At this point, political correctness had morphed from what a person can say in a classroom to an issue of a identity politics.
NICOLE HEMMER: Particularly as you get to words and ideas that are further and further away from visible inequities, then you get more and more of a reaction against what becomes termed political correctness. But also when that idea of political correctness is used to advance particular political views, gender equality, racial equality, class equality.
BRIAN: In the early 1990s, the PC debates that have been confined to college campuses spread to large parts of society, especially the workplace where women and minorities were demanding their rights from employers. Historian Brian Rosenwald says that that tension played out as bosses and employees struggled to understand the role that language could play in creating a hostile work environment.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: You have folks who would rather say, hey, you know what, I’d rather live in that kind of society where we have free expression than live in a society where everybody is terrified of losing their job, or they’re worried about everything.
BRIAN: The tension between language and politics also crackled on conservative talk radio, which characterized political correctness as a national crisis. Megastar hosts like Rush Limbaugh fielded complaints from frustrated callers, and challenged PC culture with intentionally offensive terms like feminazi.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: I do not despise, hate, or otherwise feel negatively about women. I have profound political disagreements with the militant feminist movement in America today, which I don’t think represents even 2% of the thinking of this country.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: You have a lot of people who feel like they’re walking on eggshells. And this group of talk radio hosts and cable news hosts, it’s a virtual community. It’s the neighborhood bar digitally. And they can feel comfortable, if they’re calling in or listening, that the other people out there feel the same way they do. And they don’t feel alone anymore.
BRIAN: In May 1991, as the Supreme Court was poised to rule on the constitutionality of campus speech codes, President George H.W. Bush entered the fray. Speaking at the University of Michigan’s commencement, the president said, “What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.”
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones.
BRIAN: Liberals also began to critique political correctness. Left wing author Barbara Ehrenreich claimed the PC not only limited free speech, it fetishized language.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: What she meant by that was, we’re placing this hyperattention on the words we use. How is that going to get somebody more food stamps? How is that going to arrest climate change?
BRIAN: And comedian George Carlin mocked the euphemistic nature of politically correct language.
GEORGE CARLIN: Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It’s as simple as that. Poor people used to live in slums. Now the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities. And they’re broke. They’re broke! They don’t have a negative cash flow position. They’re [BLEEP]-ing broke!
BRIAN: This cacophony of views made it difficult to draw a distinction between replacing offensive words and censorship. But the unexpected result of these language battles, Zimmerman says, is that political correctness itself has become a dirty word.
JOHN ZIMMERMAN: Almost nobody ever uses the term to describe themselves. Nobody goes up to a dinner party, and says, hey, I’m John Zimmerman, I’m very PC. It’s something you find in the other person. It’s like body odor or accented speech. Right?
ED: Conservatives and liberals generally agree that banning certain words or speech is politically dangerous. When one side of a debate controls the terms of the debate, the other side is shut out. And if Americans can’t talk about their differences, the country becomes even more polarized. That, says Hemmer, is why Donald Trump has gotten so much political mileage out of being the guy who says “what everyone is thinking, but not saying.”
MALE SPEAKER: –America. Tonight Trump said he is simply saying what people are thinking.
MALE SPEAKER: Trump says what he thinks and what other people are thinking.
FEMALE SPEAKER: He’s finally bringing out what people have been thinking for a long time. I know what people in my area, in my household have been thinking.
MALE SPEAKER: Trump saying what people think. The elites going after him. I mean, that’s the divide here, isn’t it?
NICOLE HEMMER: I think it’s also a way of explaining the liberal victories on a number of cultural fronts. That this happened because liberals won a war over language, not because they won the hearts and minds of Americans.
BRIAN: Nicole Hemmer helped us tell that story. She’s a research associate at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and the creator of Past Present, a podcast about history, politics, and culture. Brian Rosenwald is a historian at the University of Pennsylvania.
PETER: We also had help from John Zimmerman, Professor of the history of education at New York University.
BRIAN: Peter, Ed, think that the story of political correctness in the second half of the 20th century is pretty clear. I’m curious to know whether there’s anything like this before we get to Chairman Mao and the Communist Party and the conservatives in the 80s and the 90s and the 20th century.
PETER: First of all, I think when we talk about political correctness, we’re really talking about is nation making, defining the boundaries of–
ED: Whoa! Didn’t see that.
PETER: –community. Yeah. And nation making it goes back to the beginning of the nation, when it was first made. There’s tremendous anxiety about language, about differentiating us, Americans, from the Brits, about defining what could and could not be said in this new Republican context. When hierarchy is nominally abolished, what do you do with the conventional terms of deference?
So I think there have been a series of nation making moments in American history. I do think what’s happening now has been always happening. It’s particularly acute, right now, but it’s been acute at other times in American history, like the mid-19th century, the period of the Civil War, certainly the Revolutionary Period.
BRIAN: PETER: It seems to me that, at least in the 1980s and 1990s, political correctness is all about, in essence, guidelines as to how we should speak. And from my limited knowledge of your centuries, there was a lot of telling people what they should not speak about.
ED: Yeah, that’s a really good point Brian. I think what all periods have in common is that this language is always coded. And what people in political correctness are saying, when you use that word, that is coded to mean this. Right? Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, people spoke in codes as well. Sometimes it would break into the surface when you’re talking about race, as during the American Civil War.
So there are times when coded language becomes critical. And suddenly, we can see the ropes and pulleys behind it. We’ve been living through a prolonged period.
BRIAN: So what you’re saying is political correctness is really about making the politics embedded in language visible to all.
BRIAN: And that’s when all hell breaks loose.
PETER: I think that’s right, Brian. It’s a new self-consciousness about language. Because majority cultures throughout American history, of course, their speech patterns, what they say is prescribed and certain topics are proscribed. But there is no questioning that the majority culture, they’re America.
BRIAN: We take it for granted, bro.
PETER: And that’s why I think there’s an interesting tension now between people who claim that an America is lost in a world in which other voices now are part of the conversation. And that’s evoking days in which you didn’t have to be self-conscious about what you said.
ED: And I think the clearest example of all this is hardwired into the American experience. Let’s think about the phrase, “All men are created equal.” All men are created equal. I don’t really mean, of course, all men are created equal. What I really mean, speaking in code–
BRIAN: He doesn’t mean any of the words in that phrase.
ED: That’s right. That’s right, exactly. It ended up having latent meanings in it that Jefferson did not intend. And I think that’s what people are saying about political correctness today. When you use that word, whatever it might be, is it has meaning hidden below the surface that’s exerting power.
So I think, Peter, your point is that there’s always been a language that includes and excludes. And even the most inclusionary language in our history, all men are created equal, when you look back at it in historical context, which of course is what we’ll be doing on BackStory today, we see the words don’t always mean what we think they do.
ED: In the late 18th and early 19th century, there was one group of Americans who was the most foul-mouthed, un-PC guys around. You guys want to guess who they were?
PETER: I’m totally at sea on that one.
ED: You’re right, Peter, they were sailors. And I talked to historian Paul Gilje about this, and he says that their version of political incorrectness consisted of cursing, well, like sailors.
PAUL GILJE: Anybody could swear like a sailor, but sailors had a very special relationship to swearing.
ED: Now a warning to listeners, the language of this interview is pretty salty. If you have kids in the room, it might be a good idea to turn down the volume for the next seven minutes or so. Paul Gilje says American sailors coined some of the most politically loaded curses in the English language, so I asked Gilje to share some of these terrible 18th century insults with us. Strap yourselves in.
PAUL GILJE: I was surprised. I was reading in the archives. I was going through all these old log books and journals. And one day, I was reading this log book and it said, then the captain swore, worse than I ever heard anybody swear before. I’m in the archives, sitting at the edge of my seat, waiting for this. And then the captain said, you damn son of a bitch.
ED: Come on man, that was it?
PAUL GILJE: Is that all? That was it? And so here’s a pirate, about ready to go kill somebody and take over a ship, and he says, let’s go get those sons of bitches. I’m going, what does this mean?
ED: So tell me, why were these the worst kinds of swearing that people could imagine at the time? Kind of unpack, as they say. What did each word really mean?
PAUL GILJE: Well, let’s start with damn. In the 18th and 19th century, damn was directly connected to a sense of Christianity. You were essentially damning someone to hell. And when you did that, you were putting yourself on the same level as God. And if you put yourself on the same level as God, you are especially sinning.
And this is a pretty strong thing, especially in the period I’m talking about, when even hard-nosed, earthy– bad word, perhaps, to talk about sailors.
PAUL GILJE: Profane sailors still often grew up with the Bible. And that’s how they learned how to read. And they were aware of certain religious teachings, so that they took this stuff very seriously. But the word damn would often be then placed in relationship to other terms, damn son of a bitch.
ED: Why son? I mean, why is that the word that would set people off?
PAUL GILJE: I think, by using the word son, you were attacking the individual, and you were attacking the individual’s mother. Sailors were actually very sentimental and very sentimental about home and very sentimental about their mothers I mean, many of these young men were indeed relatively young when they went to sea. Not as young as we might imagine. Often they were 15, 16.
ED: That’s young enough, right? It’s
PAUL GILJE: Young enough.
ED: To be out on the tossing ocean with mom very far away.
PAUL GILJE: And their main female attachment that he would probably be with their mother. And they thought about their mother, they dreamt about their mother, they talked about their mother. So when you start saying, you damn son of a bitch. When you say son of a bitch, you’re talking about a person’s mother. But also, it’s a loaded term. The word bitch is a loaded term in ways that we ordinarily don’t comprehend.
ED: So Paul, bitch being the key word in all of this. Why is that the word that is so charged by these sailors at this time?
PAUL GILJE: Well, the technical definition of bitch is a female dog.
PAUL GILJE: And it’s charged, because, I think, in the history of dogs, such as it is, there’s an emergence in the 18th and 19th century of kind of a domesticated version of a dog and kind of a mongrel version of a dog.
PAUL GILJE: And the people who domesticated dogs in the United States, the middle class, wanted to control all those dogs in the street. And by using the word bitch, then sailors were kind of saying, look middle class, we’re not buying your bill of goods and your attempt to domesticate this world.
ED: But there’s also another meaning about the reason that bitch is so charged.
PAUL GILJE: And this is much more important, and it has to do with gender, it has to do with sexuality. Ideas about sexuality were changing in this time period. In the 17th and 18th century, a woman’s sexuality was much more openly accepted. By the time you move into the 19th century and the height, we think of Victorianism, women’s sexuality is being denied.
To call somebody a son of a bitch was emphasizing the sexuality of the mother, but not just the sexuality of the mother, but also an open sexuality almost like a bestial sexuality.
ED: Like those dogs out on the streets.
PAUL GILJE: Like those dogs out on the street. So to call somebody you damn son of a bitch, you were saying, your mother is willing to do it with anybody and everybody she runs across. She’s like a dog in heat, and you haven’t got a clue as to who your father is.
ED: Ouch. So that’s pretty potent stuff there, Paul. What other words might people have tried to use that would have been almost as strong?
PAUL GILJE: Calling somebody a puppy. Duels had been fought between Southerners, right? And often, they refer to each other, oh, you puppy.
PAUL GILJE: And you kind of go, well–
ED: That seems sweet.
PAUL GILJE: So what?
ED: Why would somebody call somebody a puppy if it that was a terrible thing to say?
PAUL GILJE: Because it conjures up in the back of people’s mind that you are a son of a dog, right? A little child dog. That son of a bitch.
ED: I’m seeing a certain theme here.
PAUL GILJE: You mine is there’s conversation’s going to the dogs.
ED: Oh, we might. So Paul, the show today is about political correctness. Did damn son of a bitch have what we would recognize as overt political meaning at this time?
PAUL GILJE: Yes. And I’ll give you a very specific example, the Boston Massacre of March 5th, 1770. In the lead up to the massacre, there were a series of confrontations between the British soldiers and the common people, coming men mainly. And in these fights, they would often turn to one another and say, you damn son of a bitch. Or some person would get shoved and they’d say, that’s the son of a bitch you knocked me down.
And that helps create the electricity that leads up to the evening of March 5th, 1770, when the British soldiers are standing there, confronted by a crowd of a couple hundred people throwing ice and stones at them. And then someone shouts out, damn you. Fire, damn you. Soldiers fire. And we can only begin to comprehend that, when we understand fully what the meaning damn and phrase damn son of a bitch means in its larger context for that political world.
ED: Paul Gilje is Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma and the author of To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America 1750 to 1850.
BRIAN: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines politically correct as a belief that language and practices that could offend political sensibilities should be eliminated. Using that definition, at least one political sensibility has been violated during this presidential election. What you can and can’t say about political spouses.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Overnight, Trump escalated his feud with Cruz over the relative attractiveness of their wives, retweeting this picture that shows his wife Melania opposite an unflattering picture of Heidi Cruz. Cruz responded–
BRIAN: That’s from an MSNBC report last March. While then-presidential candidate Ted Cruz and Donald Trump would never admit to being PC, they both accused each other of breaking the rules.
PETER: But that’s not the first time this political taboo has been violated in a presidential race. In 1828, President John Quincy Adams faced off against self-proclaimed outsider General Andrew Jackson in an especially dirty election. Adams’ supporters painted Jackson as a violent backwoodsman from Tennessee who had no respect for the law. But that was mild compared to what they said about Andrew Jackson’s wife. Producer Nina Earnest has the story.
NINA EARNEST: It was an unspoken rule.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: Women were off-limits.
NINA EARNEST: Historian Catherine Allgor says that much like today, politicians in the early 19th century could say all kinds of outrageous things about their rivals, and they did, but they weren’t supposed to slander each other’s wives. But as with most taboos, that doesn’t mean it never happened.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: It’s really in 1828 where the gloves come off, and the story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson, their private life becomes an actual election issue.
NINA EARNEST: Most historians agree on the bare bones of the Jackson story. General Jackson and Rachel Donaldson Robards wed in 1791.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: And they marry at that time on the presumption that she was divorced from her first husband Louis Robards. But it turns out, sometime in around 1793, they figure out that what they got was not really a divorce but the ability for Robarts to sue for divorce.
NINA EARNEST: In other words, due to a legal technicality, Rachel was actually a bigamist. A year later, her divorce came through, for real this time, then the Jacksons quietly remarried. By 1828, the Jacksons had been husband and wife for over three decades, and from their perspective, their unusual courtship was no big deal.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: And I should add, in the 37 intervening years, Rachel Jackson lives an exemplary life. She’s religious, she’s very respectable. And there’s no kind of hint of impropriety until all of the starts to come out around 1826.
NINA EARNEST: Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams had already faced off in the 1824 presidential election. Adams became president, but it was a controversial victory that was ultimately decided in Congress. So Jackson remained hugely popular among the working class whites he had mobilized at that time. The Adams camp feared he’d make another run for the White House in 1828. In preparation, Adams supporters zeroed in on Jackson’s scandalous marriage. Political taboo or no, it was just too good to resist.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: And the pro-Adams people are going to try to blow this up into a story of adultery and fornication and violence, a kind of cautionary tale.
NINA EARNEST: In 1827, newspaper editor and Adams ally Charles Hammond began publishing a series of pamphlets revealing the sordid truths behind Jackson’s unconventional courtship of Rachel.
MALE SPEAKER: In the summer of 1790, General Jackson prevailed upon the wife of Louis Robards of Mercer County, Kentucky to desert her husband and live with himself in the character of a wife.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: The idea is that he saw Mrs Robards and wanted her for himself. In fact, one kind of gloss on this tale, more exciting tale, has him actually seizing Rachel and holding Louis Robards off with a pistol. So he’s not only an adulterer, breaking up a marriage, but he’s also violent.
But it’s important to note that Rachel, in this story, this anti-Jackson story is not an innocent maiden just being spirited off. The idea was that she too was overcome by passion and that she aided and abetted in her own adultery.
NINA EARNEST: Hammond even claimed Rachel’s first husband was granted a divorce on the grounds of her infidelity.
MALE SPEAKER: Ought convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?
CATHERINE ALLGOR: And what’s interesting about that quote is of course, it’s the convicted adulteress and then her paramour husband. So Rachel’s definitely a focus of this campaign. And so definitely, part of what you see with Rachel Jackson is this feeling of, not only is she an adulterous, but do you want her in the White House, representing all American women?
NINA EARNEST: Bolstered by a growing print industry, the scurrilous story of the American Jezebel spread quickly.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: And so something that, maybe 20 years before, could have been a small matter confined to the beltway, if you will, now becomes a subject of national discussion. So they’re just more papers, there’s more abilities to print and distribute. And let’s face it, it’s a juicy story.
NINA EARNEST: Jackson was furious. But he and his supporters chose not to go after the wife of his opponent. Consider this contrast.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: It’s interesting that John Quincy Adams own wife could provide a political liability. She was British-born.
NINA EARNEST: In the 1820s, most Americans, especially Andrew Jackson, loathed the English. The young republic had already fought not one but two wars with Britain.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: You’d think his British-born wife would be a target. But the Jackson camp declares that they will not war on women.
NINA EARNEST: Taking the high road was, in other words, the correct thing to do, politically speaking. Instead, the Jacksonian did damage control. They put their own spin on Rachel and Andrew Jackson’s courtship and marriage.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: And in this story, Lewis Robards is the villain. So he is presented as an angry, even possibly physically abusive husband. And in this rendering, Andrew Jackson, far from being this beast consumed by passion, he’s the Sir Galahad. And he rescues this poor woman from this abusive man.
NINA EARNEST: Voters were presented with two Andrew Jacksons. One who would rob a woman of her virtue, and another who would protect it. Rachel’s reputation was a proxy for the country at large. Was he a man who would respect American law or a man who had run roughshod over her rules?
Allgor says that the Adams team broke the women are off limits taboo because, well, Adams wanted to win. But she also says that Rachel was fair game, because it was a time of political upheaval. Jackson promised to empower the common man in contrast to patricians like John Quincy Adams.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: So looking back, we know this is a watershed moment for American history. The republic is quickly becoming a democracy. There’s a call from below for political participation. So one can only speculate that there was a lot more fear and anxiety around this election. And so I think, when it gets down and dirty, people have no hesitation about dragging women into the mud.
NINA EARNEST: In the end, the Adams smear campaign against Rachel Jackson failed. The surge of unpropertied white voting men didn’t care if a convicted adulteress and her paramour occupied the White House. The General handily won the 1828 election.
But the win was bittersweet. Back home in Tennessee, Rachel Jackson told a friend–
FEMALE SPEAKER: The enemies of the generals have dipped their arrows in wormwood and gall and sped them at me.
NINA EARNEST: She died less than two weeks after receiving news of her husband’s victory. The story at the time?
CATHERINE ALLGOR: She dies of a broken heart.
NINA EARNEST: Historians believe she had a heart attack.
CATHERINE ALLGOR: Kind of like a 19th century, or even 18th century, heroine. This attack on her virtue is so extreme that she dies. I don’t think it’s an undue thing to say that the stress of all this probably contributed to her death. And certainly people thought that.
NINA EARNEST: Her husband certainly did. Jackson blamed the Adams supporters for her early death. “May God Almighty forgive her murderers,” he reportedly said, “I never can.”
PETER: Nina Earnest is one of our producers. Katherine Allgor helped her tell that story. She’s the Director of Education at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
BRIAN: We’re going to turn now to a story about trying to save a political cause not through words, but through silence. Because political correctness is also about what can’t be said in public. It also helps explain how President Abraham Lincoln won re-election in 1864, in the midst of the Civil War.
PETER: The summer before the election, Lincoln’s prospects looked increasingly grim. The president faced challenges from within his own Republican Party. And despite its numerical advantages, the Union Army couldn’t seem to win on the battlefield.
DAVID BLIGHT: Northerners were flat sick of war. Lots of Republicans, major newspaper editors, cabinet members with Lincoln, and even Lincoln himself were beginning to say, out loud, it doesn’t look like Lincoln can possibly be re-elected in this climate.
PETER: This is historian David Blight. He says pro-slavery Democrats were also tearing Lincoln apart in the press for prolonging the war in order to destroy slavery. The Civil War, Democrats claimed, was being fought for the benefit of black people at the expense of white men. To them, Lincoln’s reelection would mean not only the end of slavery, but also the destruction of the white race. Democrats even invented a pseudoscientific word, miscegenation, and pinned it on the Republicans.
DAVID BLIGHT: They’re appealing to the most vicious core of American racism, the psychosexual fear of racial mixing. It forces the Republicans to go essentially silent collectively about their own cause. They shy away from even embracing the idea of the 13th Amendment. They say, the Union must be saved, all other questions can be determined later or by the courts or by some other process. Because they’re getting pilloried by the Democratic Party in what became at that point, the most racist, openly white supremacist campaign any American Party had ever conducted until that time.
PETER: Republicans didn’t just avoid talking about slavery themselves, they also asked their erstwhile allies the abolitionists, including Frederick Douglas, to keep quiet about it.
ED: And Douglas couldn’t believe it. At this critical moment, when the 13th Amendment was being debated in Congress, when it was under attack by pro-slavery forces, why wouldn’t Republicans play offense and fight for what they believed in?
DAVID BLIGHT: Douglas had to swallow, and this was so bitter, the statements by major Republicans, who were just backing off or simply going silent about that 13th Amendment. And what we have to understand here is, it is a war for human freedom at this point. It’s a war to destroy slavery. Everything is at stake in this election.
The 13th Amendment by the way, here, this version of it, had been around since like January.
DAVID BLIGHT: It had actually passed the Senate but not the house.
ED: What was even more amazing is that it’s not merely that they’re not talking about it, it’s sitting right there in front of everybody, and they’re still not talking about it.
DAVID BLIGHT: And Democrats of course, are pillorying the Republicans as the party of that 13th Amendment. Do you want your country to be the country that frees all these people into job competition and endangering your daughters and on and on and on? The Republicans, in order to get re-elected are basically just trying to avoid even talking about it.
ED: So David, the Democrats invent miscegenation and try to stir up a scare about this. Did they always take the low road, or did they try to frame their purposes in kind of highfalutin language as well?
DAVID BLIGHT: No they practiced the obfuscation of language, if anything, even better than Republicans. Douglas in fact, at one point, complained bitterly how Democrats, in their rhetoric and even in their platform, they would replace the word slavery, slave, slave holders and all that with language like private rights, protection of private rights or constitutional liberty, which was all code words for the right of slave property, the right of slave ownership, the right of the perpetuation of slavery, and so on and so forth.
Of course that language goes right back to the US Constitution where the term slave, per se, does not appear and other kinds of euphemisms for it. What they’re really shying away from is having the final language that’s actually about racial equality.
ED: Let’s summarize for people here. So it’s the summer of ’64, the Republicans are fighting battles on many fronts, not only the fronts of Virginia and Georgia, but also they’re fighting against the Democrats who are feeding on Republican defeat, but also Republican advocacy for black rights. And now they have to figure out how do they use this great ally of Frederick Douglass, but they use him by asking him, please just be quiet.
DAVID BLIGHT: Be quiet.
ED: Is that explicit? Does he know why they are doing that?
DAVID BLIGHT: Oh, he knows, there’s no question he knows.
ED: He doesn’t think this is just cowardice on their part?
DAVID BLIGHT: In this case, he was asked not to go speak. He tried. He wanted to go out and campaign for Lincoln, and campaign for the 13th Amendment and emancipation. Now, he did not go silent. There was a black convention for example, a major black convention held in Syracuse, upstate New York in early October. And Douglas gave a classic vintage Douglas performance at that convention, where he challenged the Republican Party to live up to their meaning, live up to their founding, live up to the very idea of emancipation.
And of course, the proof is in the pudding of the vote. And we need to back up here and understand that major military events had a tremendous impact on how people voted. You couldn’t script this any better. Atlanta falls, what is it, September 3?
DAVID BLIGHT: To Sherman, it’s a huge turning point in the war.
ED: And I think personally, that the events in the Shenandoah Valley, right outside of Washington DC.
DAVID BLIGHT: Absolutely. Sheridan’s campaign through the Shenandoah. And that comes even after Atlanta.
ED: That’s right.
DAVID BLIGHT: It’s basically one month of the best military news.
ED: Does that create the space for Douglas to give this talk? By late October then, it’s safe for him to come out and actually say–
DAVID BLIGHT: Well he says this in early October, but by then, all this military news is there. They still don’t know how are people going to vote. Are the Republicans going to actually embrace the 13th Amendment, which they wrote? The extraordinary thing about ’64 election is that it is a general election held in the middle of all out war, all out Civil War.
And I think it was 19 northern states allowed their soldiers to vote at the front.
ED: That’s right.
DAVID BLIGHT: And so thousands upon thousands of Union soldiers and sailors voted in makeshift polls. And 78% of Union forces voted for Lincoln. Now he wants 55% of the vote.
ED: Yeah, but I’m going to push back on this a little bit.
DAVID BLIGHT: That’s fine.
ED: All these things are true, but another way of thinking about it is, Lincoln does not win a larger share of the vote than he had in 1860.
DAVID BLIGHT: That’s true. It’s a very divided country.
ED: Yeah. And even after all these things, David, in the crucial states that stretch from New England to the Midwest, 48% of white men vote for the Democrats in 1864.
DAVID BLIGHT: It shows the strength of the Democratic party.
ED: And in some ways vindicates the Republican strategy of being quiet.
DAVID BLIGHT: Of backing off. The pragmatics of backing off, it turns out, probably were crucial.
ED: And I think what it suggests is that the Republicans knew so well. I mean, who better than Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to know the power of language? And I think that the summer of ’64 shows the power of silence in some ways.
DAVID BLIGHT: That’s actually an interesting way of putting it.
ED: They know the language matters so much that they will try hold the power of that language in abeyance until they are ready to really deploy it.
David Blight is director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University and author of a forthcoming biography of Frederick Douglass.
So, guys, was that a unique moment in American history, or are we always trying to avoid politically fraught words and issues?
BRIAN: Well, if we could start with recent history, Ed, what it called to my mind was the kind of silence on the part of the Democratic party as late as the early 1960s about pushing forward the Civil Rights agenda. John F Kennedy was loosely associated with a moderate effort to end Jim Crow segregation. But of course, the heart of the Democratic party remained the “Solid South.”
And he was ridiculed for not being more proactive, more energetic. Why?
PETER: He wants to win.
BRIAN: He wants to win. He’s got to get reelected in 1964. So I certainly know, as late as the 1960s, silence could be a huge part of a political strategy. Peter, what do you got?
PETER: Yeah, well, I agree with that. And I think what impressed me about your interview, Ed, was how contingent people’s ideas are going to be on outcomes. And of course, Lincoln was praying, to the extent that he did pray, and I think he did, that events would make it happen. And when it did, then the word could be spoken.
If you jump ahead of public opinion, you might turn the course of history in another direction. I think there are moments when public opinion seems so obdurate, so hard to change, but in a moment of radical crisis, meanings can change, and almost instantly. And that 1864 election, I think, is a great example of that happening.
ED: That’s a great point, Peter, because you think about this. Only five months, later Abraham Lincoln gives his second inaugural address, in which the words slavery appears over and over again. And he says, everyone knew that somehow this war was about slavery. So just in the period of months, Lincoln goes from not saying it at all, to making it the centerpiece of his greatest speech.
In many ways this is political correctness in reverse, He takes a word that even he had seen as political poison, and turns it into this great source for good.
BRIAN: That’s going to do it for today. But don’t censor your speech, tell us what you thought about today’s episode. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org. While you’re there, help us shape our upcoming shows. Ask us questions about Alexander Hamilton, ideology and the Supreme Court, and the history of the Republican Party. Or you can send an email to the back firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
PETER: BackStory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Kelly Jones, Emily Gaddack, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Milner is our technical director and Diana Williams is our digital editor. Melissa Gismondi helps with research and was our expert consultant on this week’s story about Rachel Jackson.
ED: Backstory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the Shia Khan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph from Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis foundations.
Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and environment. And by History Channel: History, made every day.
NINA EARNEST: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus Merritt at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond.
BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
PETER: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.