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Obama and Lincoln: trash-talking, Civil War-era style

August 18, 2011 |  4:33 pm


On Tuesday, during a town hall meeting in Decorah, Iowa, on his non-campaign campaign-style bus tour, President Obama remarked on political rancor of the past, saying, "Lincoln, they used to talk about him almost as bad as they talk about me."

(Click here for the full text, courtesy of

The Great Emancipator certainly was the target of his share of political trash talk. Of course, the nation was being torn asunder in the bloody and protracted Civil War, which tended to make people cranky, but even so, some of this stuff is harsh.

For example, consider this 1919 letter to the editors in the New York Times, published during the  administration of Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson, called "In Lincoln's Day: Examples of the Kind of Attack a President Had to Endure Then."

The writer, Frederick Francis Cook, thanked the Times for an inspiring article on Wilson, saying, "And especially pleasing was the way in which you douched the spirit of that fiery patriot Mr....

...James M. Beck. It was peculiarly fitting that Lincoln's Birthday was chosen to empty the vials of partisan wrath on Mr. Wilson's head -- by charging, as did Mr. Beck, among other political crimes, that our President's foreign policy has been 'a black stain of dishonor upon the American people,' and you well said that 'such criticism recoils disastrously upon him who utters it.'"

Incidentally, James Montgomery Beck was a Republican representative from Pennsylvania. We have no reason to suspect he's an ancestor of former Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, but it is apparent they shared the same opinion of Wilson. As the current Mr. Beck has often said, "I hate that guy."

Anyway, Cook said he had come upon a leaflet issued by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee in 1864, quoting speeches from the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which nominated Civil War Gen. George B. McClellan to unsuccessfully run against Lincoln.

Ohio Rep. Samuel Sullivan Cox is quoted in the letter (and thereby the leaflet) as saying, "Abraham  Abraham-Lincoln Lincoln has deluged the country with blood, created a debt of four thousand million dollars and sacrificed two millions of human lives. At this November election, we will damn him with eternal infamy. Even Jefferson Davis is no greater enemy of the Constitution."

Lawyer W. W. O'Brien of Peoria, Illinois reportedly said, "We want to try Lincoln as Charles I of England was tried, and, if found guilty, will carry out the law."

Charles I was beheaded.

Lastly, Democrat politician and preacher (who also served as Chaplain of the United States Senate) Henry Clay Dean, is claimed to have uttered:"The American people are ruled by felons. With all his vast armies, Lincoln has failed, failed, failed. And still the monster usurper wants more victims for his slaughter pens. I blush that such a felon should occupy the highest gift of the people. Perjury and larceny are written all over him. Ever since the ursurper, traitor and tyrant has occupied the Presidential chair, the Republican Party has shouted war to the knife and the knife to the hilt. Blood has flowed in torrents and yet the thirst of the old monster is not quenched. His cry is ever for more blood."

On Wednesday, Sarah Palin responded to Obama's comments by tweeting:

Sarah Palin
@SarahPalinUSA Obama:"Lincoln-they talked about him almost as bad as they talk about me" Mr. Pres- tour Lincoln Museum anti-Abe display;try repeating claim

She's referring to "The Whispering Gallery," an exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Ill., which collects comments and cartoons critical of Lincoln and wife Mary Todd Lincoln.
Apparently the New York World thought a lot of Gen. McClellan's chances against Lincoln in the 1864 race, publishing this cartoon featuring him holding the president's severed head:



It's tough out there for any president or candidate, and Obama is correct in saying that Lincoln had it rough, but history will decide ultimately which president suffered more political slings and arrows.

But it's hard to beat what Vice President Thomas Jefferson's camp said about President John Adams during their 1800 campaign, that Adams had a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

That is, unless it was Adams' camp, which said of Jefferson: "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

From the birth of the nation till today, politics is a full-contact sport.


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-- Kate O'Hare

Media critic Kate O’Hare is a regular Ticket contributor. She also blogs about TV at Hot Cuppa TV and is a frequent contributor at entertainment news site Zap2it. Also follow O'Hare on Twitter @KateOH.

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Photo: President Obama at Decorah, Iowa; George McClellan cartoon; Abraham Lincoln portrait. Credits: Charlie Neibergal / AP (Obama); (McClellan); (Lincoln)