In the US political system there have been campaigns against and for certain candidates, and this goes back to the first Presidential Elections, where both sides used to have editors of newspapers write slanderous stories on opponents and glowing stories on the candidate they support. This has been well documented in many of the biopics on the Founding Fathers and on many historical books covering the American Revolution and the first few Presidencies, yet this concept had to have come from somewhere. It seems rather advanced to have only been invented in America, does this have roots in the English Parliamentary system? Was it imported from France? Many of the Founding Fathers spent time in Europe so it would not surprise me that they were influenced from this during their times abroad.

Are there any sources on where this would have come from?

  • Interesting question, reminded me on story of citizen kane. Starting point might be Guttenberg printing technique history.stackexchange.com/a/1121/65. It's seems kind of natural evolution that political parties have their "own" press newspapers, so probably arose in europe short after invention of the printing technique...
    – Hauser
    Oct 26, 2012 at 12:36
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    I can think of examples of this dating back to the Roman Republic but I am pretty sure that examples of this in Athens pre-dates them. Oct 26, 2012 at 12:48
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    @Sardathrion the concept of "smear campaign" is probably as old as the concept of "lying" or spreading rumours :) Nonetheless a free press/printing and at least 2 political movements are imho necessary. Maybe the Romans did oral smear campaigns, but the system was probably anyway too aristocratic and defined mainly by money, power, ancestry of single politicians to make smear campaigns worth the effort
    – Hauser
    Oct 26, 2012 at 13:00
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    @Hauser has it. Anybody who has been through middle school ought to realize that spreading rumors about others to help one's own social standing is pretty common human behavior.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 26, 2012 at 14:05
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    @Hauser If you read Cicero, it's quite clear that deliberate campaigns to spread false rumors were well-practiced in ancient Rome.
    – choster
    Oct 26, 2012 at 14:06

2 Answers 2


I believe that the first "smear campaign" in U.S. Presidential politics was against Andrew Jackson in 1824.


George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were all "Founding Fathers" of the United States. No one of any note had any real quibbles about any of them being President. The only question among this select group of people was "whose turn was it?"

Beginning in `1824, the two main candidates, John Q. Adams and Andrew Jackson were "post" Founding Fathers. John Q. Adams was, in fact, the son of a founding father, but Jackson was the first major candidate from west of the Appalachians, born into a poor family (though made rich by his own efforts), and generally considered a "parvenu." Hence he would be the target of ad hominem attacks that we might call a "smear campaign."

  • Don't forget the Aaron Burr/ Alexander Hamilton duel. Oct 27, 2012 at 23:22
  • Too bad they prohibited duels
    – DVK
    Nov 3, 2012 at 21:51
  • Having just read Chernow's Alexander Hamilton biography, smear campaigns have been with us since around the time of Adams and Jefferson's elections. It was a habit. No one of any note had any real quibbles about any of them being President. Not so. Washington maybe, but the rest had their detractors. Jan 25, 2017 at 15:48

The Campaign of 1800 is earlier, and nastier than 1824.

From Wiki...

The 1800 election was a re-match of the 1796 election. The campaign was bitter and characterized by slander and personal attacks on both sides. Federalists spread rumors that the Democratic-Republicans were radicals who would ruin the country (based on the Democratic-Republican support for the French Revolution). In 1798, George Washington had complained "that you could as soon scrub the blackamoor white, as to change the principles of a professed Democrat; and that he will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the Government of this Country".[6] Meanwhile, the Democratic-Republicans accused Federalists of destroying Democratic-Republican values, not to mention political support from immigrants, with the Alien and Sedition Acts, some of which were later declared unconstitutional after their expiration by the Supreme Court; they also accused Federalists of favoring Britain in order to promote aristocratic, anti-Democratic-Republican values.[7]

Adams was attacked by both the opposition Democratic-Republicans and a group of so-called "High Federalists" aligned with Alexander Hamilton. The Democratic-Republicans felt that the Adams foreign policy was too favorable toward Britain; feared that the new army called up for the Quasi-War would oppress the people; opposed new taxes to pay for war; and attacked the Alien and Sedition Acts as violations of states' rights and the Constitution. "High Federalists" considered Adams too moderate and would have preferred the leadership of Alexander Hamilton instead. Hamilton, in his third sabotage attempt towards Adams,[8] schemed to elect vice-presidential candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to the presidency. One of Hamilton's letters, a scathing criticism of Adams that was fifty-four pages long,[9] became public when it came into the hands of a Democratic-Republican. It embarrassed Adams and damaged Hamilton's efforts on behalf of Pinckney,[3] not to mention speeding Hamilton's own political decline.[9]

Of course, the US did not invent smear campaigns. Marcus Tullius Cicero's brother published a book about electioneering after his brother's Consular election over Catiline, which was notable for smearing Catiline with killing his brother-in-law for money, trying to assassinate the Consuls a few years earlier, and raping a Vestal Virgin. So it has a long history.

  • Good answer, and in particular the point about Cicero, etc. Jan 25, 2017 at 15:50

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