The Politics of Personal Destruction

Bill Clinton? John Quincy Adams?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reading the news and blogs of today emphasizes the fact that political discourse can be extremely brutal. I was reminded of Bill Clinton’s lament when he discussed his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and said there was a harsh new form of politics based on personal destruction. I know that politics has always been rough, but the politics of recent decades seems different. Was Clinton the first to mention the politics of “personal destruction”?

Quote Investigator: No, Clinton was not the first. That exact term was used more than two-hundred years ago about the arduous ordeal of another politician.

In modern times, Clinton famously raised the issue of personal destruction in a statement from the White House following his Grand Jury testimony in August of 1998 [CPD]:

Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life.

In December of 1998 the House of Representatives voted and approved two articles of impeachment against Clinton, and in February of 1999 he was acquitted by the Senate. After the impeachment vote he again focused on the topic [IMC]:

We must stop the politics of personal destruction. We must get rid of the poisonous venom of excessive partisanship, obsessive animosity and uncontrolled anger.

Intriguingly, the scandal involving Monica Lewinsky was not the initiator of Clinton’s vexations on this topic. He sounded this theme several years before impeachment was in the headlines. Indeed, he spoke about it even before he entered the White House while he was still campaigning in 1992 [BCP]:

Democrat Bill Clinton called for ending “the politics of personal destruction” and starting to solve the people’s problems when his campaign landed in Pennsylvania.

A jaded political observer would probably say that there was no gentler halcyon time in the United States before the politics of personal destruction, a technique practiced by parties of every political stripe.  But the question for QI is: Can this term be traced further back?

One person who tragically paid the ultimate price in the political arena was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He wrote a newspaper series in 1956 entitled “Profiles in Political Courage” that discussed another political figure from earlier times [JK]:

The Federalist legislature convened in May, 1808, with – as the Massachusetts Republican governor wrote – but one “principal object – the political and even personal destruction of John Quincy Adams.”

A recent biography of Thomas Jefferson corroborates this claim and gives the details for the supporting evidence. On June 3rd 1808 Governor James Sullivan of Massachusetts wrote a letter to Jefferson about the goal of the Federalists. The letter is accessible via microfilm in the Jefferson Papers collection [GSTJ] [LETT]:

Governor Sullivan told Jefferson that the “principal object” of the Federalists appeared to be “the political, and even the personal, destruction of John Quincy Adams.” They believed that they had succeeded.

However, this is not the end of the story. The strategy of personal destruction does not always succeed. John Quincy Adams went on to become the President of the United States in 1825.

[CPD] 1998 August 18, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Addressing America (Text of President Clinton’s Speech, Reuters News Service), Page A-5 (GN Page 3), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google News archive)

[IMC] 1998 December 20, New York Times, Impeachment: Text of the President’s Address After Impeachment, New York. (Online New York Times archive)

[BCP] 1992 March 26, The Titusville Herald, Bill Clinton Brings Populist Message to Pennsylvania (Associated Press), Page 1, Titusville, Pennsylvania.  (NewspaperArchive)

[JK] 1956 January 8, Syracuse Herald Journal, “Profiles in Political Courage: Adams Sacrificed Party, Popularity for His Principles” by Sen. John F. Kennedy, Page 46 (NA Page 52), , Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)

[GSTJ] 2009, Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim by Alf J. Mapp, Page 165, Rowman & Littlefield. (Google Books limited view)

[LETT] According to footnote 57 of Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim by Alf J. Mapp the letter from Sullivan to Thomas Jefferson dated June 3, 1808 is LC microfilm Series I, Doc. 31525, Reel 41 in the Jefferson Papers. (Not verified by QI)