A Fussin’ and a Fightin’ — the Top 5 Feuds in American Political History

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As election season officially winds down after the inauguration, you might think to yourself “Wow, things got pretty brutal during that campaign!” But y’know what? That? That was nothing. Over the 230-odd years of American history, there have been political feuds with rhetoric so ugly they make Glenn Beck look like a nursery rhyme. Oh, and also, at times full-on bouts of fisticuffs have erupted… and worse.
Though it may seem strange to those of us living through this time of bitter division in our government, the bitterness has been far worse at times past. Just get a load of some of these feuds from American politics of bygone times:

5 Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson Had Never Liked Each Other

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With a nod to author and historian Robert Caro (with whom we rather agree), the last great feud we’ll discuss today was between RFK and LBJ, two men, six initials, and zero love lost. Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had never liked each other, even when both serving JFK as Attorney General and VP, respectively. After John Kennedy’s assassination and LBJ’s assumption of the presidency, their hatred grew to the level where both men could hardly make eye contact. Bobby felt LBJ had taken an office unfairly, while LBJ felt RFK had been the product of extreme nepotism. The thing is, both of them had a point, yet both of them were also kind of bitter, jealous politicians. RFK was a good AG; LBJ was a fine veep and an OK president. Would either have gotten to their stations without John Kennedy? No. But that could be seen as much as equalizer as a dividing line.

4 The Debates Between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas

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Turning to a more “civil” debate, in that no one punched or shot anyone else, the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates were anything but civil in nature, if peaceable in execution. These were seven debates held in seven Illinois towns in 1858, as Abraham Lincoln faced off with Stephen Douglas, vying for an IL senate seat. At the heart of the debates was the issue of the hour: slavery. So we know right off the bat that at least one of these guys was a jerk. Hint: it was Douglas. The debates themselves were filled with plenty of rancor and verbal assault, but it was perhaps the accompanying activity that is the most telling of how politics has, in many ways, been ever thus. There are myriad specific details preserved of personal attacks each man leveled at the other, including one where Lincoln essentially called Douglas “squid crap.” Pro-Lincoln papers edited his speech to make sure it was syntactically correct and free of grammatical errors, while leaving Douglas’s words rough and unpolished; pro-Douglas papers did the exact opposite. Lincoln, after the debates and his loss to Douglas, gathered all the transcripts together and published them in a book framing him in a positive light, which based off the next two presidential elections, seemed to have been a pretty bright idea.

3 Griswold and Lyon! Again!

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Our third entry in the pantheon of classic American political feuds was a battle that took place between… Griswold and Lyon! Again! In fact, it was only a few days after “Spitting-and-Punching-in-the-Facegate.” Apparently still hopping mad about that other thing that had happened — never mind that he had instigated it — Griswold said a few words to Lyon, then suddenly attacked him with his cane, cracking it down on him several times before Lyon grabbed a pair of iron goddamn fire tongs (they had little fireplaces in the congressional chambers then — awesome) and fought back with vigor. Both were threatened with ethics violations charges, but no charges were ever filed, which is kind of excellent.

2 The Battle Between Griswold and Lyon

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If you thought shouting “You lie!” was the biggest breach in decorum ever to occur in the nation’s capital building, then “You[‘re] wrong!” Instead, try a fistfight! The first (yes, there have been plural) occurrence of a man battle on the floor of congress took place in 1798 between Federalist Roger Griswold and Democrat Matthew Lyon. A political discussion took a decidedly non-PC turn when Griswold called his associate a term that today resonated near the “MFer” level, scoundrel! Being an adult, Lyon spit in Griswold’s face. Being the even bigger man, Griswold punched Lyon in the face.

1 Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Duel

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Logically we start with two men actually trying to kill each other. On July 11th, 1804, Alexander Hamilton, who had served as our nation’s first Treasury Secretary, and Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President, met for a duel. This is Biden vs. Geithner, people. This was madness. But Burr and Hamilton hated each other like you read about; in fact, the duel resulted largely because of all the slanderous things Hamilton had written about Burr. Burr, who was sure he was going to be dropped from Pres. Jefferson’s administration in a second term, was running for governor of New York. Hamilton hated Burr, both on personal and political grounds, and launched a smear campaign against him. When good old regular words were no longer enough for these two rage-aholics, a duel was agreed upon. A quick review of the years their lives and the date of the duel will tell you all the rest. Burr: 1756-1834. Hamilton: 1755-1804.

Ah, politics. Now you can finally see the lovely truth: it has always sucked! From centuries past and certainly well on into the future, the game of American politics is largely played by jerks and backstabbers. Dammit.

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