Clement Moore's Anonymous Screed Against Thomas Jefferson

The third president ignored Federalists' relentless vitriol and won.

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Thomas Jefferson.

The 1800 election between incumbent John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was a vicious affair in which Federalist attacks on Jefferson's character reached such a fevered pitch that the mudslinging of modern presidential campaigns looks positively genteel in comparison. Not only, Federalists charged, had Jefferson cheated British creditors, obtained property by fraud, and robbed a widow of 10,000 pounds but, if elected: "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced," as the staunchly federalist Connecticut Courant put it. You'd think the attacks could not get much shriller than that. Nevertheless, during the campaign of 1804, an election that pitted Jefferson as the incumbent against the South Carolinian Charles Pinckney, they did. What proceeded made 1804 one of the dirtiest campaigns on record.

"Federalists framed Jefferson as a slummer, the kind of person with his head in the sky from reading too much French philosophy, who didn't seem to understand there ought to be a certain hierarchy between the classes," says Jeff Pasley, a historian at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Federalist operatives went after Jefferson's deistic religious leanings and lack of military brawn during the Revolution. And they helped spread rumors about Jefferson fathering children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.

Poison poet. One of the most intriguing attacks came from a surprising source: Clement C. Moore, a wealthy patrician known for his poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (commonly known as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas). Moore, a devout Episcopalian, published an anonymous screed attacking Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia in 1804. The 25-year-old's main grievance was that Jefferson's views on creation and Earth's geological history made him an infidel. Yet Moore also complained that Jefferson took a dehumanizing attitude toward blacks while raising the ape "above its proper sphere."

Politically, however, neither Moore's attacks nor those of his fellow Federalists caused any mortal wounds. Jefferson, well versed in the workings of the Federalist attack machine from the 1800 onslaught, largely ignored them. Ultimately, he won the election in a landslide, capturing all but two states and 92 percent of the electoral vote.