Donald Trump Is Not the First Politician to Go After a Rival’s Family

March 23, 2016, 7:09 PM UTC
Photograph by Rhonda Wise — AFP/Getty Images

To Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, there’s a word for someone who drags family into the political fight: coward.

When Donald Trump tweeted on Tuesday that he would “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Cruz replied that an attack on his wife would mean his rival was “more of a coward than I thought.” But, though attacks ads that go after spouses and children are often seen as one of the last taboos of American politics, history shows it’s happened more than you’d think.

In fact, one of the most famous examples of dragging family into politics dates back to the the early 19th century. In the wake of the War of 1812, Gen. Andrew Jackson—hero of the battle of New Orleans—was a popular national figure who hoped to ride his populist fame all the way to the White House. He had been foiled in the contentious election of 1824, but four years later managed to knock John Quincy Adams out of the office, despite facing attacks that were severe enough to still be famous nearly 200 years later. His competitors had tried to keep him from the White House with attacks on his military honor, with accounts of his “bloody deeds” that may sound similar to controversy that still surrounds his presidency, but they didn’t stop there.

The attacks from Adams’ camp, however, did not keep Jackson from winning the election—but they were not without consequence. Rachel Jackson died before his inauguration, having suffered a breakdown in her health that he would long blame on Adams, though she had been ill for years. “A being so gentle and so virtuous slander might wound, but could not dishonor,” read her epitaph.

While that ended sadly, there are other instances that have gone down as net positives for the candidates.

In the 1944 election, for example, attacks on Franklin Roosevelt’s family even went so far as to include his dog, Fala. The incident provided Roosevelt—aiming for his fourth term in office, even as his health was swiftly declining—a chance to prove to the world that he was still the charismatic man they had elected more than a decade earlier, when he delivered a successful a semi-tongue-in-cheek speech about Fala. “The audience roared;” TIME reported the next week, “even the stoniest of Republican faces around U.S. radios cracked into a smile.”

And one of this year’s other Presidential candidates is personally aware of the nation’s long history of failing to leave family out of it: in 1992, Hillary Clinton was the recipient of more than a few attacks. During a primary election debate, Gov. Jerry Brown brought up the idea then circulating that Bill Clinton had sent lucrative business to his wife’s law firm, a charge Clinton denied. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife,” the future President responded. Allegations of business impropriety would continue to follow Hillary Clinton for years—but her involvement in the 1992 race certainly didn’t put an end to hopes of the presidency for her husband, or for herself.

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