Wednesday, December 07, 2011

President Antichrist, Jr.

Writing in Slate Magazine, Forrest Wickman observed that would-be presidential assassin Oscar Ortega-Hernandez was hardly displaying originality when he called President Obama the "Antichrist." Other adversaries of the 44th president, including his 2008 election opponent John McCain (in a commercial called "The One" that was tailored to fans of the Left Behind novels), have either directly or indirectly called Obama the Antichrist, and a variety of ministers, politicos, and garden-variety crackpots have leveled the charge against twentieth-century presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. In his wonderful blog Goblinbooks, author Paul Bibeau argues that FDR wasn't the first American chief executive to earn this distinction, noting a famous Punch cartoon that depicted Abraham Lincoln as the "devil's minion," and quoting a Samuel Padover biography of Thomas Jefferson to the effect that many New Englanders regarded Jefferson as Antichrist. Since Padover provides no direct quotes, however, it seems that no-one actually went on record (in a region where record-keeping was obsessive) calling T. J. the Antichrist or Devil. Instead, Jefferson's religious critics seem to have regarded him as another "devil's minion," guilty of moral indecency and religious infidelity.

During the contentious 1800 presidential election, some Federalist editors warned pious New Englanders to "hide their Bibles should Jefferson be elected" (John Ferling, Adams vs. Jefferson [Oxford UP, 2004], 154), and one overwrought political cartoonist portrayed Jefferson trying to sacrifice the federal Constitution on a Satanic "altar of Gallic despotism" - a reference to the anticlerical, Deistic, and frequently despotic French Republic that Jefferson had supported.* In the cartoon, Jefferson is stopped by a "federal eagle" under the watchful gaze of God Almighty, who appears to have taken the form of a cloud with a giant eye. In reality, neither imaginary eagles nor amorphous deities stopped Jefferson from becoming president, and Jefferson's election apparently did not stop Federalists from calling him an atheist monster.** Somehow, though, the Devil managed to avoid eating the Constitution, and the republic, as it usually does, survived.

* The document near Jefferson's right hand in this cartoon is his famous 1796 letter to Phillip Mazzei, in which he called the Federalists the "Anglican monarchical aristocratical party" (not entirely untrue) and intimated that the very highest Federalist officials, "men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council...have had their heads shorn by the harlot England." (Merrill Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson [Viking Penguin, 1975], 470.) Piled up at the base of the altar, meanwhile, are bags of treasure from various small countries that Revolutionary France has plundered, including the United States.

** This despite Jefferson's well-publicized attendance of at least one church service while in office and his opening of Treasury and War Department offices for religious services (James Hutson, "Thomas Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists: A Controversy Rejoined," William and Mary Quarterly 56 [Oct. 1999], 775-790).

Update, 13 December: The redoubtable Susan Frey has located a political cartoon, "Office Seekers of 1834," portraying Andrew Jackson as the Devil; it may be found here. Since Jackson's critics had already denounced him as a murderer, bigamist, despot, and would-be monarch, we shouldn't be surprised that one of them added "Oh, and he's the Antichrist, too. Just sayin'."


Paul Bibeau said...

I love your post on this (and thanks for the mention!).

You're quite right about the Padover citation. He asserted something, but didn't give me a solid quote. I went ahead and used it, but it seemed like a solid source. Still... I want some there to be there.

I will dig, and report back if I find something.

Dave Nichols said...

Many thanks, Paul! As I mentioned, I greatly enjoy your blog and have recommended it to my friends and relations.

Padover may not be literally correct about New Englanders calling Jefferson the Antichrist, but his and your larger point is still, I think, accurate. The imagery and rhetoric of the 1800 presidential election indicates that many New England Federalists associated Jefferson with the Devil, and a few probably believed he was Old Scratch Himself.