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Political Attack Ads and Lincoln’s 1864 Campaign

What would the 1864 presidential campaign have looked like if Abe Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan had used today’s deceptive campaign techniques and video attack ads?

Lincoln was reelected 150 years ago on Nov. 8. His bruising campaign against McClellan, conducted in the midst of the Civil War, has been reimagined by the political literacy website through a video timeline. The ads employ humor, parody, and an array of contemporary deceptive approaches to show what the campaign might have looked like if the candidates of 1864 – and a motley assortment of imaginary third-party super PACs – had created attack ads.

The candidates come under fire for the same kinds of issues that resonate in America today:

  • Immigration: By signing the Act to Encourage Immigration, an ad from a pro-McClellan super PAC claims, “Lincoln guaranteed that the paupers would continue to pour in… Secure our borders. Safeguard our nation. Save our heritage.”
  • Terrorism: Following a Confederate attack on St. Albans, Vt., other attacks from the South are displayed to the ominous sound of a ticking time bomb. “Abraham Lincoln,” the ad says: “Soft on Terror.”
  • Leadership: A pro-Lincoln ad attacks McClellan, the newly nominated Democratic candidate, as short, vain and cowardly. “George ‘Little Mac’ McClellan. Unfit to Command an Army. Unfit to Lead a Nation.”

The campaign-ad timeline features fictional campaign attacks generated by real events. Launched in November 2013 for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the timeline comprises a dozen ads, including several produced by the renowned political consultants Bob Shrum and Mark McKinnon. Shrum worked with Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry; McKinnon worked with Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain.

In addition to the dozen ads on the timeline, has produced nearly 30 other ads employing deception, distraction, attacks on character, and out-of-context words that touch on the issues of the campaign. In one, the pro-Lincoln Super PAC “Steam Boat Veterans for Truth” goes after McClellan’s military record. In another, Mary Todd Lincoln’s penchant for holding séances in the White House comes under attack.

For the complete news release on the Lincoln campaign timeline, click here.