The invective and verbal broadsides that have surrounded both the UK’s Brexit referendum and the U.S. Presidential election have grown increasingly harsh as 2016 has gone by—but political insults polemics are nothing new. From Presidents to Prime Ministers, via the likes of Field-Marshal Haig and even the Prince Regent, some of history’s most famous figures have been at both the giving and receiving end of some notable political zingers.
1. HERBERT HOOVER of FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
The 1932 U.S. election campaign was a bitter and fraught one, with Republican Herbert Hoover clashing frequently with Democrat (and eventual victor) Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt's supporters might not have helped matters by calling Hoover a “fat, timid capon,” but Hoover had barbs of his own to throw back at his opponent; pointing out how often Roosevelt seemed to change his stance on important issues, Hoover famously likened him to “a chameleon on plaid.”
2. THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON of THE PRINCE REGENT
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, secured his place in history with his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But in later life Wellington entered politics, and served two (albeit fairly short) terms as British Prime Minister, as well as a number of other high-ranking ministerial positions in the British cabinet, in the early 19th century. His impressive political and military careers were enough to see him mix with the highest of British high society at the time, including the Prince Regent of the House of Hanover (later King George IV)—whom it appears he didn’t take to particularly well at all:
“By God, you never saw such a figure in your life as he is. Then he speaks and swears, so like old Falstaff, that damn me if I am not ashamed to walk into a room with him.”
This comment, in which Wellington compares the prince to Shakespeare’s drunken lothario Sir John Falstaff, was muttered (presumably in confidence) to Wellington’s friend and fellow politician, Thomas Creevey.
3. MARGOT ASQUITH of DAVID LLOYD GEORGE
Margot Asquith was the socialite wife of HH Asquith, Prime Minister of Great Britain for the first half of the First World War, while David Lloyd George was for much of this time Asquith’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. But after eight years in power, a series of political (and, following the outbreak of the War, military) blunders eventually led Asquith to step down in 1916 and Lloyd George to take his place. The pair had a bitter and very public falling out that threw their Liberal Party into disarray—but it was Lloyd George’s constant criticism of his former friend and Prime Minister that led to Asquith’s wife famously commenting that “He could not see a belt without hitting below it.”
4. ABRAHAM LINCOLN of STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS
As Northern Democratic presidential nominee for President, Stephen A. Douglas was one of Abraham Lincoln’s opponents in the 1860 election, but the pair had a long history of sparring and disagreements—culminating in the famous Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858. It was during some stump speeches, however, that Douglas happened to poke fun at Lincoln’s humble beginnings as a shopkeeper, which led Lincoln to turn the joke around on his opponent:
“I did keep a grocery, and I did sell cotton candles, and cigars, and sometimes whiskey. But I remember in those days, Mr. Douglas was one of my best customers … but the difference between us now is this: I have left my side of the counter, but Mr. Douglas still sticks to his as tenaciously as ever.”
5. JAMES MAXTON of RAMSAY MACDONALD
The Scottish politician James Maxton was among the most controversial Members of the British Parliament in the early 20th century. A staunch supporter of Scottish home rule, he was a conscientious objector who opposed Britain’s involvement in the First World War and once had his parliamentary privileges taken away after he labeled Conservative MP Sir Frederick Banbury a “murderer” for removing free milk from schools. One of Maxton’s most famous quotes, however, came when he interrupted a speech by Labour Party Leader Ramsay MacDonald with this immortal line: “Sit down man! You’re a bloody tragedy.”
6. FIELD-MARSHAL HAIG of EARL OF DERBY
Field-Marshal Douglas Haig was Commander of the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 until the end of the First World War, and coordinated Britain’s military action on the Western Front, including during the Battle of the Somme. During that time Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby, was the British Secretary of State for War, but Derby’s overly compliant and obsequious behavior in parliament contrasted with Haig’s naturally authoritative character, and put the two men at odds—a relationship summed up in this famously barbed comment by Haig:
“A very weak-minded fellow, I am afraid, and, like the feather pillow, bears the marks of the last person who has sat on him.”
7. HENRY WATTERSON of GROVER CLEVELAND
Henry Watterson was a journalist and former U.S. Congressman, who it seems did not take kindly to President Grover Cleveland. Among a number of barbed comments aimed at the only man to serve non-consecutive presidential terms, Watterson famously said of the 1892 Democratic Convention, “nominate Mr. Cleveland and we march through a slaughterhouse into an open grave” [PDF].
8. THEODORE ROOSEVELT of WOODROW WILSON
In ancient Byzantium, a logothete was a pencil-pushing administrator—so when Theodore Roosevelt famously labeled President Woodrow Wilson “a Byzantine logothete” in 1915, he was accusing him of dithering over America’s participation in the First World War. (To which The New York Times hilariously responded [PDF], “If it were so, it were a gregious fault; but in the names of all the words at once, what is ‘a logothete’? Fly to the dictionary ...”).
9. BENJAMIN DISRAELI on WILLIAM GLADSTONE
The British politician (and acclaimed novelist) Benjamin Disraeli twice served as Prime Minister in the mid-19th century. He is renowned for his verbal sparring matches with four-time Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, of whom he famously said, “he has not one single redeeming defect.” Disraeli was no more enamored of fellow Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, whose smile he supposedly likened to “the silver fittings on a coffin.”
10. JOHN ADAMS of ALEXANDER HAMILTON
Not even the Founding Fathers were immune to the harshest of insults: in a letter to Benjamin Rush in January 1806, John Adams labeled Alexander Hamilton “a bastard brat of a Scotch pedler.” In fact, Adams liked the comment so much that he dusted it off just about every time he had to mention Hamilton in print: Merriam-Webster’s archives have unearthed Adams using precisely the same expression again, in letters dating from 1813 and 1816.
All images courtesy of Getty Images.