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7 Early American Political Scandals 

Now little-known, these incidents once shocked voters.

political cartoon depicting Representative Preston Brooks attacking abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner with a cane
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  • The caning of Charles Sumner depicted in a cartoon titled "Southern Chivalry – Argument versus Clubs".Photo Credit: Wikipedia

These days, American politics may feel rife with scandals, as a former president faces charges of inciting insurrection, while allegations of corruption haunt politicians on both sides of the aisle. But it turns out that the old dictum that power corrupts is old for a reason, and political scandals have been a part of politics since before the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1776.

From greed and sex to warmongering and even murder, these 7 scandals rocked the political scene when they occurred, though many have been largely forgotten in the years since, obscured by the mists of history and eclipsed by more recent instances of corrupt or salacious behavior on the part of those who are meant to govern our country.

The Hamilton-Reynolds Affair


These days, Alexander Hamilton is best known as the eponymous figure of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which culminates in his death at the hands of Aaron Burr in a duel. However, his contemporaries were focused on a different scandal.

In 1791, Hamilton was serving as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, in the cabinet of George Washington. That same year, he began an affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds, whose husband James was aware of their trysts and used them to extort more than one thousand dollars from Hamilton. When the details of the affair came to light, Hamilton became the first politician in the then still-fledgling U.S. to be involved in a sex scandal.

The Blount Conspiracy


A signatory of the U.S. Constitution, William Blount also holds the distinction of being the first member ever to be expelled from the U.S. Senate. In 1796, Blount was serving as Senator of Tennessee when he embarked upon a land speculation conspiracy to attempt to help the British in seizing what was then Spanish-held territory in what would become the states of Louisiana and Florida.

Blount owned large tracts of land which would suddenly become a lot more prosperous in the event that the conspiracy was successful, but unfortunately for him it wasn’t—one of its letters found its way to President John Adams, and Blount found himself the first person ever to be expelled from the Senate.

The Petticoat Affair 


Not all of the sex scandals in American history involved adultery or extramarital affairs. Indeed, everything about the 1829 marriage between Margaret O’Neill and Secretary of War John Henry Eaton appears to be on the up and up, at least by modern standards. In 1829, however, the nuptials were considered unseemly due to the fact that Margaret’s first husband had died just nine months before. 

This was the excuse, at least, that the other wives of Washington high society used to exclude the Eatons from social functions, which eventually led President Andrew Jackson himself to become involved. The schism proved so intractable that, in 1831, it led Jackson to take the extraordinary step of dissolving his cabinet and splitting with his vice president before his second term in office.

The Brooks-Sumner Affair 


Sometimes, it seems like political rhetoric these days is about as heated as it could possibly get. But as of late, no one has physically attacked another member of Congress on the Senate floor, as happened in 1856, when pro-slavery Representative Preston Brooks attacked abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, beating him so badly with a cane that he nearly died. The attack was a retaliation for Sumner’s “Crime against Kansas” speech, in which he denounced the Kansas-Nebraska act and slave-holding states, including a relative of Brooks’. 

The attack is often seen as a major stepping stone to the Civil War, and the aftermath of it may be unsurprising to those who have seen the polarization that grips Washington today. Brooks was condemned in the North but hailed as a hero in the South, with supporters even sending him replacement canes, including one reportedly inscribed with the words “Hit Him Again”.

The Murder of Philip Barton Key


Assault is one thing, but outright murder also numbers among the scandals that rocked Washington in the latter half of the 19th century. Philip Barton Key II was, among other things, the son of Francis Scott Key, author of the text of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He was also having an affair with the wife of a New York Congressman, Daniel Sickles. 

When Sickles learned about the affair, he gunned down Key in broad daylight, in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House. When he surrendered himself to authorities, Sickles was charged with murder, but his attorneys argued temporary insanity, the first time such a legal defense was ever used in the United States. It worked, too, netting Sickles an acquittal and allowing him to continue his political career.

Black Friday 


Abel Corbin was the brother-in-law of President Ulysses S. Grant, having married his younger sister Virginia. It was this relationship that became central to the so-called Black Friday gold panic. Corbin, along with fellow conspirators Jay Gould and James Fisk, planned to use their connection to the president in order to manipulate the price of gold, thereby cornering the market and making a bundle. 

It worked for a while, too, until Grant caught on and released some $4 million in government gold, sending the market into a tailspin and inspiring a panic on Wall Street that prompted months of economic turmoil and narrowly avoided kicking off a major economic depression. While Grant was eventually cleared of any knowing involvement in the conspiracy, the scandal cast a pall over his presidency.

The Teapot Dome Scandal


The presidency of Warren G. Harding, which lasted from 1921 until 1923, was beset with scandal almost from the start, although little of it was laid directly at Harding’s feet. Instead, it was the people he picked to make up his cabinet who were at the heart of much of the controversy, including Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, who arranged for the leasing of Wyoming oil reserves that had been held back for the Navy in exchange for hundreds of thousands in Liberty Bonds. 

One of these reserves was Teapot Dome, which lent its name to the scandal. Fall became the first cabinet secretary to go to prison due to abuse of his power while on the job and, according to presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, the mounting scandals put “so much pressure on President Harding that he died in office of a heart attack.”