Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History

Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History

Matthew Weber - May 24, 2017

For almost as long as humans have been around, politics and scandal have gone hand in hand. No country or organization is immune to it. No matter where you look, you can find examples of something scandalous, even in the most unlikely of places.

American politicians are not strangers to scandals of all sorts, and that was just as true at the beginning of democracy as it is today. In today’s article, we’re going to look at the most famous scandals of early American politics.

Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History
The Whisky Ring. History Channel

The Whisky Ring

Surprisingly, there are more scandals surrounding booze than you might expect. The Whisky Ring was a large conspiracy of politicians, government employees, whisky distilleries and distillers. This was a nationwide crime ring that was focused on siphoning off taxes that were applied to the sale of hard liquor.

This was brought to the attention of the public in May 1875 during the Presidency of Ulysses S Grant. At the time the country was in a period called Reconstruction. This period was started with President Andrew Johnson and was meant to renew and heal the country after the terrible losses it faced during the American Civil War.

By the time Grant took office, Reconstruction had been ongoing for several years, and there was a large number of people in the United States that felt disillusioned with the process. A lot of this had to do with several political scandals that shook the confidence Americans once had in the Republican party.

When the Whisky Ring was uncovered by US Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow in 1875, it signaled the pending doom of the Reconstruction era. As part of Reconstruction, Northern Republicans had moved South and imposed a lot of policies onto the South. As you can imagine, this made a lot of former Confederates angry, and displaced the Southern Democrats, who still had some power even after the war.

The Whisky Ring was a gigantic conspiracy all focused on money. There was a web of people in every level of government from the White House to the IRS, who conspired with the liquor industry to siphon off taxes paid by that industry. In order to expose the conspiracy, Bristow needed to hire outside investigators as he didn’t know who in the Treasury Department he could trust.

By the end of it, 110 people were convicted, and nearly $3.5 million in tax revenue was recovered. The impact this had on the Republican party, which was the dominant party because of the outcome of the Civil War, was vast. It also allowed a resurgence of the Democratic Party, which was becoming more liberal by necessity, especially in the South.

Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History
New York Times

The Crédit Mobilier of America Scandal

There are two things that create the largest political scandals, sex and money. In the case of the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal, it was money that played the largest role. Money has always had a corrupting influence on politics, and the United States is no different.

As the US grew as a country, and as technology advanced, transportation also needed to grow. Between 1800 and the end of the Civil War, the newest and greatest transportation method was rail. The US saw staggering growth in the railroad industry during this time period With that growth came a lot of money, and where there is money, there’s corruption.

This scandal started small in 1864 as a cash-for-votes operation run by a congressman named Oakes Ames. It started when Congress authorized the creation of the Union Pacific Railroad and its primary creditor Crédit Mobilier. Ames then would pass out bribes, usually in the form of Union Pacific stocks to other politicians to vote on bills that would affect that particular railroad.

That was only the first part of the game, however. They also needed these politicians in their pockets because of the financial scam they were running during the construction of their railroad. The executives of the Union Pacific Railroad set up a bank called Crédit Mobilier of America. It was a front meant to show the US Government that they had financial backing, when they had none. Instead, they used Crédit Mobilier of America to take money from the US Government, and then skim off profits from that money when it should have been going towards construction costs.

In the end, the US Government shelled out around $95 million when the construction costs actually only ran around $50 million. That excess was split between the Union Pacific board members, US government officials, and the stockholders.

So, who were these people? The members of this scam were well distributed amongst the US government. It included the Vice President, Schuyler Colfax, four US Senators, and the US Secretary of the Treasury, all Republicans.

The scam was uncovered in 1872 by The Sun, a New York City newspaper. The outcome was yet more distrust in Congress, and further erosion of the Republican plans for Reconstruction, a plan to heal the nation after the Civil War (and a plan to eliminate the power of Southern Democrats).

Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History
History on the Net

The 1876 Presidential Election

By the time 1876 rolled around, Reconstruction was very unpopular. Even more so because of the almost constant scandals that plagued the Republican party. It is entirely possible that the country could have slipped back into Civil War if something hadn’t been done.

Violence had been a common factor in the South as former Confederates fought the rule of the Republican party, which had taken over during the Reconstruction period after the end of the Civil War.

Like recent elections, the Election of 1876 was hotly contested. In fact, it is the most contested election in American history, even surpassing the Hanging Chad idiocy that was the 2000 Presidential election. At the time, in order to win the presidency, the winner needed 185 electoral votes out of a total of 369.

Democrat Samuel Tilden won 184 of those votes. Rutherford B Hayes, the Republican, won 165. That left 20 that were contested. Those votes came from the states of Florida (of course), Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon.

Tilden won the popular vote by almost 300,000 votes. In Florida, Louisiana and Oregon, both parties claimed victory simultaneously. In Oregon, one of the electors had to be replaced because he was an elected official.

The outcome was that Hayes was announced as the winner, but only after the Compromise of 1877. The Compromise was that Hayes would win, but he had to agree to remove the remaining troops from the South, those troops having been there since the end of the Civil War. He did so once he took office.

With this compromise, it allowed Southern Democrats to return to office after the Reconstruction period ended. It also allowed them to enact policies that disenfranchised recently freed black men. While this would be the policy for the next several decades, it did slow the violence that had been brewing in the South for years after the war.

It would take until 1920 before a Republican would win a state in the South. And of course, it wouldn’t be until the 1960s that voter disenfranchisement would be made illegal for good.

Also Read: These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged or Stolen.

Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History
Dan Sickles, left; Phillip Barton Key on the right. Iron Brigaders.com

The Sickles Murder Scandal

Daniel Sickles was a congressman from New York State. In 1859, he shot and killed Philip Barton Key II, the son of Francis Scott Key (who wrote the Star Spangled Banner). For the longest time prior to the murder, the worst kept secret in Washington was that Sickles’ wife was having an affair with Key. Almost everyone knew, except for Daniel Sickles, who remained oblivious until the spring of 1859.

He received an anonymous letter that told him all bout his wife’s infidelity. On February 27, 1859, in Lafayette Square (right across from the White House), Sickles murdered Philip Barton Key II by shooting him in the chest.

As you can imagine, the media and the country went crazy. This was a congressman who was apparently a murderer. The trial ran from April 4-26 1859. By the end of it, despite a confession, Daniel Sickles was found not guilty. The reason was that he pleaded “temporary insanity”. This was the first time in American legal history that someone was allowed to plead such in a murder trial.

Sickles is a very interesting person to study, even beyond the fact that he was a congressman who murdered another man and got away with it. He was a serial philanderer, and he was no stranger to sex scandals, even while married to his wife (who was around 15 when he married her in 1952). During his time in the New York State Senate, he was censured for spending time with a prostitute.

The media went mad during the trial. Articles appeared in most national magazines and newspapers, and reporters filled the seats at the courthouse.

The trial was itself a spectacle. The Associate Defense Attorney’s opening statement went on for two days, and was eventually published as a book. It contained quotes from Othello, Roman Law, and Judaic history. One of his attorneys was associated with the famous Tammany Hall, a political organization that was made infamous for being the source of a lot of corrupt politicians. Sickles himself was associated with that organization as well.

Sickles defense worked, and he went on to serve in the US Congress until 1861 when he joined the Union Army where he fought in many famous battles including Gettysburg. His wife died in 1867. For the remainder of his life, Sickles remained a ladies’ man.

Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History
Depiction of Brooks beating Sumner with his cane. Shmoop

The Sumner-Brooks Affair

As you might expect, the issue of slavery was contentious long before the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Many attempts were made to compromise between the North’s abolitionist policies and the South’s agrarian, slave economy. But there was also a lot of vitriol flowing through the country. In the US Legislature, there was often acrimonious debate about the subject.

In May of 1856, Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, gave a speech over the course of two days where he derided the South and in specific Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, specifically on the topic of slavery and as he described them “excesses”.

The speech was not well received by many people. In fact, only the extreme abolitionists were supportive, while the moderates thought that Sumner was being un-American.

The tensions during that time period were exceptionally high, and Sumner’s speech did nothing to quell that tension. Instead, a few days later, Congressman Preston Brooks, Butler’s nephew, beat Sumner with a cane, wounding him severely. It took more than three years before he could resume his duties.

The aftermath was divided right down the line between North and South as you might expect. Even though the more moderate in the North had nothing good to say about Sumner’s speech, he came across as a lovable martyr, leading him to reelection even though he was still unable to take his seat until two years into his next term.

Brooks on the other hand was derided in the North, but seen as a hero in the South. He was invited to dinners, and collected canes that were sent to him by people who admired what he had done. Even though he resigned from the House of Representatives before he could be censured, he was reelected to his seat, nearly unanimously.

Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History
Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States. History Channel

The Petticoat Affair

There is a lot to be said about Andrew Jackson’s presidency and a lot to say about the man himself. A moral beacon for the Light he was not. Jackson was the 7th President of the United States, and he served a full two terms, but he was often embroiled in controversy during his time in office. One such scandal is the Petticoat Affair. This is fairly complicated so stick with us.

Margaret Eaton was a character. She was outspoken, very beautiful, and a widow of only a few months. It was only a few months after her first husband died that she married Jackson’s Secretary of War, John Eaton. In those days, this was seen as highly improper, as most saw her immediate marriage as a disgrace to her deceased husband. It cast aspersions over her reputation, mostly in terms of her faithfulness not only to her previous marriage, but her marriage to John Eaton. They called her a woman of “easy virtue.”

The early 19th century in Washington was highly stratified when it came to social circles, and the Cabinet Wives were very prominent within the top echelons of Government society. Margaret Eaton was shunned within that community. Both Cabinet officials and their wives actively derided her virtue, often publicly. Whether or not any of those accusations were true, or not, no one really knows.

President Jackson, however, sympathized with Eaton, and publicly announced that the rumors were false. He even called a special cabinet meeting, during which he said that Margaret Eaton was “as chaste as a virgin”.

His intervention did little to quell the rumors around Mrs. Eaton. When those rumors didn’t die down, Jackson fired or accepted the resignations of most of his cabinet members. It also caused a rift between him and Vice President John C. Calhoun, who would be replaced during Jackson’s second term, likely because of the Petticoat Affair.

Jackson didn’t hold on to many cabinet members for very long. During his two terms, he had two Vice Presidents, four Secretaries of State, five Secretaries of Treasury, two Secretaries of War, three Attorneys General, two Postmasters General, and three Secretaries of the Navy. Quite a turnover rate for just a few years in office.

You May Also Read: 10 Historic Presidential Affair Scandals.

Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History
Aaron Burr. Badass of the Week

The Burr Conspiracy

Aaron Burr is fairly well known, and for good reason. After all, he shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Yes. A duel. That was in 1804 while he was Vice President of the United States. He may be the only Vice President to actually kill someone while in office, though surprisingly he isn’t the only elected official to fight in a duel. That was fairly common up until the 1850s.

The scandal surrounding his illegal duel with Hamilton is well-known, but what isn’t as well-known is that he tried to annex parts of then-Spanish territory in the Western parts of the United States, by himself. His plans were then, supposedly, to create his own empire, and appoint himself as the leader.

The conspiracy kicked off in 1805, when Burr moved to the West and started recruiting members for his own private army. He was assisted by US General James Wilkinson, who was also a Spanish spy. Burr and Wilkinson gathered men and arms on a small island in the Ohio River, and planned their eventual takeover of Spanish territory towards the west.

Whatever they had planned, and the eventual feasibility of those plans will never be known, because Wilkinson betrayed Burr to President Thomas Jefferson. Burr was arrested and tried for treason, but was acquitted since his actions were against Spain and not the United States.

Some of the conspiracies came from Burr’s quest to perhaps separate several territories that came with the Louisiana Purchase, and enfold them into his own empire.

There isn’t much known about this conspiracy outside of the few details listed here. We know that it happened, and we suspect the goals that Burr had because of Wilkinson’s betrayal. But one thing we do know, and that we find most interesting, is that Burr actually faced more inquiry and punishment for his attempt to annex his own empire than he did over killing Alexander Hamilton.

Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History
Brawl between Matthew Lyon and Rodger Griswold, that took place during Bluont’s impeachment hearing. Wikipedia

The Blount Conspiracy

William Blount was a United States Senator at the end of the 18th century. In fact, he was one of the first-ever senators from Tennessee. His is one of the signatures on the Constitution, and he served in the Continental Congress. He was also a major landowner in the Western United States, especially in what would at the turn of the century become Louisiana and Florida.

At the time most of his land was in Spanish territory. In 1796, Blount hatched a plan to drive the Spanish out of the soon-to-be states of Louisiana and Florida, and have the British take over, forming a colony.

His method was to recruit frontiersmen and Cherokee Indians, who would then rise up against Spain and drive them off the entirety of the Gulf Coast. His rationale was that if the British overtook that territory, his land would be worth more.

Needless to say, it didn’t work. Several of his secret papers that outlined his plans made it to President John Adams in 1797, and he was forced to give it up as a bad deal. The Senate voted to expel him, but his impeachment trial was dismissed due to a “lack of jurisdiction.”

Despite the lack of impeachment, he was still effectively expelled from the senate because his reputation after his trial (which he did not attend), was shot. It didn’t end badly for him, despite being labeled a “Scoundrel” in Washington. He was later elected to the State Legislature in Tennessee, and would become the Speaker of their House.

Several of his co-conspirators also got away with the “crime”, and the most anyone served was a stint in a British debtors prison.


Read Next: Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret.