Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History

Matthew Weber - July 5, 2017

Corruption and politics have always gone hand in hand. The old quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men,” by Lord John Acton seems to really be true. Over the course of human history, the men (as it has almost always been men at the reigns of power, at least until relatively recently) who have power are often easily led astray by the power and the money that usually comes with that power.

If one were to take a cynical point of view, it seems that it is exceedingly rare to find a politician who is honest and good. As with all things, it is likely less raunchy than we seem to expect, but worse that is probably good for us as a race. Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, no one can deny that there is corruption in politics, and there always has been. Today we’re going to look at the most corrupt politicians in US History.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
Richard Nixon. History Channel

Richard Nixon, President of the United States (R)

We start with the man who actually had to leave office in order to prevent himself from going to jail. He remains the only US President to ever resign from office, and his name has become synonymous with corruption in the White House.

The year 1972 was not a good year to be Richard Nixon. Prior to that, his presidency was shaping up to be one for the history books. If the President of the United States is to be given credit for the things that happen during his term in office, then Nixon ended the war in Vietnam, enforced desegregation in the South, signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the USSR, established the EPA, and oversaw the moon landing in 1969. For any president to have those things happen while he’s in office would almost make a sterling legacy a sure thing. It’s no wonder that he was re-elected in 1972 in one of the most lopsided victories in US Presidential history.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History

But 1973 changed everything for Nixon. The economy sank, mostly due to an Arab oil embargo and gasoline rationing, and then there was the scandal. The Watergate scandal may be the most well-known scandal in the history of American politics.

So what is Watergate? Basically is surrounds a plot by the Nixon Administration and leading Republicans to spy on and discredit their Democratic rivals. They did this through so-called “dirty tricks,” like planting listening devices in the offices of their opponents, the harassment of activist groups that did not align with their political point of view, and other illicit activities.

The whole thing came down in June of 1972, when five men were caught breaking into the Watergate office complex where the Democrats had their party headquarters. By July of the next year, it was plainly obvious that not only did Nixon know about the things that were going on, but he was actively trying to cover them up. Through a series of leaks and incredible journalism, Nixon’s entire house of cards came crashing down around him. 48 people were eventually convicted of wrongdoing surrounding the Watergate scandal.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
New York Times

Nixon was forced to resign from the Presidency on August 9, 1974, after two years of constant investigation. In his resignation speech he said: “In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me. In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in Congress to justify continuing that effort…Therefore, I shall resign from the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”

Nixon will likely only ever be remembered for how he left office and the two years preceding his resignation.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States. Wikipedia

Ulysses S Grant, President of the United States (R)

Grant is often known for his honesty, and that’s a true depiction of the man most often credited for his leadership during the Civil War. However, his administration is perhaps the most corrupt presidential administration in the history of the United States.

It is perhaps unfair for us to put the blame for all the corruption that surrounded Grant on his shoulders. However, as is often the case, the President is the ultimate authority, and Grant’s presidency (which should have been a symbol of a nation rebuilding to its previous strength) was marred with almost constant scandal.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History

There was quite a vacuum in American politics after the Civil War. The Democratic Party, which was pro-South throughout the war was left reeling by the loss, and the Republican Party flew in to fill the void. The Reconstruction period, as it was called, is often called a disaster by historians for many reasons. There was so much that needed to be done after the Civil War for the country to heal, but the corrupt ways of the entire political system made it almost impossible for real reform to happen.

The scandals surrounding Grant’s administration started in 1869 with the Black Friday gold speculation ring (the two perpetrators ended up being personal friends of Grant), which resulted in the Government dropping almost four million dollars in gold on the market after the scandal was revealed. This caused economic problems for the next decade. Then there was the New York Custom House Ring, which surrounded the collection of import revenue in New York.

In 1873, Grant was responsible for the increase of salaries for every single public official, including himself (his salary was raised from $25,000 to $50,000). In and of itself, this doesn’t sound all that scandalous, as we see elected officials giving themselves raises all the time nowadays. However, it was the sneakiness behind it that caused the problems. The raises came as an amendment to the Government’s budget bill, which if it hadn’t been passed and signed into law, would have shut the entire government down, effectively making the pay raises impossible not to pass.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
Political Cartoon Depicting the Whiskey Ring. Jenschoeller

Amongst the dozens of scandals that surrounded the Grant administration, perhaps the largest was the so-called Whiskey Ring. If you want to talk about grand conspiracies, the Whiskey Ring may be one of the largest ever uncovered in the United States. It involved hundreds of people from the lowest to the highest levels of government.

In 1875, the Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow exposed a conspiracy where Whiskey distillers had been evading paying taxes since the early years of the Lincoln administration. Apparently, the group had been neglecting their proper taxes to the tune of over $2 million a year. The ring was eventually brought down by Bristow in May of 1875. Hundreds of people were arrested, including President Grant’s Supervisor of Internal Revenue, John McDonald and Orville E. Babcock, the personal secretary to the President.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States. History

Andrew Jackson, President of the United States

We’ll forgive the man for being prone to duel people who he disagreed with (he fought in at least three well-publicized duels to the death). However, Andrew Jackson is perhaps the man most responsible for the most corruption in the 19th century. Now, that’s an inflammatory statement to be sure. However, the reason why it might be true is that Jackson is seemingly responsible for the institution of the “spoils system” wherein government appointments were made not for the merits of the appointee, but for what that person had done for the President.

Prior to the election of Andrew Jackson, the positions surrounding the president were chosen in a fairly reasonable manner, though as you might expect there was corruption and patronage. Once Jackson was elected, however, anyone who had done anything to get him elected was allowed into the White House to beg for a position in the administration. So much so that he is often quoted as saying that he got very little work done in the first few weeks of his presidency because the comers and goers were keeping him too busy.

What this amounted to was almost a constant turnover in the government positions appointed by President Jackson. At least two times during his presidency, Jackson fired his entire cabinet over widespread controversies.

The interesting thing is, that Jackson actually pushed through several initiatives to help remove corruption from the federal government. However, his idea to use political appointments to scrub away corruption only further entrenched the idea of patronage, so much so that it started to be called the “Spoils system”, i.e. “To the winner goes the spoils.”

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History

Most historians will tell you that Jackson’s institutionalization of patronage marked the beginning of a new area of public corruption. The spoils system actually got worse once Jackson left office. It wasn’t uncommon for a person to buy their way into a post, and then use their influence to change policy to suit their own business interests.

It wouldn’t be until the mid-1880s when the US Congress passed the Pendleton Act that the government would finally be a merit-based system (or at least, it would be in theory). Andrew Jackson gets a lot of the credit for starting this era off, however. Much of the corruption that followed was the direct result of Spoils.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
William ‘Boss’ Tweed. Wikipedia

Boss Tweed, Democratic Party Leader

William Tweed is perhaps the best-known corrupt politician in American History that wasn’t ever a US President. The sad fact of the matter is that while there is and has been astonishing corruption in the White House, it is at the local and state level that we’ll find the worst offenders, of which William ‘Boss’ Tweed was perhaps the worst ever.

William Tweed was a Democratic politician in New York City (and later in the state of New York) for much of the mid to late 1800s. At the pinnacle of his political and economic influence, Tweed was the third-largest landowner in New York City, and controlled the most powerful Democratic Political Machine ever to exist.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
The Exterior of Tammany Hall, c1900. The Observer

In 1858, Tweed became the head of the Tammany Hall Political Machine. His influence spread throughout the city to the point where he ruled elections, dictated results by stuffed ballot boxes, and appointed who he wanted to post throughout the city. By the time the 1869 election rolled around, Tweed and his cronies were in total control of the New York City government and much of the state government as well. His former protegé, John T. Hoffman, was elected governor, and Tweed was able to bring power back to the Democratically controlled City Hall (and away from Republican state committees) by bribing Republican legislators.

By returning control over the city’s finances to City Hall, Tweed was able to appoint members of the Tammany Hall to the Board of Audit, essentially giving him complete control over the city. Tweed also personally appointed several of his men in other positions within the city.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
Political Cartoon By Thomas Nast. Wikipedia

There is a lot to unravel surrounding Tweed’s power, so much more than we can cover here. Tweed committed a lot of crimes during his time in power, from voter fraud and intimidation to embezzlement and many other crimes. Estimates in the decades following Tweeds’ eventual arrest say that Tweed embezzled as much as $200 million from the city’s accounts over his reign (other reports say that it was between $25 and $45 million). You have to remember that that is $200 million in 1860s money, it would an astronomical amount today (Well over $2 billion in 2015 dollars if our math is right).

Tweed was arrested in late 1871, and went on trial in 1873. He was found guilty, but was eventually released. He was arrested again in November 1876 in Cuba, and was imprisoned for the rest of his life. During the months that led up to his initial arrest, scandals surrounded Tweed and his Tammany Hall political machine. Thomas Nast was a political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly and was often drawing cartoons depicting Tweed’s corruption, especially in those months leading up to Tweed’s arrest. Tweed is reported to have said regarding those cartoons: “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
Ray Blanton. Denver Post

Ray Blanton, Democratic Governor of Tennessee

Ray Blanton was the Governor of Tennessee starting in 1974. He won a very close election against a Republican who likely would have won if the entire Republican party hadn’t been tarnished by Richard Nixon’s Watergate Scandal.

Blanton was just a bad guy. His largest crime, and the one that removed him from office was the selling of pardons and liquor licenses, but his entire term was filled with supposed scandals. He accepted a very controversial $20,000 per year pay raise at a time when the state was going through financial difficulties, he often took political and non-political friends on trips using state funds, and his aides and appointees often used state funds for bar tabs, limousine rentals and other extravagant purchases.

The biggest scandal, however, that Blanton took part in was the buying of pardons for convicted criminals, many of whom were in jail for the most terrible of crimes. One of the people Blanton pardoned was in jail after being convicted of murdering his ex-wife and her male companion. While signing that particular pardon, Blanton told his Secretary of State “this takes guts.” Gentry Crowell, Blanton’s Secretary of State, replied “Some people have more guts than brains.”

In the end, Blanton tried to pardon 52 state prisoners, of which 20 of them were convicted murderers. Some of them were related to Blanton supporters, others had the money to bribe Blanton for their release.

By that time the FBI was highly interested in Ray Blanton and his administration. In mid-December 1978, they had already started their investigation by raiding the office of Blanton’s top advisor, T. Edward Sisk. Sisk and two other Blanton advisors were arrested the same day, but Blanton stayed in office.

When several within the Tennessee government got wind that Blanton was looking to actually perform more pardons, they started to look for a way to remove him from office (this was at the end of his term, so impeachment was unlikely as it would have taken too long).

What they ended up doing was inaugurating the next governor three days early in order to prevent Blanton from proceeding with even more pardons.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
Ray Blanton Convicted. The Tennessean

So what happened to Blanton? Well, he was never officially charged with the crime of pardoning so many criminals, but he did spend 22 months in jail for mail fraud and conspiracy.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
Huey Long. Real Clear Politics

Huey Long, Democratic Governor of Louisiana

The term corrupt is controversial when it comes to politicians because one man’s corruption is another man’s patriotism (in some cases, anyways). Huey Long was the poor man’s man, or at least that is what he proclaimed himself to be, His motto was “Every man, a king.”

In some ways, Huey Long may be the most controversial politician to take office in the 20th century. He was elected as a Democrat to the governorship of Louisiana in 1928, and held the office until 1932 when he took a seat in the United States Senate. While governor, Long was heralded as a hero to some, while others considered him a dictator and a threat to the country. Granted, a lot of people would be thinking about Franklin D. Roosevelt over the next decade as well.

The issue for Long was income inequality. This was a huge deal in those days because of the Great Depression, which kicked off a year into Long’s governorship. During his tenure, Long sought to redistribute wealth, and would do so through any means, including a vast network of ‘cronies’ he helped into positions of power through political patronage. He also used threats and bribes to beat his wealthy and entrenched rivals. While he was elected to the Senate in 1930, he wouldn’t take his seat until 1932, after his term as governor was over.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History

A year into his term as governor, the Louisiana legislature tried to impeach him, charging him with corruption, bribery and ‘blasphemy’. The Louisiana House passed several of the charges and passed the proceedings off to the Senate, but Long was able to get one-third of the Senate to sign a commitment to vote against any charges regardless of any evidence. In return for their vote, they were given state jobs or cash. The debate in both houses of State Congress was heated, often leading to brawls on the House Floor.

There are also other ways Huey Long was corrupt. He sought to pass an extravagant tax on newspapers that published articles that went against him and he intimidated his opponents by threatening their relatives who worked in state government.

Outside of his political corruption, his personality often rubbed people the wrong way, and he was kind of a jerk. At one party in 1933, he urinated on the trousers of a fellow guest, who then punched him in the eye.

Rolling With the Pigs: The Top 6 Corrupt Politicians in US History
Rare Newspapers

His efforts to redistribute wealth, while protecting his political base and economic power, led to a lot of enemies. Through vast public works projects and high taxes on the wealthy, he changed Louisiana’s political landscape. His actions caught up to him on September 8, 1935, when he was assassinated by the son of one of his long-time political rivals. He died on September 10.