Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret

Larry Holzwarth - July 7, 2021

Americans tend to view the Founders as detached icons, removed from their humanity. They peer down through history from their pedestals, all traces of their daily existence erased. They spoke in lofty platitudes, always concerned with posterity and its judgments. Rather than seeing them with their coats off, up to their elbows in labors both physical and mental, they are viewed in the poses created for them by sculptors, painters, and all too often historians and biographers. Judging them without viewing them as what they were, mortal men subject to the temptations and desires of all dehumanize them. It creates a false image of who and what they really were – politicians involved in a scandal or two.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
America’s Founders exhibited many of the same foibles of their latter-day counterparts. Wikimedia

Yet all were subjected to the temptations and vagaries presented by power, politics, women, and the pursuit of financial security. During their lifetimes they endured the criticisms of each other, a salacious press, and the opinions of their constituents. George Washington sagely observed the damage to his reputation, commenting that no man’s reputation could survive, undamaged, a term in the presidency. The press of the day loved nothing so much as a scandal, and the Founders all found themselves the subjects of wagging tongues in the early days of the Republic. Here are some of the scandals the Founders strove to keep hidden, or were forced to acknowledge, during the formative years of the American Republic.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
George Washington as a young surveyor in the mid-18th century. Wikimedia

1. George Washington fell in love with another man’s wife

As a youth in Virginia, George Washington found himself enthralled with Sally Fairfax, the wife of George Fairfax, then the son of the wealthiest planter in the colony. They spent considerable time together, often at Belvoir, the Fairfax estate to the south of Mount Vernon. By the time of the French and Indian War, Washington expressed his feelings to Sally, somewhat unwisely, in a letter. The letter, written in September 1758, included his intention to keep his feelings to himself. “The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to you, when I want to conceal it”, he wrote. Washington was at the time engaged to be married to Martha Custis, a wealthy widow and his eventual wife. Historians have long considered Washington’s love of Sally to have been a youthful passion, dismissed in later years.

George Fairfax remained a Loyalist during the Revolution, and died in England in 1787. Sally remained there, living in Bath as a widow. But George Washington never forgot her, and continued to correspond with her throughout the remainder of his life. In 1798, a year before his death, Washington wrote to Sally, beseeching her to return to Virginia. In his letter, he referred to the time they had spent together as “the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company”. Sally resisted his urgings, remaining in Britain until her death in 1811. During her lifetime she left little evidence of her feelings for George, and none of her letters give a clue to subsequent generations of their relationship together. Martha’s thoughts on the matter are likewise unknown. George managed to conceal his feelings from his contemporaries quite well.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Silas Deane found himself accused of misuse of public funds while serving as a Minister in Paris. Wikimedia

2. Silas Deane may have stolen money from the Continental Congress

Silas Deane is one of the lesser-known Founders, though his service to the Revolutionary cause was substantial. Deane actively recruited foreign officers to the Patriot’s cause, among them the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben. He supported and helped fund the firm Hortalez et Cie, a front which helped supply the Continental Army. The latter entity provided supplies and weapons before the French government agreed to overt support the Revolution. During his time in France Deane antagonized other American diplomats and French officials, among them Arthur Lee. Lee wrote allies in the Continental Congress, accusing Deane of malfeasance and worse, and Deane found himself recalled. He was not informed of the reasons for his recall until he appeared before Congress, and could not adequately defend himself, having left his records and account books in Paris.

Without a suitable defense, Deane chose to attack his accusers, taking on the powerful Lee family in the process. Both parties chose to present their views publicly, publishing accusations and defense in newspapers. Deane returned to Paris in 1780 to obtain the documents needed for his defense. In 1781 letters purportedly written by Deane appeared in Loyalist newspapers, describing the Patriot’s position as militarily hopeless. Deane found the accusations of treason added to those of malfeasance. His reputation never recovered. He remained in France for a time before moving to Ghent, and later to London. He died under somewhat mysterious conditions in 1789, having never fully cleared his name of either charge. His role and his loyalties remain a subject of debate among historians, though most consider him a Patriot who sacrificed his fortune and personal reputation for the cause.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris (no relation), two of the lesser-known Founders of the United States. Wikimedia

3. Gouverneur Morris precipitated numerous affairs with married women which were open secrets

Another lesser-known Founder, Morris, was mischievous throughout his adult life, preferring illicit relationships with married women. His activities included liaisons with the wives of powerful men and tradesmen, in Europe and in the United States. He recorded intimate activities in his diaries and referred to them openly in letters. In France he arranged a “personal” encounter with the wife of a man who was only one floor above them in the Louvre, then a palace of the French King. He wrote of the encounter taking place in a room with the doors open, and the possibility of visitors ever-present. Not until he was 57 years old did he decide to marry his housekeeper, 22 years his junior. Yet his extracurricular activities continued unabated, to the chagrin of many of his contemporaries.

Morris did little to conceal his activities, and they were a frequent subject of discussion among the Founders, usually in taverns and taprooms. When he was 32, Morris was involved in a carriage accident, which led to his losing a leg to amputation (he was fleeing an outraged husband he had cuckolded at the time). John Jay later quipped to Morris that he wished his fellow diplomat had lost something else. Morris’s contributions to the formative United States were substantial, including the creation of the phrase, “We the People of the United States”, as well as the rest of the Preamble to the Constitution. He later helped create much of modern New York, supporting the Erie Canal and creating the grid system for the streets of Manhattan. The scandal didn’t bother him in life, and it hasn’t since, though he was seldom not involved in one.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Alexander Hamilton roundly condemned Edmond Genet’s activities, which brought him into a rare agreement with Thomas Jefferson. Wikimedia

4. The Citizen Genet affair rocked the Washington Administration

In April 1793, the Revolutionary Government of France dispatched Edmond-Charles Genet to the United States as its ambassador. Chief among his duties was securing the support of the United States in France’s wars with Spain and Britain. Washington declared American neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars that same month. Genet had other ideas. Upon his arrival in the United States at Charleston, South Carolina, Genet commissioned privateers to raid British and Spanish shipping, under the French flag. He also recruited a personal militia, with the expressed intention of attacking Spanish and British holdings in what was then the two Floridas. Ordinarily, the first duty of a foreign ambassador is to present their credentials to the visited government. Genet ignored this duty for over a month as he prepared for war, from American territory, against France’s enemies.

Washington was outraged, both at Genet’s flaunting of protocol, and the hostile activities which threatened to violate his expressed neutrality. Washington’s cabinet was frequently divided, almost perpetually, with Alexander Hamilton expressing Federalist views. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson held Democratic-Republican opinions. Yet both men agreed the activities of the Frenchman Genet were dangerous and required immediate curtailment. As Genet traveled north to meet with the government in Philadelphia, his frequent stops led to the development of societies supporting his views. Washington angrily denounced the societies, though he did not take legal actions against them. Hamilton and Jefferson endorsed the President’s stand, a rare case of the cabinet uniting during the turbulent second administration of President Washington. Genet arrived in Philadelphia to present his credentials in May, 1793, to find a government not eager to accept him.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Jefferson ordered Genet expelled from the United States, though Washington overrode him for humanitarian reasons. Wikimedia

5. Washington had Genet recalled to France after failing to restrain his activities

In Philadelphia, the American government attempted in vain to curtail Genet’s activities. When Washington sent the French ambassador an 8,000-word letter, written jointly by Hamilton and Jefferson, demanding he stop arming privateers in American ports, the Frenchman ignored him. Instead, Genet demanded America renounce its neutrality and actively support France in the war. Meanwhile, ships armed by Genet attacked British shipping, leading to formal protests from Great Britain. Washington ordered Jefferson to return Genet’s credentials as ambassador to the United States and demanded the French government recall him to Paris. By then there had been a shift in the power structure in the French assembly, and Genet had little support in Paris. When France recalled Genet, he appealed to Jefferson to allow him to remain in the United States as a private citizen.

Genet argued that returning to France would lead to his immediate arrest and likely execution on the guillotine. Hamilton, who had broadly condemned Genet’s activities in the United States, met with the former ambassador and agreed to present his case to Washington. Though Jefferson had demanded Genet leave the country, Washington agreed to allow the Frenchman to remain in the United States. When the French government issued an arrest warrant for Genet, Washington offered him asylum in America. Genet relocated to New York, and for the rest of his life involved himself in American politics, often in opposition to Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party which emerged in the late 18th century. In the end, the Genet affair strengthened the power of the Presidency in dealing with foreign affairs, though it increased suspicions by the British of American sympathy for their French and Spanish enemies.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
A letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Callender, written at Monticello in October 1799. Library of Congress

6. James T. Callender emerged as America’s premiere scandalmonger in the late 18th century

Originally from Scotland, which he fled after publishing seditious pamphlets in the late 1780s, James Callender arrived in Philadelphia during Washington’s first administration. By then, the press in Philadelphia and other eastern cities had become largely partisan in nature. George Washington denounced the formation of political parties, though his most influential cabinet officers led their development. Jefferson’s view of America becoming a largely agrarian society, relatively unbothered by government, led to the creation of the Democratic-Republican Party. Alexander Hamilton and others including John Adams believed in a strong central government authority, and developed into the Federalist Party. The press found that personal attacks on leading figures sold more papers, and advertising, than did sober discussion of the political and societal issues of the day. Callender thrived in such an atmosphere.

Vindictive, grasping, and always willing to resort to blackmail, Callender used a network of informants to build stories attacking members of both parties. During the 1790s and 1800s, Jefferson and Hamilton both found themselves the subject of salacious articles printed by Callender’s publishers. George Washington and John Adams both fell victim to his attacks, which in part led to Adam’s support for the Alien and Sedition Acts during his sole term in office as President. Although Callender also wrote articles discussing the federal government’s role in taxation and the public welfare, he is mainly remembered for his invective-laden articles attacking the moral turpitude and character of America’s political leaders. Callender claimed Washington promoted himself as an idol to the nation, an act which “debauched” the people and the government. It proved to be one of his milder attacks.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
James Monroe found Hamilton innocent of misuse of his office, though he forwarded papers describing his affair to Jefferson. Wikimedia

7. The Hamilton-Reynolds Affair became the nation’s first scandal of the “intimate” nature

During the summer of 1791, Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, was approached by a woman identifying herself as Maria Reynolds. Maria informed Hamilton that her husband, James Reynolds, had abandoned her and their daughter, leaving them in abject poverty. She also claimed her husband had been physically abusive. Hamilton visited the young woman in her Philadelphia rooms later that day, with a gift of $20, then a fairly substantial sum. According to Hamilton’s later account of the affair, Maria made it clear she was willing to bestow explicit favors in return. The married Hamilton continued to visit Maria throughout the remainder of the year, despite it becoming apparent that her husband had not abandoned her. Instead of delivering money to Maria, her husband collected it from the Secretary of the Treasury, in return for his continued silence.

Hamilton continued the affair into the summer of 1792, when it became clear to him that Maria had been a willing accomplice throughout, and possibly the author of the scheme. In November, James Reynolds found himself under arrest for other illegal schemes, including counterfeiting and forgery. When Hamilton refused to intervene, Reynolds wrote to two Congressmen, as well as to James Monroe, then a Senator from Virginia. Reynolds hinted that he had evidence of financial improprieties committed by Hamilton in his role as Secretary of State. The blackmailer and forger implied Hamilton used federal dollars to avoid the revelation of his illicit affair with his wife Maria. Hamilton produced evidence which proved he had used his own funds, admitted the affair, and earned contempt from Monroe for years to come. But the affair remained unknown beyond the small circle of political entities who resolved it for the next few years.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Whether or not Jefferson provided the details of the Hamilton-Reynolds Affair to Callender has never been proved. Wikimedia

8. Callender revealed the Hamilton-Reynolds Affair to the public

Beginning around 1792, James Callender enjoyed the friendship and patronage of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson helped the writer obtain employment, and forwarded sums of money to the chronically impoverished Callender. In return, Callender published articles and pamphlets endorsing the views of the Democratic-Republicans and denouncing those of the Federalists. His attacks on the Federalists included personal accounts of their characters and implied behaviors unsupported by sources or facts. Jefferson supported the idea of direct election of Senators by the people, rather than by the state legislatures. Callender supported the same view in his writings, referring to the corruption in the states leading to Senators appointed via patronage. Throughout political Philadelphia, Callender became widely viewed as Jefferson’s mouthpiece.

When James Monroe investigated the accusations against Alexander Hamilton in 1792, he forwarded Hamilton’s letters and other documents describing the affair to Jefferson. Among the documents were those prepared by Reynolds accusing the Secretary of the Treasury of misappropriation of government funds. Whether Jefferson provided these materials to Callender has never been definitively proved, but somehow the writer obtained the information. By 1796, Hamilton’s influence in the government reached its peak. The following year, Callender published, in serial form, a pamphlet entitled The History of the United States for 1796. In it, Callender wrote, “The more that a nation knows about the mode of conducting its business, the better chance has that business of being properly conducted”. He also related the story of the Hamilton-Reynolds affair, implying the Secretary of the Treasury had been guilty of misconduct in office.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Ironically, Aaron Burr interceded to prevent a duel between Monroe and Hamilton when the latter’s affair was revealed. Wikimedia

9. The revelation of the Hamilton-Reynolds affair nearly led to a duel

When Callender’s story broke, it included references to the documents Hamilton had provided to Monroe several years earlier. An outraged Hamilton accused Monroe of exposing the story, which Monroe denied. Hamilton publicly implied Monroe was lying, and the latter issued a challenge to a duel. The combat was averted when Aaron Burr interceded, smoothing over the argument and cooling the tempers of both men. Hamilton next composed a pamphlet of his own, titled Observations on Certain Documents, known to history as The Reynolds Pamphlet. His frank discussion of the extramarital affair damaged his personal reputation and set tongues wagging across the country. But it also led to his exoneration regarding his conduct as Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, publicly forgave his indiscretion, and Washington continued to support him.

By the time the affair was exposed Hamilton no longer served as Secretary of the Treasury, but he remained a potent political force for the Federalists. During the administration of President John Adams, Hamilton was appointed Inspector General of the Army of the United States. His appointment was endorsed by George Washington. Hamilton also worked behind the scenes to create methods of taxation to raise funds to support the Army and the Navy. Among the taxes were excised on whiskey, which led to the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. But despite his continued influence, Hamilton never shed much of the disgrace to which the affair exposed him, and the Democratic-Republicans ensured it remained a subject of national discussion. In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts forced Callender to flee Philadelphia, entering temporary exile in Virginia. There the influence of Jefferson, Monroe, and James Madison afforded him protection.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
This pamphlet by James Callender led to his conviction and incarceration under the terms of the Sedition Act. Library of Congress

10. Callender launched vicious personal attacks on John Adams

With the support of Jefferson, James Callender next turned his vitriolic attacks on the character of President John Adams. In articles and pamphlets, Callender referred to Adams as “His Rotundity”, describing him as monarchical. He referred to the President as being “a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman”. Callender accused Adams of desiring ascension to a throne as America’s King, with his son John Quincy as his heir. Finally, Callender accused the President of deliberately provoking a crisis with France, through the XYZ Affair, which led to an undeclared naval war. The XYZ Affair was a diplomatic crisis which generated public outrage in the United States, though Callender’s version of the event did not match the facts.

The affair occurred when three diplomats dispatched by Adams to France found their credentials unrecognized until they agreed to the payment of bribes to French officials. When Adams learned of the French position, he initiated preparations for war with the French. The main issue driving the crisis was the French seizure of American ships engaged in trade with the British colonies in the Caribbean. Callender’s version of the crisis had the Americans deliberately provoking the French, based on Adams own preference for Britain and its constitutional monarchy. Callender accused Adams of wanting to adopt a similar government in America. Eventually, the crisis was resolved after a Quasi-War fought at sea, but the damage to Adams Presidency was significant. In 1799, Callender was arrested and convicted under the Sedition Act, and sentenced to nine months in prison.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s private secretary, attempted to placate Callender with cash. Wikimedia

11. Callender expected to be rewarded for his work by the new President, Thomas Jefferson

Callender was released from prison in Richmond in 1801, when the Sedition Act expired on President Adams last day in office. Jefferson subsequently pardoned Callender. The new President had previously praised the attacks issued by Callender on his predecessor, writing of Callender’s work, “Such papers cannot fail to produce the best effects”. Yet Jefferson, as President, felt it best to keep Callender at arm’s length. When the writer and scandalmonger requested a position within Jefferson’s government the President hesitated. Postmaster positions were then awarded through Presidential appointment, a subject of patronage. Callender demanded the job of Postmaster in Richmond, Virginia. Jefferson turned him down. Callender then threatened to expose certain facets of their relationship, potentially damaging to Jefferson’s reputation.

In response, Jefferson sent his personal secretary, a young man named Meriwether Lewis, to meet with Callender. Lewis paid the writer a sum of $50, though he did so through a third party. The intermediary removed the appearance of the President succumbing to blackmail. The formerly blatant supporter of the Democratic-Republicans next joined the staff of a Federalist newspaper in Richmond, the Recorder. From there he launched a series of new attacks, directed at Thomas Jefferson. Among the scandals, he revealed to the public were the facts of Jefferson’s financial support during the campaign against John Adams. Jefferson publicly admitted he had provided financial support to Callender, but referred to it as charity, rather than payment for services. Jefferson’s arguments were widely accepted, since Callender’s reputation as being frequently bereft of funds was well known. Callender then chose to reveal a new scandal to the nation.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Callender announced Jefferson’s relationship with an enslaved woman in a Richmond newspaper. Library of Congress

12. Callender’s next scandal has resounded through American history to the present day

On September 1, 1802, James Callender published in the Recorder an article he titled, The President, Again. Its first two sentences have changed American history and its presentation of Thomas Jefferson ever since. “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is Sally”. Although the subject had been one of local gossip for many years, particularly in Virginia, it was its first appearance nationally. Callender went on to explain his reasons for denying the story in preceding years, when it was hinted at in Federalist newspapers. His rationale was self-serving and fraught with the flowery writing style of the day. He repeated the accusation, supporting it with the assertion the tale was well known in Charlottesville.

Callender challenged the President and his supporters to refute the accusation if refutation was at all possible. He described the President’s silence on the matter as a de facto admission the charge was true. He also identified several children fathered by Jefferson with the woman he referred to only as Sally. And he closed the article with a reference to Jefferson and his supporters attacking the writer’s own character, an oblique referral to Jefferson’s identification of financial support as “charity”. His final line in the article read, “When Mr. Jefferson has read this article, he will find leisure to estimate how much has been lost and gained by so many unprovoked attacks upon J. T. Callender”. Jefferson remained silent on the accusations publicly. Privately he denied them, including in a letter to Abigail Adams. Meanwhile, Federalist newspapers across the country reprinted Callender’s article, and published others expanding upon it.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Jefferson did not address Callender’s accusations publicly over the course of his Presidency. Wikimedia

13. The scandal had little effect on Jefferson’s Presidency

In his article revealing the existence of “Sally” and her alleged children, Callender wrote, “There is not an individual in the neighborhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story…” There were many, and though the gossips repeated the tale across the country (and down through the centuries) many did not believe it. In the 21st century, various DNA tests yielded results which some experts claim prove Jefferson fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemings. Other experts viewing the same results arrive at the opposite conclusion. Abolitionists used the story during the antebellum period, citing it as proof of the amoral nature of slavery. John Adams maintained a profound silence on the subject, though the waning Federalist Party made much of the story. Yet it had little effect on Jefferson’s Presidency.

Jefferson kept the enslaved people at Monticello and Poplar Forest separate from the White House. No evidence exists, or at any rate has ever been found, that Sally Hemings or any other of his female slaves visited or worked in the White House. Jefferson occupied the White House in March, 1801. As a widower, he needed a hostess for those times when female visitors were at the house. He asked Dolley Madison to act as his hostess, to which she agreed. It was Mrs. Madison who completed the furnishing of the house and gardens during Jefferson’s presidency. The absence of slaves at Jefferson’s White House did much to allay the scandal triggered by Callender’s report, and subsequent events of his Presidency did still more. Yet the scandal remains, over two centuries after it first appeared in the American press.

Also Read: The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
After avoiding trial and conviction on articles of impeachment, William Blount resided in this Knoxville, TN home. National Archives

14. William Blount was the first federal official to be impeached in the United States

Although relatively unknown today, William Blount represented North Carolina at the Constitutional Convention, and signed the subsequent document. In June 1790, he accepted the position of Governor of the new territory of Tennessee. When Tennessee became a state in 1796 he accepted a position as one of the two new Senators. Throughout his political career, he speculated in land in the nearby territories in the west. Falling land prices promised financial ruin, and fears that France would take over the Spanish territories in Louisiana and Florida further threatened his financial standing. Blount conspired with fellow Tennessee politicians and speculators to launch a joint British-American expedition to seize Spanish territories in Florida and Louisiana. Both New Orleans and Pensacola were to be targets of attack by the British Navy, supported by American militia. In the spring of 1797, the plan was revealed in a letter written by Blount.

By July, the House of Representatives prepared articles of impeachment, and the Senate expelled him by a vote of 25-1. When impeachment articles arrived in the Senate, Blount’s counsel argued that body had no jurisdiction, since Blount no longer served as a member of the Senate. He fled to Tennessee, where he remained a popular figure, enjoying the support of a rising figure in that state, Andrew Jackson. But his national reputation was in tatters. Newspapers, in the partisan style of the time, excoriated him, though for different reasons. Anti-federalist papers accused him of being in a larger plot, developed by Revolutionary France, and attempted to link Jefferson to the conspiracy. George Washington, by then retired at Mount Vernon, called for him to be “held in detestation by all good men”. He remained active in Tennessee state politics until his death in 1800, likely from cholera.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Benjamin Franklin entered into a common-law relationship with an already married woman, and brought an illegitimate son to the home. Wikimedia

15. Benjamin Franklin’s marriage was one of common law

When Benjamin Franklin decided to marry Deborah Read in 1730, he faced a pressing problem. Deborah was already married, having been wed several years earlier to Roger Potter. Potter had significant debts, and to escape them and potential prison he abandoned his wife in 1727, fleeing to the West Indies. He never returned, though the absence of knowledge regarding his fate meant that Deborah remained married. If she remarried, and Potter returned, Read and her second husband would be guilty of bigamy, a serious crime in colonial Philadelphia. To avert the possibility of such a charge, Franklin and Deborah Read entered into a mutually agreed common law marriage on September 1, 1730. Read brought no dowry. Franklin brought a son, born out of wedlock, whose mother’s identity has never been determined.

Some historians believe that Read was the mother of the boy, William Franklin. The couple had two other children together. The first, Francis, died of smallpox at the age of four. The second, a daughter named Sarah, lived to tend her father in his last days. William grew up to become Royal Governor of New Jersey and a prominent Loyalist during the American Revolution. Franklin spent most of his marriage on extended trips to England and France, unaccompanied by his wife. He developed (and lauded) a reputation as a lady’s man and rogue during his trips. Deborah Read died in 1774, while Franklin was in England, and he remained there until his mission was completed in 1775. The couple never formalized their marriage in either a civil or religious ceremony, remaining a common-law couple for 44 years. Roger Potter never returned to dispute them.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
A bust of Aaron Burr from the United States Senate. Wikimedia

16. Aaron Burr managed to keep one scandal hidden during his lifetime

Aaron Burr was one of those individuals who attracted scandal. He was involved in several which drew him the enmity of Alexander Hamilton, eventually provoking the duel in which Hamilton received his mortal wound. He later was accused of treason, and tried for the same, though he managed to avoid conviction. His name appeared in financial scandals, personal vendettas, and political maneuverings which brought him a reputation as untrustworthy and unstable. But there was one scandal, which could have been his undoing, which he kept secret throughout his lifetime. He maintained a lengthy relationship with a servant in his household, Mary Emmons, during his marriage to Theodosia Burr. Burr ensconced Emmons in his New York home, later moving her to his home in Philadelphia, where he resided when Congress was in session.

During Burr’s residence in Philadelphia, his wife Theodosia remained in their home in New York. Mary Emmons was an exotic personage for the time, having been born in Calcutta, of an Indian mother and British father. In 1788, she delivered the first of two children she would have with Burr, whom she named Louisa Charlotte. That same year, Burr’s wife Theodosia delivered a child, one of 7 children the couple had which did not survive childhood. Burr never acknowledged his relationship with Emmons, nor the children which it produced during his lifetime. His only surviving child from his marriage, also named Theodosia, died at sea under unknown circumstances in 1812. Aaron Burr managed to keep his marital indiscretions away from the public eye, perhaps because there were so many other indiscretions serving as distractions.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
A portrait of John Adams from 1788, the year he was elected the first Vice-President of the United States. Wikimedia

17. John Adams suffered through problems with his children

John Adams was perhaps the biggest prude of all of the founders. Though he started each day with a glass of hard cider, he was relatively abstemious with alcohol, at least in the standards of the time. He measured the character of others by how they restrained themselves from temptations, of the bottle, of female company, and of lewd behavior. He found France and the French distasteful and degenerate, and Franklin’s embrace of French society disgraceful. Yet despite his stern self-restraint, or perhaps because of it, he found deep sadness with some of his children. His daughter Nabby married badly, and as a result, spent much of her adult life living in abject poverty. But it was his son Charles who proved to be his biggest disappointment in life. Charles accompanied his father to France during the Revolution, though he returned alone in 1781.

Despite the advantages of the Adams name in Massachusetts, a Harvard degree, and strong connections in Boston, Charles failed to make much of a living as an attorney. Eventually, he abandoned his wife and two daughters, living in various taverns and flophouses. He became a noted philanderer, often with prostitutes, as well as a serious alcoholic. Adams made several attempts to reform his wayward son, though with little in the way of success. Finally, in 1799 during his single term as President, Adams disowned his son. He wrote at the time Charles was “a Madman possessed by the devil”. His elder son, John Quincy, also abandoned his brother after the younger Adams lost funds entrusted to him in land speculation. Charles Adams died in 1800, just 30 years of age. Tradition ascribes his death to cirrhosis, though it was likely from respiratory failure.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
George Washington Adams, eldest son of John Quincy and grandson of John Adams. Library of Congress

18. The Adams family suffered another scandal in 1829

John Quincy Adams served as the American Minister to the Kingdom of Prussia in 1801, where his first son, George Washington Adams was born in Berlin. George Adams’ grandfather, John Adams, had left the Presidency just one month earlier. George attended Harvard, studied law, and in 1826 followed his forebears into politics. His career in politics proved short-lived. By 1829 the ravages of alcoholism were apparent, much to the dismay of John Quincy. In 1828, Eliza Dolph, known to be George Adams mistress, gave birth to a child. Dolph was the chambermaid for the Adams’ family physician. In the early winter of 1829 mother and child were moved from the doctor’s home to a location in Quincy where George could visit them discreetly. The mother became quite ill, and remained so for some time. The baby was moved to care elsewhere.

In April 1829, George Washington Adams booked passage in the steamship Benjamin Franklin, bound from Boston to Washington. Adams had been drinking heavily, and some passengers reported him as delusional. He was last seen on deck around two in the morning of April 30. Later that day his hat and cloak were found on deck, and notes found in his cabin indicated a depressed, suicidal state. On June 10, his body washed ashore. Newspaper reports reported the death of the former President’s son as a suicide, believing he had jumped from the ship as it worked its way down Long Island Sound. John Quincy Adams had left the Presidency in March. The story of the baby and the unwed mother remained hidden for some time, but the stigma of suicide in the Adams family presented a scandal which tainted the Adams name for some time.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
A wealthy merchant and astute politician, John Hancock endured scandals of his own. Wikimedia

19. John Hancock dealt with a scandal over funds from Harvard University

Although John Hancock is frequently identified as a smuggler in the pre-Revolution era, little evidence supports the accusation. He received one charge of smuggling, during the Liberty affair in the 1760s, though the case was trumped up by British authorities for political purposes. Nearly all of his business affairs have been identified as legitimate. While it is probably safe to say he did what he could to reduce taxes on imported goods, that does not qualify him as a smuggler. During the Revolution, he faced accusations of smuggling from British Loyalists and from his political nemesis in Boston, James Bowdoin. In 1773 Hancock received the appointment as treasurer for Harvard College. By 1775 he held over £16,000 in cash and securities belonging to the college. While serving as President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Hancock received an agent from the College, demanding the return of the funds and supporting records.

The demand, which originated with Bowdoin, implied Hancock had deliberately held onto the funds when departing Boston for Philadelphia. Bowdoin further implied such behavior was that expected of a smuggler and tax cheat. Hancock took offense, though he did not react with a challenge to a duel. Instead, he explained the action which created a minor scandal in the Congress as an oversight caused by the hasty convening of the Continental Congress. He released the funds, though he retained most of the records, initiating a controversy which lasted between Bowdoin and Hancock for many years. Not until Hancock’s death did his estate settle the matter of the interest earned on the school’s money during the period it was held by Hancock. Hancock used the scandal to direct attention to the mismanagement of Harvard’s accounts under Bowdoin for several years, comparing it unfavorably to his own successful term as treasurer.

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Two states charged the sitting Vice-President with murder following the death of Hamilton in a duel. Wikimedia

20. Aaron Burr faced indictment while sitting as Vice President of the United States

In 1804, the long and bitter rivalry between former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and the Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr reached its peak. After years of slinging mud at each other in the press, private letters, and public speeches, the two agreed to meet to settle their differences with pistols. Burr issued the ultimate challenge, Hamilton accepted, and the duel was set for July 11, 1804, near Weehawken, New Jersey, across the river from New York. Dueling was illegal in both states at the time. New Jersey, however, prescribed lesser penalties for those engaging in the practice. That morning Hamilton fired and missed, some say deliberately, while others contend he intended to kill his opponent. Burr fired and caused a mortal wound. Hamilton was carried to New York, where he died the following day.

The Vice President fled to Georgia, residing for a time on St. Simons Island. Both New York and New Jersey charged Burr with murder, though neither state made any attempt to extradite him. By the end of 1804, he returned to Washington and his role as Vice President, though he was dropped from the ticket for re-election that year. Until the legal maneuverings cleared him of charges in New York and New Jersey he avoided both states. Burr later avoided conviction on charges of treason which spelled the end of his political career, and eventually returned to the practice of law in New York City. From 1812 until the end of his life he lived in New York, obscure and largely forgotten. Hamilton’s allies elevated his reputation to godlike status, making him a slain martyr of American liberty. Burr’s reputation merely worsened over time.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Passion and Integrity: The Loves of George Washington”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“The Rise and Fall of Silas Deane, American Patriot”. David Drury, Connecticut History Online.

“The Confessions of Gouverneur Morris”. Meredith Hindley, National Endowment for the Humanities. Spring 2019. Online

“Genet Affair”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“James Callender”. Article, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“Alexander Hamilton’s Adultery and Apology”. Angela Serratore, Smithsonian Magazine. July 25, 2013

“Alexander Hamilton had a steamy affair, then told the world all about it”. Allison McNearney, The Daily Beast. July 4, 2021

“That Time When Alexander Hamilton Almost Dueled James Monroe”. Cassandra Good, Smithsonian Magazine. October 26, 2015

“XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War with France, 1798-1800”. Article, Article, Office of the Historian, United States Department of State. Online

“Biography: James Callender”. Article, The American Experience. PBS, Online

“The President, Again”. James T. Callender, Encyclopedia Virginia. Sept 1, 1802. Online

“The Enslaved Household of President Thomas Jefferson”. Lima Mann, White House Historical Association. Online

“Expulsion Case of William Blount of Tennessee”. Article, Art & History, United States Senate. Online

“Marriage and Children”. Article, Benjamin Franklin Historical Society. Online

“Aaron Burr, vice-president who killed Hamilton, had children of color”. Amanda Holpuch, The Guardian. August 24, 2019

“John Adams”. David McCullough. 2001

“The Harvard-Hancock Feud”. Fiona Brennan, Aiyana White, Harvard Crimson. October 26, 2019

“What Happened to Aaron Burr After He Shot Alexander Hamilton?” Article, History Daily. September 1, 2020

“Alexander Wasn’t the Only Hamilton to Fall in a Duel” Article, History Collection. September 22, 2017