Dirty Laundry: Top 5 Presidential Scandals of the 19th Century

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If you think recent political history has been plagued by scandal and graft, you’re right. From the adultery of the 42nd presidential administration to the fraud and misappropriation of the 30th, the 20th and 21st centuries have been rife with executive unpleasantness. Why? Because we’re humans; because scandals have always been a part of politics, right up to the highest office in the land, and dating back decades. To cleanse you palate of recent POTUS problems, let’s look at some of the dirtiest laundry from our presidents who served during the 1800s.

5 Grover Cleveland’s 1884 Bid for the Presidency

Our last “scandal” for today is an attempted smear campaign that actually backfired. Grover Cleveland’s 1884 bid for the presidency looked ready to be snuffed by the revelation that he had fathered a child out of wedlock with a widow named Maria Halpin. But Cleveland did something rather strange for those in the political arena: he dealt with the issue honestly and openly. Cleveland admitted to what he had done and confirmed that he had paid money to support the child. His honesty ultimately helped him into the White House!

4 Whiskey Ring Scandal

Ulysses S. Grant is often associated with whiskey, but less often recalled is the Whiskey Ring Scandal, which broke during his tenure in office, largely because of an Elliott Ness-like move by Secretary of the Treasury Ben Bristow. Bristow sent agents to investigate allegations of massive tax fraud and misappropriation without even telling the president what he was doing. Once the scandal broke, Grant played dumb about it (which he may have been, to be fair) but he did use his executive power to protect a number of his cronies.

3 Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson was the 17th POTUS and the first president to be impeached. Johnson’s impeachment was predicated on numerous counts of wrongdoing, with the main issue being his presumed violation of the Tenure of Office Act when he tried to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from his post. The Tenure of Office Act was only on the books from 1867 to 1887, and had been enacted over Johnson’s protest (and veto) in the first place. Basically what this complex mess consisted of was politicians hating each other and finding technically legal ways to seriously ruin one another’s day.

2 The Galphin Affair

The Galphin Affair is a largely forgotten illustration of how corrupt jerkoffs use political power. Long story short: The massive Galphin Estate was at the center of a dispute between the federal government and the Galphin family. Georgia Governor George Crawford waded into the mess, siding with the Galphins on the condition that he would get half the land if they won their case against the Feds, which they did once they promised to settle for a flat fee and not collect decades of accrued interest. Flash forward a few years: Crawford is a member of President Taylor’s cabinet, and in his new role he reached out to Secretary of the Treasury William Meredith, saying the federal government owed him the interest! He was paid tens of thousands of dollars, and of course he gave a few grand to his willing accomplice, Secretary Meredith.

1 Sally Hemings

The 19th Century opened with a presidency stained by sex scandal. Long before there was a Monroe or a Lewinsky, there was a slave woman named Sally Hemings. And this Ms. Hemings had a number of children who bore a striking resemblance to our nation’s 3rd President, Thomas Jefferson. Actually, Jefferson’s relations with Sally Hemings were a rather open secret, but still a scandal – one that made his ownership of slaves all the more of a contradiction.

Steven John is a published novelist and competitive pole vault champion. (The latter is not true.) His writing runs the gamut from speculative fiction to essays fueled by a mix of mirth and derision. He has never been to Lisbon but, statistically speaking, is probably taller than you.

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