It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States

Steve - April 28, 2019

Engulfing nearly every single presidency in United States history, political scandals are a ubiquitous part of life for American politicians. Whether through greed, stupidity, or ignorance, corrupted by power or in righteous pursuit of a supposed good, those entrusted with the reigns of government often misuse them for immoral and unethical means. Whilst popular understanding of the most enduring and high-profile scandal – Watergate – remains adequate, due in no small part to the irritating attachment of the gate suffix to subsequent scandals, other equally important and educational moments have been lost to history.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Richard Nixon boarding Army One upon his departure from the White House after resigning from the Office of President of the United States following the Watergate Scandal in 1974. By Oliver Atkins (August 9, 1974). Wikimedia Commons.

Here are 20 political scandals that rocked the United States you should know about:

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Portrait of French-Irish General Thomas Conway; author unknown (c. 18th century). Wikimedia Commons.

20. The only major political threat to Washington’s command during the Revolutionary War, the Conway Cabal sought to replace the future president with another after a series of disastrous performances in battle

Following a series of military defeats, including the fall of Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress, in September 1777, serious questions began to be raised regarding Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Contrasted to Horatio Gates, who had claimed victory at the Battle of Saratoga, several leading congressmen grew increasingly concerned that Washington, despite his failures, was becoming a cult idol, fearing the prospect of a potential military dictatorship. Starting in October 1777, Brigadier General Thomas Conway, lobbying for a promotion, began including criticisms of Washington in his letters to Congress and other military figures.

Made aware of the gradually forming cabal against his command, Washington was forced to tread carefully to avoid disaster. Less politically connected than Gates, Washington sought to excise the threat by making Conway aware of his intercepted communications. Launching into action, the cabal sought to transform the proposed Board of War from a supply office into a supervisory body surpassing the authority of Washington. Although succeeding, Washington’s allies retaliated by making public Gates and Conway’s improper conduct and writings, challenging both to duels. Although Gates apologized, Conway elected to fight. Losing his duel against General John Cadwallader, receiving a shot through the mouth, Conway resigned his commission in disgrace.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
“Congressional pugilists”, a political cartoon depicting a fight on the floor of Congress between Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold of Connecticut (c. February 15, 1798). Wikimedia Commons.

19. An unrepentant maverick and the first member of Congress to be investigated for a violation of House rules, Matthew Lyon was later imprisoned for violating the Alien and Sedition Acts in protest of Free Speech restrictions

An Irish-born American soldier and politician, Matthew Lyon served as a United States Representative from Vermont, between 1797 and 1801, and later from Kentucky between 1803 and 1811. Attempting to win elections to the Second, Third, and Fourth Congresses, Lyon eventually succeeded in entering the Fifth as a Democratic-Republican. The first member of Congress investigated for an alleged violation of House rules, in 1798 Lyon was accused of “gross indecency” after spitting in the face of Connecticut’s Roger Griswold. Stemming from a rude outburst by Griswold on January 30, in which he maligned Lyon’s service in the Revolutionary War, Lyon responded by spewing tobacco juice over Griswold.

Apologizing before Congress, both orally and in writing, Griswold rejected Lyon’s overtures and instead attacked him on the floor of the House on February 15, 1798, beating his fellow politician with a wooden cane. Lyon responded by pulling tongs from a fire pit to defend himself, with the fight broken up before either could seriously maim the other. Resolved after promises of good behavior, Lyon was later imprisoned after being found guilty in October 1798 of violating the Alien and Sedition Acts. Prohibiting criticism of the President, Lyon published scathing editorials of the authoritarian John Adams. Garnering popular support, Lyon won re-election whilst imprisoned with a vastly increased majority.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Portrait of President Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale (c. 1800). Wikimedia Commons.

18. The first federal official to be removed from office following a conviction of impeachment, the removal of mentally ill John Pickering from the bench became a political football between the Federalist and Anti-Federalist factions in Congress

Practicing as a lawyer prior to the American Revolution, John Pickering became a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 1783. Declining to serve as part of the state’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention, Pickering returned his focus to the law. Appointed to the New Hampshire Superior Court in 1790, rising to the rank of Chief Justice, Pickering’s illustrious reputation began to decline as the decade proceeded. Failing to remove Pickering from the bench in 1795 on grounds of illness, New Hampshire instead offloaded Pickering onto the federal system, convincing Washington to name him to the United States District Court.

Worsening, by 1800 Pickering had started to publicly show signs of crippling mental deterioration. Hiring a temporary replacement under the Judiciary Act of 1801, the repeal of the act the following year saw Pickering return to the bench once more. Taking extreme measures to remove the deficient judge, President Jefferson sent evidence to the House of Representatives accusing Pickering of drunkenness, bad moral character, and making unlawful rulings. Escalating into a political controversy, with Federalists accusing Democratic-Republicans of seeking to remove a judge without cause reaching the standards of “high crimes or misdemeanors”, Pickering was convicted in absentia by the Senate and removed from office in 1804.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Portrait of Aaron Burr, by John Vanderlyn (c. 1802). Wikimedia Commons.

17. Whilst still serving as Vice President, Aaron Burr initiated a conspiracy to steal the Louisiana Purchase and found a new nation under his rule on the North American continent

The 3rd Vice President of the United States, serving from 1801-1805, whilst still in office Aaron Burr sought to elicit the support of the British for the secession of Louisiana. Failing to convince the British to finance his efforts, after leaving office Burr began gathering support for the seizure of a huge portion of North America and the formation of a new, independent nation. Intending to raise an army, with objectives ranging from claiming for himself much of the lands gained during the Louisiana Purchase to the conquest of Mexico, in 1806 one of Burr’s co-conspirators, General James Wilkinson, revealed the plot to President Jefferson.

Warned by Wilkinson that Burr was “meditating the overthrow of [his] administration” and “conspiring against the State”, Jefferson alerted Congress and ordered Burr’s immediate arrest. Charged with treason and conspiracy, the trial established several historic limits on executive privilege and the legal rights of a sitting president. Overseen by Chief Justice Marshall, Burr was ultimately acquitted on charges of treason, despite more than 140 witnesses testifying against him, on the grounds that intent without action was not sufficient for a conviction. Ending Burr’s political ambitions, he fled to Europe under an assumed name to escape his debtors.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Restored photograph of President John Quincy Adams (c. 1840s). Wikimedia Commons.

16. The first of three “corrupt bargains” in U.S. history, the outcome of the 1824 presidential election via the Twelfth Amendment caused widespread outrage and accusations of duplicity

Referring to three separate incidents in American history – the 1824 presidential election, the 1876 presidential election, and the pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974 – the moniker “corrupt bargain” refers to a political agreement that was widely perceived as corrupt in design and intent. Regarding the former, following the 1824 election, due to the appearance of four candidates, all from the Democratic-Republican Party, on a hotly contested ballot, no candidate received the required majority of votes in the Electoral College. Henry Clay won 13.0% of the popular vote, receiving 37 electors, William H. Crawford 11.2% and 41, John Quincy Adams 30.9% and 84, whilst Andrew Jackson achieved 41.4% and 99.

Despite achieving a clear plurality in both the popular vote and Electoral College, as Jackson did not surpass the 131 electors needed for victory, pursuant to the Twelfth Amendment, the election was referred to the House of Representatives. Removing Clay from consideration, due to his position as Speaker of the House, under the terms of the Twelfth Amendment the House resolved the electoral deadlock by selecting the victor. Defying expectations, the House returned a vote in favor of John Quincy Adams. Triggering widespread outrage across American society, Jackson won the 1828 election against Adams in a landslide typically viewed as a popular backlash against the corrupt bargain.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Robert Potter, US Representative from North Carolina; author unknown (c. first half of the 19th century). Wikimedia Commons.

15. Continuously plagued by controversy throughout his lifetime, Robert Potter was kicked out of both Congress and the North Carolina legislature before being murdered in Texas

Serving in the United States Navy from 1815 until 1821, Robert Potter was subsequently admitted to the bar before entering politics. Elected to the North Carolina House of Commons in 1826, earning re-election in 1828, Potter successfully contested the 1828 congressional elections as a Jacksonian. Becoming a Representative from North Carolina, Potter served his first term uneventfully and won re-election in 1830. However, after attacking and castrating two men whom he believed, incorrectly, had slept with his wife, Potter was forced to resign his seat in November 1831. Returning to North Carolina, Potter was swiftly elected to the House of Commons once more.

Unable to avoid controversy, Potter was expelled from the chamber in January 1835. Two scandals have been attributed for this action, with Potter both “cheating at cards” and “brandishing a gun and knife during a fight over a card game”. Departing for Texas, Potter established himself as a prominent figure during the Texas Revolution, even serving as a signatory to the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836. Siding with the Moderators during the Regulator-Moderator War, on March 2, 1842, Potter was murdered after his house was attacked by Regulator militia. Attempting to swim across Lake Soda to safety, Potter was shot and drowned.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Portrait of Margaret “Peggy” O’Neal Eaton. Wikimedia Commons.

14. An attempt by Vice President Calhoun and his wife to ostracize a fellow cabinet member’s wife, the Petticoat Affair transformed into a full-blown political crisis that threatened to bring down the Jacksonian White House

Known also as the Eaton Affair, the Petticoat Affair was a trivial dispute which grew to engulf the entire Cabinet of President Andrew Jackson between 1829 and 1831. Both widowed, Jackson’s Secretary of War, John Eaton, married Margaret “Peggy” O’Neill in 1829 under controversial circumstances. Wed soon after the death of her husband, rumors spread of a pre-marital affair between the couple and even suggestions of foul play. Opinionated and political, in contrast to societal expectations of womanhood, Peggy quickly found herself at odds with the wives of other members of the cabinet. Led by Second Lady Floride Calhoun, Washington’s political elite sought to drive the couple from the city.

Ostracizing the Eatons, refusing to acknowledge them, receive them as guests, or visit their home, the “anti-Peggy coalition” arranged that the Eatons were denied access to social functions throughout the city. The only unmarried member of Jackson’s cabinet, widowed himself, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren earned the gratitude of Jackson for defending the embattled Eatons whom he remained close to. Resigning in protest of their treatment, Van Buren provided Jackson with the excuse he needed to remove Calhoun’s supporters from his government. Calhoun himself was ousted as Vice President, with Van Buren replacing him throughout Jackson’s remaining tenure before succeeding him as the eighth President.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
President Zachary Taylor’s cabinet, by Matthew Brady (c. 1849). Wikimedia Commons.

13. A corrupt negotiation by Georgia’s Governor, George Crawford, to extort tens of thousands of dollars from the federal government for personal profit, the Secretary of War was forced to resign from President Taylor’s cabinet in 1850 in disgrace

During the American Revolutionary War, Irish immigrant and merchant trader George Galphin sided with the Continental Congress, being widely credited for securing the support of Georgia for the rebellion as well as the neutrality of Natives in the conflict. Possessing a claim to a large tract of land in Georgia, following the death of Galphin in 1780 the colonial government ungratefully seized the estate. Suing the federal government for seventy years without success, in the early 1840s Georgia’s Governor, George Crawford, offered his assistance to the Galphin family to help them win compensation from the United States.

Unbeknownst to the public, Crawford had negotiated a fifty percent commission on any money won by the Galphins in return for his support. Sneaking a compensation bill through Congress during his last days in office, the legislation earned Crawford $43,518.97 via his agreement. Asked to serve as Secretary of War in 1849, Crawford brought up the case with his new cabinet colleagues. Asserting the compensation should also have included interest, Crawford negotiated with Treasury Secretary Meredith a massive increase in the payment netting himself a further $50,657.47. Revealed to the public, Crawford was forced to resign but was never required to repay his illicit gains.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
“Southern Chivalry – Argument versus Clubs”, by John L. Magee (c. 1856). Wikimedia Commons.

12. Responding to a denouncement by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked and almost killed his colleague on the floor of the Senate

During a speech on May 20, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act as “The Crime Against Kansas“, arguing the territory should be admitted to the union without any expansion of slavery. Employing intentionally provocative language, including graphic sexual imagery, Sumner accused Southerners of supporting slavery so greatly because they enjoyed raping their slave mistresses so much. Deeply offending Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, Brooks considered challenging Sumner to a duel but believed the Massachusetts Senator to be of insufficient social standing to warrant the privilege of dueling a gentleman such as himself.

Instead, resolving to punish Sumner with a public beating, two days later Brooks entered the Senator’s chamber accompanied by his lackeys. Confronting Sumner at his desk, as Sumner attempted to rise Brooks began violently striking the Senator over the head with a gold-topped cane. Staggering down the aisle, Sumner collapsed unconscious on the floor of the Senate. As other members of Congress rushed to restrain Brooks, one of his companions, Representative Laurence Keitt, drew a pistol and ordered the Senators to back away. Continuing to beat Sumner until his cane broke, subsequently departing in silence, Sumner’s physical recovery would take three years and he would endure lifelong injuries from the attack.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
“The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of Andrew Johnson“, as illustrated in Harper’s Weekly by Theodore R. Davis (c. 1868). Wikimedia Commons.

11. The first to face articles of impeachment, President Johnson escaped being convicted in the Senate and removed from office by a single vote in March 1868

The first impeachment of a sitting President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth inhabitant of his office, was impeached by the House of Representatives in March 1868. Adopting eleven articles of impeachment, detailing the “high crimes and misdemeanors” committed, the primary charge against President Johnson was his violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Passed a year earlier despite Johnson’s use of the presidential veto in an attempt to thwart the bill, the act repealed in 1887, restricted the president from removing confirmed office-holders without Senate approval.

In removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whom the act had specifically been written to protect from dismissal, Johnson willfully plunged himself into political crisis. Commencing the trial in the Senate on March 5, the chamber returned a verdict of thirty-five to nineteen in favor of conviction just eleven days later. Falling short of the two-thirds majority necessary to convict by a single vote, following a second attempt returning the same result proceedings were adjourned. Both sides of the issue employed bribery and coercion to extreme lengths in pursuit of their goal, with public opinion at the time in favor of conviction.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Thomas Clark Durant, Vice President of the Union Pacific Railroad. By Matthew Brady (c. 1865). Wikimedia Commons.

10. With dozens of Congressmen, the Speaker of the House, and the Vice President owning fraudulently purchased stock in a railway company, the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal struck at the heart of Washington’s elite

In 1864, the Union Pacific Railroad was chartered by Congress, with contracts offered to private enterprises seeking to fulfill the endeavor. Failing to initially attract interest, generous incentives were provided, including loans of between $16,000 and $46,000 per mile of track, totaling more than $60m, as well as a land tract worth $100m. Founded in the same year, the Crédit Mobilier of America, building the eastern section of the First Transcontinental Railroad, successfully negotiated contracts with Congress that vastly overpaid them for their services. Paid more than $94m, Crédit Mobilier incurred costs of only $50m for their work.

Reporting a profit of only $23m, the undisclosed $20m was divided up among the directors and leading shareholders of the company in secret. Including fifteen leading Washington politicians, who had been offered below market-value stock prior to the contracts being tendered, the deceit was leaked in the midst of the 1872 election. Involving Vice President Harry Wilson and Speaker of the House James Garfield, subsequent investigations discovered as many as thirty percent of Congress owned stock in Crédit Mobilier. Despite the scandal, Grant won re-election and Garfield would become the 20th President of the United States in 1881.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
“That salary grab–“You took it”, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (c. December 27, 1873). Wikimedia Commons.

9. The Salary Grab of 1873 renewed interest in the proposed amendment, but it nevertheless took until 1992 – a record two hundred and two years, seven months, and ten days – for the Twenty-Seventh Amendment to be ratified

Passed on March 3, 1873, the “Salary Grab” provoked outrage. Taking place the day before the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant for his second term, the bill doubled the salary of the President from $25,000 to $50,000 – the equivalent of more than one million dollars today – whilst simultaneously doubling the salaries of Supreme Court Justices. Inciting the most displeasure, the act disguised within its text a retrospective increase to the wages of members of Congress by fifty percent, backdated to the start of the previous term. Against overwhelming public pressure, Congress was forced to revoke their pay increase.

Nevertheless, the saga highlighted the issue of outgoing members of Congress seeking to augment their past wages. Provoking the most consternation in Ohio, the Buckeye State ratified one of the failed original twelve amendments to the United States Constitution, first proposed in 1789, in protest. Stipulating a salary increase for an elected representative cannot take effect until the start of their next term of office, Ohio’s efforts went without notice until a student at the University of Texas at Austin wrote a paper on the subject in 1982. Graded “C” by his teacher, who asserted the amendment could not be passed, Gregory Watson undertook a nationwide campaign to prove his professor wrong, eventually succeeding in 1992.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
A contextual cartoon appearing in Harper’s Weekly concerning the “Whiskey Ring”, by Thomas Nast (c. March 1876). Wikimedia Commons.

8. Another in a long line of Republican-led scandals in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Whiskey Ring was a widespread corruption racket designed to circumvent tax duties on the liquor’s production

Exposed in 1875, the Whiskey Ring was an organized conspiracy to subvert United States tax regulations involving the production of whiskey. Under U.S. law, whiskey was supposed to be taxed at a rate of seventy cents per gallon, but, employing a system of convoluted bribery through government officials, participating distillers, storekeepers, and rectifiers were able to only pay half that rate. Stamping the illicit whiskey as having been taxed appropriately, the ring, comprised of leading politicians throughout the American Midwest, was able to siphon off millions of dollars in federal taxes.

Secretly investigated by Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow, using undercover operatives without informing the compromised Attorney General, Bristow launched a series of unannounced raids across the country on May 10, 1875. Breaking the ring, more than one hundred and ten convictions were achieved relating to the Whiskey Ring, recovering more than three million dollars in due taxes. Appointing a special prosecutor to investigate further, indicting the private secretary to the President, General Orville E. Babcock, President Grant fired General Henderson for resisting presidential interference in his investigation. Grant would later submit favorable testimony in his subordinates’ defense, ensuring his acquittal at trial.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Portrait of George Quayle Cannon, by Mathew Brady (c. 1870-1880). Wikimedia Commons.

7. Due to his religious beliefs and practice of polygamy, George Q. Cannon was denied his duly elected seat in Congress and was later imprisoned for refusing to relent

An early member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, George Quayle Cannon operated as the new denomination’s chief political strategist. Serving four terms as the Territorial Delegate from Utah to the United States Congress, first elected in 1872, his re-election in 1880 sparked the first of many controversies. Winning against Liberal candidate Allen Campbell by 18,567 votes to 1,357, the territorial governor nevertheless certified Campbell as the winner on the grounds that, as a polygamist, Cannon was in violation of federal law and incompatible with the oath of office.

Disputing side-by-side in Congress their right to the seat for over a year, in the end, the House of Representatives eventually dismissed both candidates and seated John Thomas Caine in their place instead. Exploding the issue of polygamy into national attention, the Edmunds Act, signed on March 23, 1882, strengthened the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862. Making polygamy a felony, revoking the franchise from participants and barring them from public office, Cannon was imprisoned in September 1888 for refusing to abandon his religious convictions. In 1894, with the impending entry of Utah as the 45th state, Cannon was pardoned by Grover Cleveland.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
A collage of four of the key players in the scandal: (left to right) John Hicklin Hall, John H. Mitchell, John N. Williamson, Binger Hermann. Wikimedia Commons.

6. Among the most fraudulent abuse of government contracts in American history, the Oregon Land Fraud Scandal saw the first U.S. Senator convicted at trial and more than one thousand individuals indicted

To facilitate the development of the Oregon and California Railroad, in 1870 the United States government granted the construction company three million acres of land on which to build. Parceling up adjacent plots of land along the proposed line, the railway company sold off this land in packages of 160 acres at extremely low prices, just $2.50 per acre, to incentivize local people to settle and develop the area. Unfit for development, the land initially garnered limited interest. However, rich in timber, the land did attract the attention of Edward Harriman, President of the Southern Pacific Railroad, who arranged for locals to purchase the land and fraudulently transfer the rights into an associate’s name.

Selling off these accumulated parcels in huge blocks to the highest bidder for the lucrative timber rights, the scheme was exposed in 1903 when his associate, Stephen Puter, was fired by Harriman after a dispute. Issuing more than 1,000 indictments, District Attorney Francis Heney narrowed down the charges to thirty-five individuals he considered the most egregious offenders. Including Senator John Mitchell, who became the first sitting Senator to be convicted of a crime, and Representatives John Williamson and Binger Hermann, who both successfully evaded the charges in court, few involved saw the inside of a prison cell or paid restitution for their crimes.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Portrait of Josephus Daniels, by Harris & Ewing (c. 1920). Wikimedia Commons.

5. Following accusations of immoral conduct at naval installations in Rhode Island, the Navy became engulfed in a scandal concerning both the homosexual behavior of military personnel and the questionable manner in which subsequent court-martials took place

Following private disclosures of a homosexual subculture in February 1919, Chief Machinist’s Mate Ervin Arnold, a former state detective, undertook an investigation of his colleagues at Newport, Rhode Island in secret before presenting his detailed findings to his superiors. Provoking scandal, including allegations of effeminate behavior, cross-dressing, sodomy, and drug use, Admiral Spencer Wood, commander of the 2nd Naval District, ordered a full investigation. Arresting seventeen sailors between April 4 and April 22, these servicemen were coerced and pressured into incriminating each other further before a military tribunal.

Court-martialing the sailors, most were incarcerated for sodomy and “scandalous behavior” at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Maine, whilst two were merely dishonorably discharged. Subsequent coverage of the trials in the local press uncovered medieval tactics used to compel testimonies, including the torture and indefinite solitary confinement without trial of those who refused to publicly condemn their friends. Attracting national attention, the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs launched its own investigation. Denouncing Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt, the latter of whom was forced to resign as a result of the scandal, the committee strongly criticized the “immoral conditions” he had permitted to develop at the naval installation.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Swearing in of Albert B. Fall as Secretary of the Interior, by the National Photo Company (c. March 1921). Wikimedia Commons.

4. The “greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics” until Watergate, the Teapot Dome Scandal saw the first imprisonment of a former member of the United States Cabinet after the conviction of Interior Secretary Albert Fall for conspiracy and bribery

To ensure the Navy would retain sufficient fuel in times of crisis, following the conversion from coal to oil in the early twentieth century President Taft designated certain oil-producing areas as naval reserves. In 1921, President Harding issued an executive order transferring control of Teapot Dome Oil Field, Wyoming, and Elk Hills and Buena Visit Oil Fields, California, from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior. Exploiting his new responsibilities, Interior Secretary Albert Fall leased, without competitive bidding, the sites to the Sinclair Oil Corporation and the Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company in 1922.

Offered on highly favorable terms, Fall secretly accepted bribes worth more than $7m dollars today from the companies. After suspicions began to be raised regarding the deal, Fall attempted to cover his tracks. Nevertheless, questions started to be asked concerning how Fall had suddenly become immensely wealthy and an investigation was launched. Discovering the extent of the corruption, in 1927 the Supreme Court invalidated the leases on the grounds they had been corruptly obtained. Convicted of charges of conspiracy and bribery, Fall became the first former cabinet officer to be sentenced to prison as a result of misconduct performed in office.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Photograph of Joseph Raymond McCarthy, by United Press (c. 1954). Wikimedia Commons.

3. A stain on the history of the United States, the political repression under McCarthyism saw thousands of innocents lose their jobs and freedoms on the basis of unfounded accusations of their alleged political values

Starting during the Second Red Scare – a period in the aftermath of the Second World War, during which popular fear of communists reached hysterical levels in the United States – the political repression of alleged communists escalated following the successful testing of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union in 1949. Becoming what would become later known as “McCarthyism”, in February 1950 Senator Joseph McCarthy produced, and a month later published, a list of persons working in the State Department who he believed were secret members of the Communist Party. Resulting in widespread witch-hunts of alleged subversives throughout American society, several major investigations were conducted to weed out supposed undesirables.

Most prominently performed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, McCarthy himself led the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations between 1953 and 1954. Using his position to target several major organizations, including the public library system, McCarthy denounced authors he considered to promote dangerous thoughts. Forcing the removal of these texts and their public burning, individuals named during these all-encompassing investigations, often without evidence, would commonly be stripped of their jobs and rendered pariahs by association. In 2016 and 2017, prominent members of the Republican Party called for the return of “Un-American Committees” to purge society of those opposed to President Trump’s agenda.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
Spiro Agnew, the 55th Governor of Maryland and 39th Vice President of the United States (c. October 1972). Wikimedia Commons.

2. Becoming the 39th Vice President of the United States as Richard Nixon’s running mate, Spiro Agnew was only the second inhabitant of the office to resign after facing charges of corruption and bribery

In early 1973, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, where Agnew had served as Executive of Baltimore County between 1962 and 1966 and Governor from 1967 to 1969, opened an investigation into corruption in said county. Subpoenaing engineering firms and public contractors, Beall’s inquiry discovered that Lester Matz’s engineering firm had been paying five percent of the value of its contracts to Agnew. Upon further examination, it became clear that not only occurred during Agnew’s tenure in Maryland, but the payments had also continued into his vice presidency. Protesting his innocence, Agnew nevertheless became formally under investigation for tax fraud and corruption.

Turned on by his former conspirators, Matz, along with several other contractors, testified against Agnew. Coinciding with an escalation of the Watergate investigation, Agnew continued to fight the allegations. Asserting a sitting Vice President could not be indicted, as the situation grew increasingly bleak Agnew entered into negotiations. Informing Nixon of his intent to resign on October 9, the following day Agnew pleaded no contest to a single felony charge of tax evasion. Fined $10,000 and placed on three years’ probation, Agnew resigned the same day to be replaced by House Minority Leader Gerald Ford in the first invocation of the Twenty-fifth Amendment.

It’s Time to Revisit these 20 Political Scandals that Rocked the United States
President Carter (left) and former Governor Reagan (right) at the presidential debate on October 28, 1980. Wikimedia Commons.

1. An act of unsportsmanlike ignominy, in 1980 the Reagan campaign acquired a copy of Carter’s briefing book in advance of the presidential debate to provide an advantage for their candidate during preparations

The only debate of the 1980 presidential election to feature both President Jimmy Carter and Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, on October 28, 1980, the pair met on stage in Cleveland, Ohio at the Public Auditorium. With Reagan widely seen as besting his Democratic opponent, in June 1983 Laurence Barrett published evidence Republican aides had stolen a copy of Carter’s briefing book, classified top-secret, to assist with debate preparations. Triggering an investigation by the House of Representatives, the inquiry confirmed the Reagan team had indeed obtained the briefing papers and used them to their advantage during the election.

Whilst Carter bemoaned the incident, claiming the papers contained the “essence” of his campaign and provided an enormous advantage to his opponent, speculation focused upon quite how the Republican team had acquired the documents. Failing to officially resolve the matter, with those involved offering contradictory stories, popular attention centered on William Casey – Reagan’s campaign manager and CIA director – and the potential misuse of intelligence operatives within the White House. In 2009, the incident resurfaced with the allegation Casey had been offered the papers by an aide from Ted Kennedy’s failed primary campaign, embittered by the victory of Carter.


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

“The Politics of Command in the American Revolution”, Jonathan Gregory Rossie, Syracuse University Press (1975)

“Washington: The Indispensable Man”, James Thomas Flexner, Little & Brown Publishing (1974)

“The Roaring Lyon of Vermont”, Adolph O. Goldsmith, Journalism Quarterly (1962)

“Matthew Lyon: ‘New Man’ of the Democratic Revolution, 1749-1822”, Aleine Austin, Pennsylvania State University Press (1981)

“The Impeachment of John Pickering”, Lynn W. Turner, American Historical Review (April 1949)

“Aaron Burr Conspiracy: A History from Original and Hitherto Unused Sources”, Walter Flavius McCaleb, Dodd & Mead Publishing (1903)

“Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason”, Buckner Melton, John Wiley and Sons (2002)

“The One-Party Presidential Contest: Adams, Jackson, and 1824’s Five-Horse Race”, Donald J. Ratcliffe, University of Kansas Press (2015)

“The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson’s White House”, John F. Marszalek, Louisiana State University Press (2000)

“American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House”, Jon Meacham, Random House Publishing Group (2008)

“The Oxford History of the American People”, Samuel Eliot Morison, Oxford University Press (1965)

“The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War”, William James Hull Hoffer, Johns Hopkins University Press (2010)

“The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War”, Stephen Puleo, Westholme Publishing (2013)

“Andrew Johnson: A Biography”, Hans L. Trefousse, W.W. Norton and Company (1998)

“A New Look at the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson”, Michael Les Benedict, Political Science Quarterly (Fall 1998)

“Origins of the Credit Mobilier of America”, Fletcher M. Green, Mississippi Valley Historical Review (1959)

“The Telling Tale of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment: A Sleeping Amendment Concerning Congressional Compensation Is Later Revived”, John W. Dean, FindLaw (September 27, 2002)

“The Sleeper Wakes: The History and Legacy of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment”, Richard B. Bernstein, Fordham Law Review (1992)

“Secrets of the Great Whiskey and Ring; and Eighteen months in the penitentiary”, John McDonald, W.S. Bryan Publishing (1880)

“John McDonald and the Whiskey Ring: From Thug to Grant’s Inner Circle”, Edward S. Cooper, Rowman & Littlefield (2016)

“Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896”, David L. Bigler, Arthur H. Clarke Company (1998)

“Cannon, George Q.”, Joseph A. Cannon and Rick Fish, in “Utah History Encyclopaedia”, Allan Kent Powell, University of Utah Press (1994)

“Public Lands, Politics, and Progressives: The Oregon Land Fraud Trials, 1903-1910”, John Messing, Pacific Historical Review (1966)

“Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy”, Lawrence R. Murphy, Haworth Press (1988)

“The Origins of the Teapot Dome”, Leonard J. Bates, University of Illinois Press (1963)

“Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator”, Arthur Herman, The Free Press (1999)

“Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective”, Richard M. Fried, Oxford University Press (1990)

“A Heartbeat Away: The Investigation and Resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew”, Richard M. Cohen, The Viking Press (1974)

“Go Quietly… or Else”, Spiro T. Agnew, William Morrow and Company (1980)

“Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America”, Craig Shirley, Intercollegiate Studies Institute (2014)