Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret
Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret

Scandals the US Founding Fathers Tried to Keep Secret

Larry Holzwarth - July 7, 2021

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