From an early sex scandal to a mass conspiracy to siphon taxes from the federal treasury, get the facts on eight political controversies from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Hamilton-Reynolds Affair
The nation’s first major sex scandal began in 1791, when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton started an affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds. Unbeknownst to Hamilton, Reynolds’ husband James had full knowledge of the dalliance, and he eventually contacted the founding father and demanded more than $1,000 in hush money, which Hamilton paid. The affair continued for several more months, but in late-1792 James Reynolds finally exposed it to government investigators after being implicated in an unrelated financial scandal. He even claimed that Hamilton had been involved in illegal financial speculation.
When confronted by a group of politicians that included James Monroe, Hamilton came clean about the affair and handed over love letters from Maria Reynolds to exonerate himself of any illegal activity. The matter was kept under wraps for several years, but it resurfaced in 1797 after a muckraker journalist named James Callender got ahold of the love letters and published them in a pamphlet. Forced to choose between airing his dirty laundry or letting the charges go unanswered, Hamilton took action and published a pamphlet of his own, which admitted his “amorous connection” with Maria Reynolds while also refuting all accusations of financial impropriety. While Hamilton’s candor helped clear him of any corruption claims, reports of his infidelity would stain his reputation for the rest of his career.
The Blount Conspiracy
William Blount was a Continental Congressman and a signatory of the Constitution, but he also holds the dubious distinction of being the first politician to be expelled from the United States Senate. In 1796, while serving as Senator for the new state of Tennessee, Blount hatched a scheme to aid the British in seizing Spanish-held territory in what is now Louisiana and Florida. The audacious plan called for frontiersmen and Cherokee Indians to rise up against the Spanish and drive them off the Gulf Coast. The region would then become a British colony, opening it to settlers and allowing Blount—who owned huge tracts of Western land—to make a killing on his investments.
Unfortunately for Blount, his plot unraveled in 1797 after one of his conspiratorial letters found its way to President John Adams. That July, the Senate voted to expel him from its ranks, but a subsequent impeachment trial was dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction. The scandal did little to slow Blount’s political career. Despite being labeled a scoundrel in Washington, he remained popular in Tennessee and was later elected to the state legislature and appointed speaker.
The Burr Conspiracy
Little more than a year after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, former Vice President Aaron Burr was implicated in an outlandish scheme to seize lands in the American West. The details of the conspiracy remain mysterious to this day, but evidence suggests that Burr planned to invade Spanish territories on the frontier and establish a new western empire with himself as its leader. He may have also planned to incite a revolution to separate the western territories of the Louisiana Purchase from the United States. The plot began in earnest in 1805, when Burr traveled west and enlisted the help of U.S. General James Wilkinson, a notorious intriguer who also happened to be a Spanish spy. By the following year, he had assembled recruits and military equipment on an island in the Ohio River.
Whatever Burr’s true plans were, they never got a chance to come to fruition. In late-1806, Wilkinson lost his nerve and betrayed the conspiracy to President Thomas Jefferson. Burr was arrested and put on trial for treason a few months later, but was ultimately acquitted on the grounds that his scheming did not constitute an “overt act” of war against the United States. The fallout from the conspiracy trial left Burr’s political career in tatters. He spent several years in self-imposed exile in Europe, but eventually resettled in New York in 1812 and opened a law practice.
The Petticoat Affair
Though somewhat absurd by modern standards, the so-called “Petticoat Affair” cast a shadow over the first two years of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. The controversy centered on Margaret Eaton, an outspoken belle who had married Jackson’s secretary of war John Eaton just a few months after her first husband committed suicide. The speedy nuptials proved shocking to 19th century sensibilities, and when combined with Margaret’s vivacious personality, they earned her a reputation as a woman of “easy virtue” among the Washington elite. Her fellow cabinet wives ostracized her from their social circles and spread gossip about her supposed lovers and past affairs. There were also whispers that Margaret’s first husband had killed himself after learning of her infidelities with John Eaton.
President Andrew Jackson sympathized with Margaret Eaton—she supposedly reminded him of his deceased wife—and it wasn’t long before he dove headlong into the controversy. He interrogated Eaton’s critics and produced character witnesses to clear her name. He even called a special cabinet meeting where he pronounced her “as chaste as a virgin.” When the Eaton rumors refused to die, Jackson became convinced that they were part of a larger plot to sow discord within his administration. In 1831, he resorted to extreme measures by firing or accepting the resignations of nearly all his cabinet members. The scandal also led to a final rupture with his vice president, John C. Calhoun, who was replaced by Martin Van Buren for Jackson’s second term.
The Sumner-Brooks Affair
House and senate floor debates have always been heated, but 1856 marked one of the few occasions where they resulted in bloodshed. During a discussion of the Kansas-Nebraska Act—a law that allowed the citizens of those territories to vote on whether they would allow slavery—abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner gave a fiery speech in which he branded South Carolina’s Andrew Butler a “zealot” who was enamored with the “harlot” of slavery. The words came as a grave insult to Preston Brooks, a proslavery congressman who also happened to be Butler’s nephew. Just three days later, Brooks confronted Sumner in the Senate chamber and assaulted him with a metal-topped cane, repeatedly bludgeoning him over the head until the stick splintered into pieces.
The cane attack left Sumner so badly injured that he was forced to spend over three years in recovery. Brooks, meanwhile, was fined for assault and put under congressional investigation, but a measure to expel him from the House of Representatives failed to gather the required two-thirds majority. He voluntarily resigned in July 1856, only to be reseated by his constituents a few days later. In a preview of the divisions that would lead to the Civil War, the scandal saw Brooks simultaneously denounced in the North and hailed as a hero in the South. Supporters even sent him replacement canes, including one inscribed with the words “Hit Him Again.”
The Sickles murder case
In early 1859, the nation was rocked by a grisly murder scandal involving New York Congressman Daniel Sickles. For months, Sickles’ wife Teresa had been carrying out an affair with his close friend Philip Barton Key II, a prominent district attorney and the son of “The Star-Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key. The tryst was one of the worst kept secrets in Washington—Key was even known to wave a handkerchief outside his window when he wanted Teresa’s company—but Sickles remained oblivious until he received an anonymous letter that spelled out all the lurid details. The revelations sent him into a rage. A few days later, as multiple witnesses looked on, he approached Key outside the White House and shot him to death.
In the aftermath of the shooting, details about the murder and the Key affair were splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the country. The media circus only grew during Sickles’ April 1859 murder trial, when his lawyers claimed their client had been “temporary insane” during his crime. It was the first time that such a defense had been rolled out in an American court, but it proved successful: after just 70 minutes of deliberation, a sympathetic jury acquitted Sickles of all charges. He went on to serve as a Union major general during the Civil War, and later lost his right leg to a cannonball at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Crédit Mobilier Scandal
On the eve of the 1872 election season, the New York Sun broke the story of an infamous boondoggle involving several business leaders, U.S. congressmen and even the vice president. The scandal took its name from Crédit Mobilier of America, a construction company contracted by the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1860s during the building of the transcontinental railroad. While it masqueraded as a legitimate business, Crédit Mobilier was actually a front company operated by a cabal of Union Pacific executives. By granting it exorbitantly lucrative contracts, the men were able to line their pockets with funds paid to Union Pacific by minor shareholders and the federal government. To keep officials from prying into the ring’s affairs, Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames—a chief conspirator—dished out bribes of company stock to his fellow lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
By the time a disgruntled investor finally ratted the scheme out to the media in 1872, Crédit Mobilier had made its ringleaders at least $23 million. The scandal’s exposure led to a congressional investigation, but despite evidence that the corruption extended to more than a dozen politicians including vice president Schuyler Colfax, only two representatives—Ames and James Brooks—were officially censured. Neither man was expelled from Congress, however, and no criminal charges were ever filed.
The Whiskey Ring
One of the most notorious scandals of the Gilded Age, the so-called “Whiskey Ring” involved a group of officials and alcohol distillers who plotted to defraud the government of its 70 cents-a-gallon tax on liquor. The scheme was as simple as it was lucrative. Through a system of bribes and blackmail, crooked federal agents and whiskey distillers would under-report whiskey sales, allowing them to skip out on tax payments and pocket the profits. The ring was first set up in 1871 by corrupt Republican Party officials in St. Louis, but it eventually extended to several other cities including Chicago, New Orleans and Milwaukee. By 1875, it was grossing as much as $1.5 million per year in illicit funds.
The Whiskey Ring might have continued unabated if not the 1874 appointment of Benjamin Bristow as the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. After catching wind of the scheme, he organized a secret investigation that exposed the fraud and led to indictments against several hundred liquor sellers and government officials. The scandal even reached as far as the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, whose personal secretary Orville Babcock was caught in the dragnet. Babcock was only exonerated after Grant—who was not involved in the ring—gave a deposition swearing to his innocence.