The 10 Biggest U.S. Presidential Scandals

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There’s something about power and success that tends to breed scandal and disaster, especially in the realm of politics. So it would make sense that when most men become President of the United States, there’s almost bound to be a scandal during their time in office. Here’s a look at ten of the most scandalous scandals in the history of the presidency.

10. Grover Cleveland and the Problem Child

Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two separate terms as President, was known for many things, but a lack of candor was not one of them. And it was this quality that led him to admit during his first campaign in 1884 that he had fathered an illegitimate son with a widow named Maria C. Halpin. Further information was released that Cleveland had been paying child support, and in fact went so far as to put his estranged son—who went by Oscar Folsom Cleveland—in an orphanage when his mother could no longer care for him.

The circumstances revolving around Oscar entering an orphanage involved the fact that Halpin was forced to enter an insane asylum immediately after Oscar’s birth—which raised questions about her trustworthiness and gave Cleveland a slight upper hand in the public debate that inevitably ensued.

One could take the fact that Cleveland made these payments as an act of good will, or a sign of a complacent and uncaring father who wanted nothing to do with his son. However the fact remains that this kind of scandalous behavior in the 1880s was highly frowned upon, and it’s a miracle Cleveland was able to get reelected once the news broke.

9. Petticoat Affair

Andrew Jackson seemed to be plagued by controversy throughout his entire life, but the largest was known was the Petticoat Affair, which took place between 1830 and 1831, and involved members of Jackson’s cabinet of advisors.

One member of the cabinet, John Henry Eaton, who was Secretary of War at the time, had recently married a woman named Margaret Timberlake, who had become widowed after her husband killed himself. It’s unclear whether or not the affair between Eaton and Timberlake was known to Timberlake’s husband at the time, but speculation that it was the reason he had committed suicide was nearly impossible to suppress.

Although practically the entirety of Jackson’s Cabinet shunned Eaton for the affair, Jackson supported him amidst the outrage. The event, however, engulfed the White House in a national scandal and led to the entire nation picking sides between the deceased Timberlake and Secretary Eaton. The scandal led to so much controversy, in fact, that several members of Jackson’s cabinet resigned. It also led to the formation of a far less formal “Kitchen Cabinet,” which Jackson believed would help reduce tensions between his administration and an angry public.

8. Monroe and Kennedy

By far one of the most significant and talked-about scandals in American history, the prolonged affair that took place between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe was slightly unusual in that at the time, the public—due mostly to the discretion of the press—knew very little about it.

The 1960s in the United States was a different time for reporting, and when a president or political figure asked to speak “off the record,” reporters usually respected their wishes and kept quite.

Although it wouldn’t have taken very much detective work to figure out what was going on between the President, who was very much married to the gorgeous and charismatic Jackie Kennedy, and Monroe. Marilyn was known to frequent presidential events and parties, and even went so far as to sing the president a slightly scandalous rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Kennedy’s forty-fifth birthday in mixed company.

Although Monroe was indeed a celebrated sex symbol, she had her fair share of demons, and near the end of her life started abusing a variety of different drugs and acting strangely in public. Due to her increasingly embarrassing behavior, Kennedy’s advisers sought to distance her from the President. This upset Monroe greatly, and she threatened to go public with information regarding their affair. However she never got the chance, since she was found dead only days after making the threat.

7. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings

Much like the 1960s, the turn of the 19th century was also a far more discreet time when it came to political scandals and how they were reported. Thus it took a while for news to emerge that Thomas Jefferson had an affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings, who was a domestic servant in Jefferson’s home.

Affairs during this time were highly condemned in general, so one can only imagine the uproar that occurred when Jefferson was officially charged with having an affair and fathering a child with a slave, given Jefferson’s open admission that he considered African Americans to be far inferior to whites.

Although Jefferson adamantly denied the charges, recent DNA evidence makes it quite clear that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Sally Hemming’s children. Others speculate that Jefferson was indeed the father to all six of Hemming’s children, of whom four survived. Jefferson eventually granted the remaining four children freedom—perhaps out of guilt or perhaps out of social necessity. However the evidence points to Jefferson freeing them due to at least a small degree of parental empathy, since in fact they were the only slave family he ever freed.

6. Credit Mobilier Scandal

In 1868, railroads were a big deal. The rail lines that stretched across the county had revolutionized travel and made transportation far more efficient and cost effective.

Therefore it caused quite an understandable uproar when it was revealed that a construction company named Credit Mobilier had been essentially stealing from the Union Pacific Railroad for quite some time.

The Union Pacific Railroad had been commissioned by the federal government to build the eastern portion of the First Transcontinental Railroad during Lincoln’s presidency. Later, during Andrew Johnson’s presidency, it was revealed that Congressman Oakes Ames had been sending bribes and vastly discounted shares of Credit Mobilier stock to other Congressmen in return for their support of policies that favored Union Pacific.

Putting aside the glaring conflict of interest, this was a time when Americans already felt wary of federal authority, having just emerged from a brutal Civil War fought to preserve the Union. So when the scandal broke it was not taken lightly. After Congressional investigations were concluded, practically all of the Union Pacific investors were bankrupt.

5. Whiskey Ring

General Ulysses S. Grant was very much a fan of whiskey for much of his life, but during his presidency it ended up causing him more misery than joy. Although Grant’s presidency was plagued with several high-profile scandals, the Whiskey Ring scandal was the most controversial.

Taking place in 1875, the Whiskey Ring involved the deliberate and prolonged conspiring of high-level government officials and members of Grant’s cabinet to “steal” taxes on whiskey that were meant to go to the coffers of the federal government.

Millions of dollars that had been paid as federal taxes on liquor purchases were pocketed by the conspirators before those responsible were caught, when the U.S. Treasury Secretary launched an investigation that brought the truth to light. Ultimately 110 convictions were made and $3 million in lost tax revenue was recovered, however this did little to sooth the anger and resentment of many whiskey-loving Americans, who had essentially been robbed by members of the federal government.

Although Grant heavily condemned the affair and urged swift punishment of the culprits, it left a permanent stain on both his presidency and the Republican Party, as well as a general distaste for the policies of Reconstruction.

4. Iran-Contra Affair

The infamous Iran-Contra Affair was by far one of the largest scandals in American history, and once again led to a general mistrust of both the president and the federal government.

Taking place during the second term of the Reagan administration, it was revealed in 1986 that members of his administration had secretly sold weapons to Iran, which had been placed on a strict arms embargo by Congress. Funds received by Iran for the weapons purchases were used to bolster the revolutionary “Contras” group in Nicaragua.

The sale of these weapons was ultimately meant to tackle two major problems facing the United States at once: First, it was believed that the sale would help win favor with the Iranians and secure the release of American hostages being held there at the time; and secondly it was hoped that the cash sent to the Contras in Nicaragua would help further destabilize a corrupt and dangerous regime.

It is unknown how much Reagan knew about the details of the transaction, but the fact that Reagan had appointed several of the men responsible was enough to conjure a great deal of anger from the American people.

3. Teapot Dome

Although President Warren Harding’s time in office was surrounded by several scandals, the Teapot Dome controversy brought about the greatest amount of turmoil.

Having made the controversial decision to place control of naval oil reserves (one of which was the Teapot Dome in Wyoming) in the hands of the Department of the Interior in 1921, Harding had entrusted the Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, with a great deal of responsibility. Fall proved to be undeserving of Harding’s trust, however, and ended up accepting bribes from the Mammoth Oil Company in return for precious rights on the reserve.

The bribes technically took the form of low prices and a lack of competitive bidding, which meant that although Fall was convicted of receiving bribes, no private company was convicted of actually paying bribes. However it was clear that there had been foul play involving multiple parties.

It took several years for the scandal to break, however in 1924 it was determined that Fall had collected more than $100,000 in bribes from Mammoth. It was considered to be the most sensational scandal in American political history at the time, and it goes without saying that this had a wildly negative impact on Harding’s legacy as a leader and decision-maker.

2. Watergate Scandal

When it was said that the Teapot Dome was the most sensational scandal in American political history, that was true—although this title was later transferred to the Watergate Scandal, which took place under the presidency of Richard Nixon and shook public confidence in American politics and government to a new low.

In 1972, there had been a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. It was soon determined that Nixon and numerous members of his administration had been involved in the break-in and then went through extraordinary lengths to cover up their involvement.

The primary goal of the burglars was to obtain vital and private information on the future plans of the Democratic Party and its leading members, although most people doubt that much useful information was actually recovered.

Before Watergate, the thought of the President of the United States taking part in the blatant robbery of personal property was quite unfathomable. What was almost equally as unfathomable was the thought of a sitting president choosing to resign from office in disgrace, however that it exactly what happened on August 9th, 1974—making Nixon the first and only president to do so in the history of the United States.

1. Lewinsky Scandal

Scandals of a sexual nature are perhaps the most engrossing for the American people, due in part to the fact the it’s often so entertaining to imagine people in extreme positions of power succumb to the most primal instincts, which is what happened with President Bill Clinton and a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky in 1998.

Having worked her way into the White House and becoming quite close with the President, Ms. Lewinsky was able to seduce the president in his office, and Clinton apparently was unable to contain himself.

To make matters worse, Clinton (who was and still is married to Hillary Clinton) went on to blatantly lie about the affair under oath—further deepening his predicament. Clinton was eventually impeached by the House of Representatives, making him the second impeached president in history behind Andrew Johnson.

As the investigation raged on and captured the attention of practically every American with a television set, Clinton was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice during a prolonged Senate trial. Clinton’s license to practice law was revoked and his reputation permanently damaged.