Presidential Scandals - 1776 through early 1900's

Updated on Feb 15, 2021. Originally added on Sep 19, 2016 by Kathy Pinna
We all have our favorite Presidents, based on how we feel about them and their politics. Who historians rate as the "best" and "worst" Presidents often depend on their own political biases as well - liberal or conservative. There is, however, general agreement among historians (the ranking differs a bit). The best: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, are the top three. Then come Harry S. Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, James K. Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. The worst: Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, William Henry Harrison, George W. Bush, Zachary Taylor, and John Tyler.

And then there are the interesting facts about Presidents: Jimmy Carter was the first President born in a hospital; John Quincy Adams enjoyed skinny-dipping in the Potomac River when he was President; John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both friends and rivals - and they died on the same day, July 4, 1826; Andrew Jackson had 100 duels and was in a bar fight with a Senator; Millard Fillmore's first wife was his teacher (when he was 19); when President, Franklin Pierce was arrested for running over a woman with his horse - the charges were dropped "for lack of evidence"; William Taft (who was obese) was once stuck in his White House bathtub and had to be helped by his staff; Herbert Hoover's son kept pet alligators in the White House and they were occasionally allowed to run loose!

But do you know about the criminal (or less than moral) Presidential administrations of the past? We like to think that we elect Presidents whose associations are beyond reproach yet that is rarely the case. In fact, some of the most corrupt administrations (remember Iran-Contra?) have been the most popular. Whether it involves their sexual escapades (almost half of Presidents were rumored to have mistresses, including George Washington - two were rumored to be gay or bisexual) or outright crimes, some of the most outrageous Presidential missteps are listed on the following pages.

Presidential Scandals - 1776 through early 1900's

President Grant (18th)

Grant, President U.S.

Major scandals made Grant's one of the most corrupt administrations. First, his sister's husband tried to aid Jay Gould and James Fisk in a scheme to corner the gold market by manipulating Presidential policies. They failed, but they did get far enough along that the gold market collapsed, causing "Black Friday" in 1869.

The Whiskey Ring Scandal involved much of his Cabinet, including his personal secretary (who he protected). It was discovered that government officials and employees were pocketing the taxes collected on the sale of whisky. Grant stopped this but protected those close to him.

The Credit Mobilier Scandal involved the VP, Congress, and many other members of government. The Credit Mobilier Company was stealing from the Union Pacific Railroad. When they were about to be exposed, they tried to cover up the scandal by offering stock to government officials and employees at huge discounts.

George Washington (1st)

Washington / painted by Cogniet, 1836 ; engraved by...

Washington, through the Jay Treaty, gave Great Britain favored-nation status. Thomas Jefferson repeatedly accused Washington of treason because of the Treaty. Washington was going to refute the charges in his farewell address but ended up simply warning about the dangers of political parties.

William Taft (27th)

President Taft

Taft's head of the Dept of the Interior was accused of interfering with an investigation into coal mining in Idaho. Taft had the accuser fired and cleared the accused. The press had a field day and, in the 1912 election, the progressive wing of the Republican party joined the Democrats. Wilson eventually won that election but it was a contentious time!


Abraham Lincoln (16th)

Abraham Lincoln, candidate

Lincoln's Secretary of War at the beginning of his term was Simon Cameron, once accused of being so corrupt that the only thing he would not steal was a red hot stove. In 1862, Lincoln asked for his resignation and appointed him as Minister to Russia, thereby sending him where he could do no further harm to the war effort!

John Quincy Adams (6th)

John Quincy Adams

Andy Jackson won the popular vote but failed to get enough electoral votes. Backroom deals got Adams the House vote but Jackson wouldn't give up - Adams' presidency was called "illegitimate" throughout his term.

Grover Cleveland (24th)

President Grover Cleveland

"Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Off to the White House, ha ha ha!” Having had an affair with a widow, he fathered a son. While the slogan became popular, he was honest about the affair and he was elected - twice.

Thomas Jefferson (3rd)

President Thomas Jefferson

In 1802, Jefferson was charged with having an affair with his slave, Sally Hemings (half sister of his deceased wife) and fathering a child. Jefferson denied the charges and remained as president for another 7 years. They eventually had 6 children, according to (sometimes disputed) DNA tests which most historians now accept.


President Andrew Jackson (7th)

President Andrew Jackson

During his campaign for President, it was found that Andy Jackson unknowingly married his wife - Rachel - before she was divorced, making her a bigamist. Her ex-husband finally completed their divorce and they were married again, legally, in 1794. But 30 years later, when he ran for President, it became an issue in the campaign. (She died before he took office and Jackson blamed her death on the scandal.) Once he was in office, his Secretary of War, Eaton, was accused of marrying a "tavern maid" whose husband had committed suicide. (High society gossiped that Eaton's affair with her had caused the suicide.) All but one of the Cabinet resigned in protest - their wives led the campaign against Eaton and his wife.

President Hayes (19th) and Mrs Hayes

President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes

When Rutherford B. Hayes nominated Stanley Matthew for the Supreme Court near the end of his term, the Senate didn't like Matthew's closeness to several railroads and other corporations. They refused to consider him. The next administration (Garfield) pushed him through but the vote was 24-23, the closest vote for a justice’s nomination ever.

President Warren G. Harding (29th) with wife Florence

Warren G. Harding & Florence Harding

The Teapot Dome scandal (before Watergate considered to be the biggest scandal in U.S. history) began when Harding transferred control of naval oil reserves to the Interior Dept. The Secretary of the Interior took bribes from oil companies to disperse the oil. Then there was the Veteran's Bureau scandal, giving cronies jobs . . . A lot went on before he died 2 years into his Presidency.

Chester Arthur (21st)

A refreshing change, his corruption connection occurred before he became President
Chester Arthur

Chester Arthur was fired from political office as a part of patronage reform by President Hayes. But when Arthur became President (due to the assassination of Garfield), he surprised everyone by running an honest administration. It was said of him: "No duty was neglected in his administration, and no adventurous project alarmed the nation."

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