Weird History
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10 Crazy Political Scandals During Elections Throughout American History

Updated September 18, 2019 61.6k views10 items

Seems like a new election scandal steals headlines every day. From sexual misconduct to the misappropriations of funds, Benghazi, and foreign collusion, political scandals during American elections appear from the woodwork nearly every day during voting season, as competing megalithic candidates with money to burn spend all their bucks trying to sink their opponent's battleship. Despite the staggering number and gravity of scandals during the 2016 election cycle, political scandals during elections are hardly new.

Perhaps election scandals in US history are such a pervasive phenomenon because of the country's great experiment in electoral politics. Unlike other systems of governance, there's no telling who's going to win an American election, and easiest way to make sure you win is ensuring your opponent doesn't. So many American election scandals are predicated on torpedoing a candidate. What's easier to do, convince voters you're the best of several good options, of two good candidates, or the far lesser of evils? 

Read on to learn about US political scandals during elections. They've been happening for centuries, and some are so outlandish, it's hard to believe they really happened. 

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  • Robert Potter Cracked Skulls (Literally) Because He Thought an Election Was Rigged

    Photo: Édouard Riou / Public Domain

    Robert Potter was a statesman, legislator, cabinet member, founder of the Texas Navy, and a signatory of the Texas Declaration of Independence of 1836. This indeed sounds like the resume of an upstanding gentleman. However, Potter’s biography is wrought with allegations of corruption and violence, the best example of which is from an 1824 election cycle in Halifax, NC.

    Potter ran for a seat in the state legislature against old-money incumbent Jesse Bynum and lost. There are rumors animosity was high between the two prior to the election, as a result of Bynum refusing to introduce Potter to a certain young women whom Potter very much wanted to meet. Whether this specific story is true, a rivalry certainly existed.

    After the election, Potter alleged that Bynum won through corrupt means and demanded a duel, allowing Bynum to “choose [his] own weapon and distance.” Bynum refused, but challenged Potter’s second, a famously timid chap who returned a refusal. After rounds of challenges and refusals, Potter took matters into his own hands, ambushing Bynum, which incited a massive brawl, replete with a cracked skull and a stabbing.

    All of this led to the next election being canceled, and Potter's removal to Oxford, NC, where he was elected to the state’s House of Commons.

  • Honest Abe Traded Votes to Reach the White House

    Photo: Currier and Ives / Public Domain

    The presidential election of 1860 was contentious, with the country effectively split on the divisive issue of slavery that would all too soon manifest as the Civil War. Prior to the election, the Republican primary was crowded, with New York Senator William Seward favored to win.

    Through crafty political maneuvering, Lincoln was able to survive three rounds of ballots cast by state delegates. One of his most important moves was convincing Pennsylvania Senator and political boss Simon Cameron to influence his state's delegates to cast their ballots for Lincoln. It became common knowledge immediately after the primary that a deal had been struck between Lincoln and Cameron, and once Abe won the White House, the deal came to fruition with Cameron's appointed as Secretary of War. 

    Perhaps this wouldn't have been a scandal had Cameron been a competent public servant. However, his short tenure saw unaccountably large war time contracts given to political cronies who had done, or Cameron hoped would do, favors for him. In January 1862, Abe dismissed his blundering Secretary of War and appointed him minister to Russia (a severe demotion), a position from which Cameron resigned 10 months later.

  • Vice President Richard Johnson Once Owned His Wife

    Photo: Rembrandt Peale / Public Domain

    A political scene crowded with Whig candidates helped Martin Van Buren, a Jacksonian Democrat, handily win the presidential election of 1836. The vice presidential election, however, was shockingly close, so much so it had to be decided by the Senate (for the first time), as per the protocol laid out in the 12th Amendment.

    Richard Johnson was the eventual winner, though his campaign had been plagued by his unusual, common-law marriage to Julia Chinn, a slave bequeathed to Johnson by his father (they couldn't get properly married because she was a slave). Despite the fact that Chinn died in 1833, Johnson’s political opponents, including those in his own party, were vicious in their attacks on him and his marriage.

    See, for example, the infamous print Jinnoowine [Genuine] Johnson Ticket: Carrying the War into Africa, which featured a racist depiction of Chinn voicing, in a stereotypical dialect, “Let ebery good dimicrat vote for my husband, and den he shall hab his sheer ub de surplum rebbenu wat is in my bag,” with references to the unpopular Surplus Bill, a bill signed by Jackson allegedly to aid the Van Buren campaign.

  • John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay Stole the Presidency from Jackson

    Photo: Philip Haas / Public Domain

    The presidential election of 1824 is perhaps the most notorious in American history. A new kind of political monster entered the scene: a common man turned war hero turned politician; or, Andrew Jackson. Jackson took more than 150,000 votes, translating into 99 electoral votes. While this was more than any of his three opponents—John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Henry Clay—it wasn’t a majority.

    As per the 12th amendment, because the election had no winner, its outcome was placed in the hands of the House of Representatives. Jackson had the most popular votes and electoral votes, so it was assumed he would win. However, because Henry Clay received the fewest votes, his candidacy ended, allowing him to resume is post as Speaker of the House. Adams, a skilled political insider, held private meetings with representatives, including Clay, who convinced the House to choose Adams. 

    Immediately after his inauguration, Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State. Jackson, who initially conceded with grace, spent the next four years deriding the corruption inherent in the political system, saying Clay and Adams made a “corrupt bargain” and giving Clay the sobriquet “the Judas of the West.”