10 Crazy Political Scandals During Elections Throughout American History

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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Photo: Frank Beard / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • Robert Potter Cracked Skulls (Literally) Because He Thought An Election Was Rigged
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

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

    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 woman 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 / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Honest Abe Traded Votes To Reach The White House

    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 wartime 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: John Neagle/National Gallery of Art / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Vice President Richard Johnson Once Owned His Wife

    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 / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    John Quincy Adams And Henry Clay Stole The Presidency From Jackson

    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 his 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.”

  • John Q. Adams Accused Jackson Of Committing Adultery With His Own Wife
    Photo: Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    John Q. Adams Accused Jackson Of Committing Adultery With His Own Wife

    With the allegedly corrupt election of 1824 still bitter in his mouth, Old Hickory and his supporters launched a populist campaign attacking Adams’s character in the run-up to the 1828 election, likening him to his elitist father and claiming he too wanted a monarchy in the United States. Jackson and his spin doctors used rhetoric such as referring to Adams’s White House as the “presidential palace,” where he lived in “kingly pomp and splendor.”

    Although Adams chose to not dignify the attacks from Jackson’s camp with responses, his supporters questioned Jackson’s character. What ensued was a descent into political muck. One of the Adams camp’s strongest arguments was that Jackson was an adulterer, as his wife, Rachel Donelson, hadn’t divorced her first husband before marrying Jackson in 1791.

    Although Jackson and his wife were properly married by 1794, Adams’s supporters cast shade on Rachel’s honor and virtue, which inflamed Jackson’s rage, especially since Rachel had a delicate disposition. As the attacks worsened, coincidentally so did Rachel’s health. She died of a heart attack shortly after Jackson secured victory.

  • A Vindictive Muckraker Won Jefferson The White House
    Photo: Ernst Keil's Nachfolger / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    A Vindictive Muckraker Won Jefferson The White House

    The bitter rivalry between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is well known. What isn’t well known is the extent to which Jefferson sought the demise of his political nemesis after losing the presidential election of 1796.

    While being forced to serve as Adams’s vice president, Jefferson actively sought ways to unseat his rival in the following election. Enter James Callender, a Scottish muckraker. Callender presented himself to Jefferson as the pen capable of destroying the Federalist party. Callender had already successfully tarnished the career of Alexander Hamilton by exposing a dubious sex scandal.

    Eager to partner with Callender, Jefferson bankrolled the Examiner, in which Callender alleged Adams’s egomania, desire to become king of America, and objective to declare war on France. He even claimed Adams to be a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man… nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

    This mudslinging resulted in two things: Callender’s imprisonment under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Jefferson winning the 1800 election, which enabled him to pardon his accomplice. However, after unfulfilled promises, Callender turned on his benefactor, unleashing the fact that Jefferson funded his attacks on Adams before giving credit to the infamous rumors about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave.