Presidential elections can be full of nasty innuendo and scandals. Was it any better in the past? Honestly, I don’t think so. When people comment on me on nasty elections, I just tell them look at Andrew Jackson! This piece from Digital History answers much the same question: Today, there is a widespread sense among the American public that politics has grown more venomous in recent years and that no facet of a politician's private life is off-limits to public scrutiny. Public concern with "the politics of personal destruction" burst into the political spotlight during the 1980s after President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork for the U.S. Supreme Court, and his opponents investigated the videotapes that the nominee had rented.
Thus it comes as a surprise to learn that in the rough-and-tumble world of early American politics, every subject was fair game, including the purported sex lives of politicians. During the presidential campaign of 1800, President John Adams was accused of sending a friend to Europe to procure mistresses. Adams responded by joking that if the reports were true, General Pickering had kept them for himself. Thomas Jefferson was subsequently accused of fathering numerous mulatto children by his slave Sally Hemings. In 1828, John Quincy Adams's opponents charged that that when the President had served as Minister to Russia, he had offered his children's nanny as a royal mistress. In that same election, President Adams' supporters accused Andrew Jackson of committing adultery because he married his wife while she was still legally married to her first husband (a story that was technically true, even though neither Jackson nor his wife Rachel knew that her first husband was still alive). Martin Van Buren's Vice President, Richard Johnson, was accused of keeping a black concubine.
Perhaps the most striking example of sexual scandal in early American politics involved Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. In 1792, a convicted swindler named James Reynolds accused Hamilton of giving him money from the U.S. Treasury to speculate with in the stock market. When three members of Congress quietly investigated the charges, Hamilton admitted giving money to Reynolds, but said the funds were his own, and that he paid them to cover up an adulterous affair with Reynolds's wife, Maria. The members of Congress concluded that Hamilton's misconduct was wholly a private matter and kept it secret.
We do see a period of reticence on private lives in the twentieth century:
In the twentieth century, in sharp contrast to the nineteenth, a conspiracy of silence generally protected the presidents' private lives from public scrutiny. Prior to his second marriage, Woodrow Wilson had a relationship with a woman named Mary Allen Hulbert. Franklin Roosevelt had an affair with Lucy Page Mercer, whom Eleanor Roosevelt had hired as her social secretary. Mercer was with President Roosevelt when he died in 1945 in Warm Springs, Georgia. During World War II, General Dwight Eisenhower had an extra-marital relationship with Kate Summersby, his personal secretary and military aide. After the war, the two never saw each other again. Beginning in the 1970s, over a decade after his assassination, reports linked John F. Kennedy with a Mafia moll, Judith Exner, and the actress Marilyn Monroe.
Between Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, the one major exception to this rule was Warren Harding, yet even in this case, reports of presidential adultery followed his death. For fifteen years, Harding had an affair with Carrie Phillips, the wife of a close friend. After World War I broken out in Europe, she threatened to reveal their affair unless Harding voted against a U.S. declaration of war. After Harding received the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, the Republican National Committee sent her family on an all-expense paid trip to Japan and paid her $20,000 to keep quiet. Later, a woman named Nan Britten claimed that she had an illicit affair with Harding, including trysts in a White House cloak closet, and that the he had gotten her pregnant. Recent historical scholarship has cast doubt on aspects of this story.
American reactions to sexual scandals involving prominent politicians appear to be influenced by two traditions rooted in the country's colonial past, one stressing personal rectitude; the other emphasizing contrition, public confession, and forgiveness. A key issue raised during the controversy over President Bill Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky is whether political leaders' public and private lives can be separated and whether their moral authority demands that they be held to higher standards than ordinary citizens.