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When Bad Presidents Misbehave Do They Always Get Away With It?


The closest student of public administration before the Civil War points to the presidency of James Buchanan as the nadir of antebellum public ethics. All of the trends of corruption at the lower ranks of the government seemed to culminate in three years, and the rate of exposure increased dramatically. Republicans—the new Republican Party had become the nation’s second party by 1856—and anti-administration Democrats alike fostered a multitude of congressional investigations of custom houses, navy yards, post offices, and the public printing. These revealed not only executive turpitude but also congressional corruption, not only activities during Buchanan’s term but sleazy practices during the entire 1850s and even earlier.

There is ample evidence of improper, if not outrightly illegal, Democratic actions to carry the elections of 1856 and 1858, actions of which Buchanan apparently was aware and in which some of his closest friends participated. Whether or not Buchanan directed or approved these activities, he apparently condoned them, for he made no attempt to stop them. Many of these would be exposed by the Covode Committee in 1860.

To raise money for the 1856 campaign, the Democrats employed a host of dubious practices. For example, Buchanan’s close personal friend, George Plitt of Philadelphia, promised naval contracts in return for campaign contributions, and such contracts were later awarded. Isaac Fowler, Democratic postmaster in New York City under both Pierce and Buchanan, directly funneled large sums of government money into Democratic coffers in New York for the campaign. Finally, the major printer of government documents under the two Democratic presidents, Cornelius Wendell, channeled large shares of his inflated profits into the Democratic war chest, as he would again in 1858 and 1860. Wendell later told Congress that between 1856 and 1860 he contributed over $100,000 to Democratic campaigns over and above the portions of his profits he used to support Democratic newspapers in Washington and elsewhere. In addition to the normal antebellum practice of assessing officeholders for campaign contributions, therefore, the Democrats made startlingly effective use of their control of the federal government.

Most of this war chest was spent for perfectly legitimate purposes: subsidization of party newspapers, printing of campaign documents, payment of touring speakers, and printing and distribution of ballots. Getting ballots to the voters was a party, not a governmental, function in the mid-19th century, and it was expensive. Evidence exists, however, that some of the money at least was used to buy votes in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Thousands of aliens, moreover, were illegally naturalized and marched to the polls by the Democrats. Elsewhere the Democratic machine transported immigrant voters to crucial states, where they were not legal residents. Before the important congressional elections in October 1856, Buchanan’s henchman in Philadelphia, John Forney, wrote him, “We have naturalized a vast mass of men and assessed many of the native-born citizens. The Opposition are appalled. They cry fraud. Our most experienced men say all is well.”

Only taxpayers could vote in Pennsylvania, and when Forney spoke of assessing citizens, he probably meant that the Democrats either paid taxes for them or provided them with fraudulent tax assessment records so they could vote. After the election, Virginia fire-eater Edmund Ruffin heard in Washington “that enormous sums of money were sent from the city of New York and a good deal also from the Democrats of New England to buy votes in Pennsylvania and which turned the vote in that state.”

Buchanan dismissed the friends of anti-Lecompton Democrats from federal jobs, promised new appointments in return for votes, and offered “contracts, commissions, and in some cases cold cash” to wavering congressmen.

Further evidence of Buchanan’s acquiescence in corrupt political methods emerged in 1858 during the battle over the Lecompton Constitution in Congress. Buchanan desperately wanted Congress to vote Kansas’s admission as a state with that proslavery constitution, and he used almost every means at his disposal to pressure hesitant Democratic congressmen from the North to support the measure. Even Buchanan’s sympathetic biographer admits that the President dismissed the friends of anti-Lecompton Democrats from federal jobs, promised new appointments in return for votes, and offered “contracts, commissions, and in some cases cold cash” to wavering congressmen. Cabinet members were especially prominent in dangling government contracts to secure support, and in some cases they abetted corrupt officeholders.

To chastise Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, for example, Buchanan removed his man in the Chicago post office and replaced him with Douglas’s arch foe, Isaac “Ike” Cook. A notorious thief, Cook had held that office before but had left in public disgrace as a defaulter to the government. He still had not paid what he owed the government when Buchanan nominated him in 1858. To meet his debt, Cook had offered the government a plot of land in Chicago to which his title was unclear. Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb had previously refused to accept the land as payment. When the administration wanted Cook in office to pursue his feud with Douglas, however, Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black ruled Cook’s title valid, and Cobb accepted the land as payment. Cook and his cronies in Chicago then proceeded to rob the post office blind, even pilfering registered mail. Despite cries of outrage, the administration benignly turned its head and kept Cook in office. He was too valuable a foe of the hated Douglas to remove.


The administration of Andrew Johnson, which began upon Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, was predominantly concerned with redefining the status and rights of people, both black and white, living in the defeated Confederate states. Johnson asserted an ideological and constitutional position of great importance on May 29th, 1865, when he issued his Amnesty Proclamation. Under its terms, the President used his pardoning power to restore effectively the political and economic rights of virtually all white southerners.

Of concern here is not this stand by Andrew Johnson, but allegations that Johnson abused his powers as president by not executing the laws of Congress. Many important expressions of Johnson’s defiance were made without notice to Congress or the public. Charges of such abuses of power formed the subject of extensive hearings in 1867 held by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. The committee heard more than 85 witnesses conversant with conditions in the South and enforcement of federal law and took 1,154 pages of testimony.

The first major case of failure to carry out the presidential duty of enforcing an act of Congress occurred on August 16th, 1865. Congress, on March 3rd, 1865, had passed legislation creating the Freedmen’s Bureau in the executive branch. President Lincoln signed the bill. Under its terms, “the Commissioner, under the direction of the President,” was authorized to “set apart” for “loyal refugees and freedmen” for the period of three years “not more than forty acres of lands abandoned within the insurrectionary states.” This implied a promise of 40 acres for about 20,000 freedmen families in the South. On August 16th, with notice only to the assistant commissioner of the bureau in Tennessee and to subordinate officers in the bureau headquarters in Washington (the commissioner was on vacation), Johnson ordered lands covered by the act of March 3rd restored to a former landowner, B. B. Leake. On the back of a request for guidance in the matter, Johnson added that the “same action will be had in all similar cases.” Almost casually, Congress’s act was abrogated.

The appointive power lies with the president and extended, of course, over the Freedmen’s Bureau. Investigating congressmen, however, charged that the power of appointment was abused when appointments were made for the specific purpose of frustrating rather than facilitating the enforcement of the law. Johnson replaced Thomas Conway, assistant commissioner for Louisiana, with James Scott Fullerton, and instructed Fullerton to report directly to him. The President did this because Conway was prepared to execute the congressional land redistribution plan; Fullerton, as instructed, did not do so. The former assistant commissioner for South Carolina, Rufus Saxton, who had refused to resign and had to be fired so that lands could be restored, testified that a prominent white planter, William Whaley, “told me that the President had told him this property [held by freedmen] would be given up.” That restoration of land was Andrew Johnson’s intent was made completely clear when Freedmen’s Bureau Commissioner O. O. Howard, in the company of Whaley, relayed the same message to the freedmen of Edisto Island.

By extending the pardoning power to include the restoration of lands that the freedmen were farming and by issuing orders to the bureau to evict freedmen from such lands, Johnson set aside the land provisions of the act of March 3, 1865. As House Judiciary Chairman George S. Boutwell stated, “In violation of law and without authority of law he [President Johnson] has restored them [abandoned lands covered by the act] to their former rebel owners.”

When Congress reconvened in December 1865, it began work on a congressional form of Reconstruction. The program comprised the Fourteenth Amendment as well as a series of bills, including the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 that upheld land ownership by blacks and the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 that enfranchised Negroes in the South. In veto messages and other statements, Johnson vigorously spoke his ideological and constitutional objections to the congressional program. The bills were carried over his vetoes, and he was constitutionally required to execute them.

This he did not do fully. Two of Johnson’s cabinet members repeatedly ignored the Test Oath Act of July 2nd, 1862, which required federal officeholders to affirm that they had not sympathized with, or contributed to, the Confederate cause. One cabinet member, Attorney General James Speed, did comply with the provisions of this law; but Hugh McCulloch, Secretary of the Treasury, abandoned the oath requirement and staffed departmental posts in the South with former Confederates, and William Dennison, Postmaster General, had by March 1866, appointed to post office positions in the South 2,042 people, of whom only 1,177 were able to qualify under the Test Oath Act.

Of concern here [are] allegations that Johnson abused his powers as president by not executing the laws of Congress.

Not only were former Confederates unable to take the oath restored to office, but they could not be counted on to protect the lives of the black citizens of the South. One such incident was the New Orleans riot, which caused General Philip Sheridan to speak critically of the role of the President. Sheridan called the violence in the city, which resulted in the death of many black citizens by a marauding band that included some of the city’s police, a “massacre.” Johnson’s refusal to order an alert of nearby federal troops and his reliance instead on a pardoned Confederate mayor and the local law enforcement officials were regarded by the majority of a special congressional investigation committee in 1866 as abuses of powers by Johnson.

On December 6th, 1867, Chairman Boutwell reported the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation for impeachment. He listed among numerous allegations of presidential misconduct Johnson’s failure to enforce the act calling for the distribution of the abandoned lands to the freedmen, his disregard of the Test Oath Act, and the failure to keep the peace in New Orleans. Calling for impeachment in a speech on the floor of the House, Boutwell said, “. . . when you consider all these things can there be any doubt as to his purpose, or doubt as to the criminality of his purpose?” His colleagues did have doubts; they defeated the recommendation for impeachment on December 7th, 1867, by 57 votes for impeachment, 108 against.


Historians have long regarded Warren G. Harding’s administration as the most corrupt in the 20th century. Ultimately, three of the President’s appointees, including a cabinet officer, went to jail. His attorney general was tried twice by juries that failed to reach a verdict after the defendant refused to testify. The Attorney General’s closest friend and confidant committed suicide, as did the chief counsel of the Veterans’ Bureau.

In addition to these instances of corruption, the Harding administration was troubled by allegations of government by crony. Harding claimed that in selecting his cabinet he sought the “best minds,” which was undoubtedly the case in the choice of men such as Charles Evans Hughes, Herbert Hoover, and Henry Wallace. But the cabinet also included Harry M. Daugherty, whose background made him an object of suspicion as attorney general. Daugherty, a lawyer originally from Washington Court House, Ohio, had served briefly in the state legislature during the 1890s, but his chief association with politics was through his activities as a lobbyist and his long-time friendship with Harding. The lawyer had first met Harding around the turn of the century at a Republican rally, and according to Daugherty, he immediately thought to himself, “What a President he’d make.” The relationship between the two deepened as Harding moved up in Ohio politics and Daugherty boosted him for the presidency. After serving as Harding’s campaign manager in 1920, Daugherty became attorney general.

Below the cabinet level, Harding appointed other friends to government posts. Dr. Charles E. Sawyer from Harding’s home town of Marion became a brigadier general and White House physician. Ed Scobey, a one-time county sheriff and old friend, was selected as director of the Mint. Harding picked his brother-in-law, Reverend Heber H. Votaw, for superintendent of federal prisons after removing the position from the civil service lists. Daniel Crissinger, a Marion lawyer with little banking experience, was named controller of currency and, subsequently, governor of the Federal Reserve Board. At the time these appointments attracted little attention, but they were later cited as evidence of Harding’s questionable standards, despite the fact that most of his friends in government were never implicated in any wrongdoing.

Although the Harding administration produced some of the worst examples of corruption in the history of the federal government, much of the evidence of misconduct did not surface until after Harding died in San Francisco on August 2nd, 1923, while on a tour of the West. Americans turned out by the millions to mourn Harding as his funeral train crossed the country to Washington and back to Marion, Ohio, where he was buried. At the time, people could pour out their grief for a beloved president because there was little reason to question his integrity. One observer recollected that “the country thought of Harding as a capable and deserving President who had died mid-term of a worthy administration.” Only later would investigations gradually reveal the extent of previously undetected corruption within the administration.

As congressional and legal proceedings subsequently uncovered evidence of misconduct by Harding appointees, stories began circulating about alleged scandals in the former president’s official and private affairs. Charges relating to Harding’s official conduct focused on allegations about the buying of his presidential nomination and possible political payoffs in the 1923 sale of his newspaper, but historians have found no conclusive evidence that Harding was personally involved in any corrupt activities.

In addition to the gossip spread by several notorious books, doubts about Harding were sown by his old friend, Harry Daugherty. After the President’s death, Daugherty destroyed the records of a bank account he had shared with Jesse Smith, and in 1927 he refused to testify about its contents. When Daugherty’s lawyer then intimated that the former attorney general had taken these steps to protect someone else, speculation grew that Daugherty might have sought to hide the details of Harding’s financial transactions with others, perhaps women friends. However, any possible link between the bank account and Harding remains uncertain since Daugherty destroyed the evidence.

During the 1920s and 1930s, writers produced several widely circulated books which related in colorful detail the corruption of the Harding era.

Harding’s reputation declined rapidly as a result of the exposure of corrupt activities in his administration. Shortly after the President’s death, the Harding Memorial Association was formed to raise money for a monument to be built in Marion. The association, with President Coolidge as honorary chairman and all cabinet officers on its executive board, soon collected almost $1,000,000. But after its completion in 1927, the monument remained undedicated because neither Coolidge nor his successor, Herbert Hoover, could find the time to preside over the ceremonies. When, belatedly in June 1931, Hoover formally dedicated the memorial, he referred directly to the scandals associated with Harding:

Here was a man whose soul was seared by a great disillusionment . . . Harding had a dim realization that he had been betrayed by a few of the men whom he had trusted, by men whom he believed were his devoted friends. It was later proved in the courts of the land that these men had betrayed not only the friendship and trust of their staunch and loyal friend but that they had betrayed their country. That was the tragedy of the life of Warren Harding.

Most studies of the Harding presidency have viewed it as a tragedy—at best. During the 1920s and 1930s, writers produced several widely circulated books which related in colorful detail the corruption of the Harding era. However, most of these early works were by journalists who accepted uncritically the gossip surrounding Harding and his years in the White House. Historians later attempted to separate fact from fiction in assessing Harding. Yet they reached much the same conclusion as the newspapermen; namely, the Harding administration was a failure because its salient characteristic was corruption which reached proportions unrivaled in the 20th century up to that time.

The 1960s marked a milestone in the studying of Harding. In 1964 the Harding Memorial Association opened its vast collection of Harding papers to scholars. Until that time, the rumored destruction of Harding’s correspondence by his widow had been cited as evidence of the President’s possible involvement in the corruption of his administration. Several works drawing on the Harding papers have appeared. One, a popular study by Francis Russell, emphasized the reported scandals in Harding’s life. Andrew Sinclair, one of the first historians to examine the Harding papers, concluded, “Harding believed in the 19th-century system of corrupt politics and unrestricted business opportunity, because this was the university of his youth and middle age. Although, in the White House, he began to learn painfully the duties and the role of a modern President, his education came too late.”

On the other hand, Robert K. Murray, who has written a recent and fully documented study of the Harding presidency, has sought to revise the standard interpretation. Stressing the “tremendous economic and social change” of the postwar period, Murray declared: “Harding was able to secure a general consensus during this period which facilitated national progress rather than blocked it. By all standards of political compromise, the Harding administration was a success.” Pointing to Harding’s achievements, Murray has minimized the importance of the well-known scandals. “Some corruption existed, to be sure, but it was not the most significant aspect of this period of American history.” There is, however, resistance to this interpretation of an administration marred by such flagrant corruption.


Copyright © 2019 The New Press. The excerpts originally appeared in Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

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