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Sex Scandals and U.S. History

by Norman Markowitz on Nov 19, 1998

The conservative philosopher George Santayana made one of the world’s best known comments about history when he said that those who learn nothing from the past are condemned to repeat it. The recent and continuing impeachment sex scandal suggests a corollary to Santayana’s proposition: those who choose to be learn nothing where history is concerned often defeat their own purposes.

In the United States, for example, with its heritage of puritan principles and not so puritan practices, sex scandals have figured in presidential politics since the early Republic, striking at the most and least distinguished of American presidents. But such scandals have usually served as a form of cheap entertainment during presidential elections, and, in all major cases, the target of moral outrage won the election. Afterward, no one sought to use the scandal as grounds for impeachment, nor would they have been taken seriously if they had.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the most important political thinker of the revolutionary generation, found himself in 1804 accused by James Callender, an early exemplar of “American Spectator” journalism, of having carnal relations with his slaves, a point that DNA evidence has confirmed 198 years later, albeit not Callender’s specific charges. Jefferson, who didn’t have to worry about DNA, won the election, and a generation later, so did Andrew Jackson, although he was deeply embittered by charges that he and his wife Rachel had cohabited without being legally married.

Grover Cleveland, no Jefferson or Jackson, admitted to siring an illegitimate child in 1884 in what became until recent events the best known sex scandal in presidential history, leading the Republicans to chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” When Cleveland won the election, the Democrats answered, “Gone to the White House, ha! ha! ha!”

After Warren G. Harding, the first of the triumvirate of 1920s conservative Republican presidents, died in 1923 amid bribery and corruption scandals that were sweeping his administration, his mistress, Nan Britton, accused him of conceiving their lovechild in the closet of the Senate cloakroom before he ran for the presidency in 1920.

Most historians believe that Harding would have been re-elected had he lived to run in 1924 — his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, won handily in a time when fundamentalists, prohibitionists, and those whom H.L. Mencken called the “Methodist Ku Klux Klan” rarely made conservative politicians the targets of their outrage. Historians have generally been kinder to Harding than his successors, Coolidge and Hoover, portraying him as more human than his conservative colleagues, whose greatest scandal became the Great Depression.

Finally, Bill Clinton, closer in most respects to Cleveland and Harding than Jefferson and Jackson, was dogged by the Gennifer Flowers sex scandal when he won the presidency in 1992, the Paula Jones sex scandal when he was re-elected in 1996, and the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal today, which seems to have boomeranged against the Republicans and contributed, so far, to the downfall of Newt Gingrich.

All of this strongly suggests that Kenneth Starr’s playing of the “scarlet letter card” to incite moral outrage and defeat Clinton will backfire on him and his party. In the current sex scandals, the electorate has been interested only in the prurient details, which Starr has provided more explicitly than anyone has dared before. Even in 1804, when Callender was lambasting Jefferson and there were still the property qualifications for voting (of the kind that many members of Starr’s Federalist Society would probably still prefer), the electorate failed to respond.

It also strongly suggests that if the Republican House majority continues to use Starr as a judicial tattler in an impeachment campaign for actions that are not remotely like impeachable offenses, which are now and have always been violations of the oath to faithfully execute the laws and uphold the separation of powers and checks and balances on which the government is based, all they will remove from office are their own majorities.

Perhaps the Democrats will then end a political age which has reveled in Victorian moralism by singing in 2000, “once more the majority party, ha! ha! ha!”

Norman Markowitz is a member of the history faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.