Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Second Coming of Scandal

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Second Coming of Scandal

Article excerpt

"What Happened to Sex Scandals? Politics and Peccadilloes, Jefferson to Kennedy" by John H. Sunimers, in

The Journal of American History (Dec. 2000), 1215 E. Atwater Ave., Bloomington, md. 47401-3703.

At the 1912 Democratic National Convention, which nominated Ncxv Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson for president, there were whispers about Wilson's close friendship with a woman not his wife. He worried about possible public scandal, but none occurred. The country by then, writes Summers, a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Rochester, had entered a new era of public reticence about the sexual transgressions, real or imagined, of active political leaders. This represented a sea change in American politics.

"In the early republic and throughout the 19th century ... the sexual character of officeholders [was subjected] to close, steady, and often unflattering scrutiny," he notes. Alexander Hamilton was forced to acknowledge an adulterous affair; Thomas Jefferson was accused of a liaison with one of his slaves; Andrew Jackson was denounced for having lived in sin with a married woman; William Henry Harrison supposedly had fathered illegitimate children; and Grover Cleveland was accused during his 1884 presidential campaign of having seduced a young woman and fathered her child. (Cleveland candidly acknowledged his possible paternity, and was elected.)

Intense partisanship, openly expressed after the emergence of the party system, played a role in the close scrutiny of politicians' character, Summers says, but so did genuine conviction. "American republicanism . . . regarded solid moral character as a sine qua non of good government." Evangelical Protestantism also encouraged 19th-century voters to seek men of sound character for public office. …

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