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Political Corruption and Scandals

Political corruption and scandals have been recurring themes throughout American history. From Samuel Argall's plundering of the Virginia Company in the early seventeenth century to the Credit Mobilier, Watergate, and countless lesser scandals, each generation of Americans has had its share of public officials who were charged with abusing their positions in the pursuit of money, power, or both. Far from being timeless, however, definitions of corruption and scandal have evolved alongside broader changes in American society and politics.

political corruption and the revolution

For Americans of the Revolutionary generation, corruption connoted much more than private or individual crimes and misdeeds. Influenced by English political debates and by republican ideology, colonial Americans associated corruption with executive dominance over legislatures through the improper use of patronage and other favors for the benefit of private interests at the expense of the public good. Following the Glorious Revolution, English politics and government were transformed by the growth of state power and public debt, the emergence of new financial interests and institutions, a proliferation of public offices, and newfound political stability. Most Englishmen attributed that power and stability, and the liberty that accompanied it, to the balance of king, lords, and commons in the English constitution. Simultaneously with these developments, however, there emerged an informal system of "influence" through which the king's ministers dominated parliamentary deliberations through the adroit distribution of appointments, contracts, honors, and the like. Opposition spokesmen viewed this crown influence, especially during Robert Walpole's ministry, not as the source of English political stability but as another chapter in the age-old struggle between power and liberty. As the court party solidified its control over the House of Commons through "influence," radical Whigs such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon and old Tories like Bolingbroke and other leaders of the country party charged the king's ministers with attempting to corrupt and subvert the mixed and balanced constitution.

This view of politics—with its emphasis on the dangers of corruption and the need for constitutional balance—shaped the colonial response to British imperial policies prior to the Revolution. By 1750 provincial politics had assumed many of the characteristics of British practice. Royal governors used patronage and influence to impose crown authority over newly assertive colonial assemblies, while crown-appointed officials and placemen proliferated, depriving colonial elites of political opportunity and reinforcing oppositional political beliefs. In this context, apprehensive colonials came to view the new British imperial policies of the 1760s and 1770s not as a legitimate attempt to reform the empire but as an extension to the colonies of a corrupt ministerial plot to subvert liberty.

corruption in the new republic

Such concerns provided a justification for independence and the basis for a vision of a republican society founded on a virtuous citizenry free of corruption. During and after the Revolution, new state constitutions sought to limit undue executive influence over the people's representatives, and some states passed laws to promote virtue and prevent vice. But the fear of corruption was not abated by independence. Believing that successful republics depended on the citizens' selfless subordination of private interest to the public good, many Americans worried that greed, speculation, profiteering, and the unrestrained pursuit of private gain threatened the moral reformation promised by the Revolution. When some members of the Confederation Congress charged that Silas Deane, Robert Morris, Samuel Chase, and other public officials misused their positions for personal enrichment, such doubts were reinforced. The burgeoning public debt, a source of corruption in the English system, added to the fear that America might yet suffer the fate of past republics brought low by the loss of virtue and by corruption.

The new federal Constitution adopted in 1788 did not immediately allay concerns about the corrosive influence of corruption. Proponents argued that a stronger national government founded on the principle of separation of powers would remedy the "vices of the system" so prevalent in the 1780s. Opponents predicted that such a system would only create new opportunities for corruption. Alexander Hamilton's fiscal program—with its permanent debt, national bank, and federal subsidies of manufacturing—seemed to confirm the anti-Federalists' worst fears. Hamilton's intent was to strengthen the central government and stabilize the nation's finances by forging an alliance between government and business, exploiting the latter's self-interest to that end. But to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others of the emerging opposition, Hamilton's hidden purpose was to impose a system of government in America à la Walpole, with executive dominance over the legislature solidified through patronage, influence, and favoritism to business interests. In the increasingly divisive politics of the 1790s, rampant speculation in government securities and unseemly ties between government officials and public creditors reawakened old concerns about the threat posed by corruption in a republic. The involvement of some of Hamilton's closest associates—William Duer (sent to jail for his role in the highest-level financial scandal in the history of the Treasury Department), James Duane, Rufus King, and his own father-in-law, Philip Schuyler—fueled such fears. Although Democratic Republicans tried to link Hamilton to such activities and even pushed for congressional censure in 1793 for his alleged misuse of foreign loans, there is no evidence that he ever benefited personally from his policies.

The traditional rhetoric of "ministerial corruption" persisted through the late 1790s and beyond, but its resonance waned. Despite its initial excesses, the Hamiltonian program remained in place. Unsubstantiated charges of soliciting a bribe from the French government forced Secretary of State Edmund Randolph's resignation in 1795, and questions were raised about House Speaker Jonathan Dayton's handling of his accounts; but there were no serious instances of corruption in the Washington and Adams administrations. By the late 1790s, moreover, laws had been passed prohibiting many kinds of corrupt practices. Although politically charged in their own way, the two most sensational scandals of the period were of an entirely different nature. In 1797 Hamilton's opponents revealed that he had earlier had an affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds, and had submitted to blackmail to conceal it. Five years later, Jefferson's intimate relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, was exposed, setting off a firestorm of opposition criticism.

Land speculation was at the heart of two major scandals involving misconduct by state and national officials. In 1797 the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to expel Tennessee senator William Blount for conspiring with western settlers and the British to forcibly oust the Spanish from Florida and Louisiana. Blount, a prominent North Carolinian who became the first territorial governor and first senator from Tennessee, had become deeply involved in land speculation and saw the removal of the Spanish as a way to enhance his investments. His illegal interference in U.S. foreign policy for private gain prompted his expulsion from the Senate and the initiation of formal impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. A second scandal involved the Georgia legislature's sale of 35 million acres of land in the Yazoo River district of present-day Mississippi and Alabama to the Yazoo Land Company for below-market prices. When it was revealed that the 1795 law was the result of rampant bribery and corruption, a new legislature rescinded the sale, whereupon private investors who had purchased Yazoo lands demanded relief and protection of their property rights. After years of controversy, the Jefferson administration settled speculators' claims with federal funds in 1802, and, in 1810 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the original land sales in Fletcher v. Peck.

corruption in the age of jefferson and jackson

With the Jeffersonian-Republican ascendancy in 1801, the eighteenth-century view of corruption became increasingly anachronistic. Jefferson did replace most (but not all) Federalist officeholders with loyal partisans; but in the new world of party politics, patronage appointments were viewed not as traditional corruption but as an essential ingredient of party government. Apart from the activities of General James Wilkinson and some graft and profiteering during the War of 1812, the era was mostly free of major scandal. The charge of corruption, however, continued to be an effective political tool in the factional politics of the 1820s. Most notably, Andrew Jackson and his supporters echoed older notions of corruption when they charged John Quincy Adams with having won the presidency in 1825 by means of a "corrupt bargain." Because no candidate had received a majority of the electoral votes, the election of 1824 was thrown into the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, himself eliminated from consideration by the Twelfth Amendment, threw his support to Adams, ensuring the latter's election. When Adams subsequently appointed Clay as his secretary of state, outraged Jacksonians charged that Adams had subverted the will of the people through political intrigue and corruption. The Jacksonians' appropriation of the Revolutionary-era rhetoric of corruption served them well and laid the foundations for Jackson's electoral victory over Adams in 1828. By that time, however, the nation was already undergoing fundamental social, economic, and political changes that would, among other things, transform the meaning, extent, and character of corruption in American society.

See alsoAnti-Federalists; Blount Conspiracy; Burr Conspiracy; Cabinet and Executive Department; Concept of Empire; Constitution, Ratification of; Constitutional Law; Crime and Punishment; Election of 1800; Election of 1824; Election of 1828; Federalists; Government: Overview; Hamilton, Alexander; Hamilton's Economic Plan; Jefferson, Thomas; Land Speculation; Presidency, The: Thomas Jefferson .


Benson, George C. S., Steven A. Maaranen, and Alan Heslop. Political Corruption in America. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1978.

Eisenstadt, Abraham S., Ari Hoogenboom, and Hans L. Trefousse, eds. Before Watergate: Problems of Corruption in American Society. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn College Press, distributed by Columbia University Press, 1979.

Loth, David Goldsmith. Public Plunder: A History of Graft in America. 1938. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970.

Miller, Nathan. Stealing from America: A History of Corruption from Jamestown to Reagan. New York: Paragon House, 1992.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. New York: Norton, 1972; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

L. Ray Gunn

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Political Corruption and Scandals

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