Review 81: A Treasury of Great American Scandals


A Treasury of Great American Scandals by Michael Farquhar

There are many good reasons to study history. There is the desire not to be doomed to repeat it, for one, which I find to be an excellent motivator. I remember watching the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and hearing the spectral voice of William Randolph Hearst screaming “Remember the Maine!” in my head. And of all the reasons to study history, that is perhaps the most important, though not necessarily the most fun.

You might also study history to just enjoy the stories. I used to hate history, especially in high school. Like so many of you out there, I had a boring high school history teacher, who did his very best to make sure that none of his youthful charges ever gave a damn about history once finals were over. If I were a more conspiratorially-minded person, I would say it was so that he could contribute to a generation of Sheeple that would do as they were told by their corporate and governmental masters, but that would be giving him too much credit. More likely it was a lack of proper continuing education for teachers combined with the inevitable erosion of the soul that must come from anyone who has to deal with high school students all day.

In any case, I came to enjoy history once I started looking at it as a series of stories. Not just names and dates and events, but actual people. And once I understood that these stiff, bearded men and those stiff, corseted women were really human beings – with lives as rich and as interesting as any other human being (moreso, in fact, since we remember their names after a century or two) – I found more reasons to care both about them and the times in which they lived.

Take, for example, Aaron Burr. Killer of Alexander Hamilton. The two of them despised each other, seeming to even resent the fact that the other man existed, and years of animosity culminated in a fateful duel in 1804. The two men met on the dueling ground, as was the manner of the day, and shot. Both men were injured, Hamilton fatally, and Burr fled, as what he had done was technically murder. But that wasn’t all for good old Aaron Burr – he moved West, and engaged in activities that appeared to be either an invasion of Mexico or an attempt to split the Union in two along the Appalachian Mountains. Or both.

Or neither- no one was really sure what Burr what up to, other than no good. But the man was slippery in a way that would make Dick Cheney go green. While everyone knew he had murdered Hamilton, and everyone knew he was trying to set himself up as possibly the Emperor of Western America, he never went to trial for the first crime and was acquitted of treason in his second. He died a free, but reviled, man. Hell of a guy.

Not all the stories are as grand in scope – some are feuds and revenge stories that burn with jealous rage. Such was the case of Senator William Sharon’s fling with Althea Hill, which led to death, betrayal, madness, and two Supreme Court decisions. Sharon and Hill began a highly suspect love affair in 1880. It was hot, it was passionate, and it ended very, very badly, Sharon dead, Hill in an insane asylum, and Hill’s second husband (her defense attorney) shot dead by the bodyguard of the Supreme Court justice who was to rule on whether or not Hill and Sharon had been legally married in the first place.

That doesn’t hold a candle, in my opinion, to the story of Rep. Daniel Sickles, his wife Teresa, and her lover (and Sickles’ friend), Philip Barton Key, which ended in vengeful murder and an intervention by the President of the United States. Key was stepping out with Teresa on a regular and not-very-subtle basis, and everyone knew it. Everyone but Daniel Sickles, of course. Lies have a way of making themselves known, however, and eventually he found out and confronted his wife. Key, however, had no idea the affair had been exposed, and showed up in Lafayette Park, his usual meeting place with Teresa, giving The Signal that he wanted a little extra-marital nookie. What he got was a furious husband and a bullet in the chest. Sickles, for his part, was acquitted on what may have been the first “temporary insanity” defense in the nation’s history.

Parts of this book are especially fun to read in an election year, as there’s an entire section devoted to underhanded, dishonest or otherwise dirty campaigning. If you thought that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were bad, or the Tea Parties were poisoning the discourse, you’re forgetting that in the Presidential campaign of 1828, John Adams’ people accused Andrew Jackson’s mother of being a prostitute, his wife of being a bigamist, and Jackson himself of being a homicidal maniac. During the campaign of 1800 (Jefferson versus Adams), the Connecticut Courant warned that, should Jefferson be elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and proclaimed. The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.”

Lincoln, who has become known as one of the greatest presidents this country has ever had, was called “a joke” by the New York Herald, and an “ignorant, boorish, third-rate backwoods lawyer” by the New York World. Grover Cleveland was assaulted with the chant, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa!” after it was discovered that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. This led to accusations of further debaucheries and unnamed sins against good Christian womanhood and morals the likes of which would make Bill Clinton’s head spin.

A nice coda to that story, though – Cleveland openly admitted to fathering the child (and providing support to the mother afterwards), believing that the truth was the best defense against smears. It also helped that his opponent had not only despoiled a girl in his youth, but was forced to marry her at shotgun-point – hardly one who should be criticizing a man for his youthful indiscretions. When Cleveland won re-election, his followers took up the Republicans’ taunting chant with a retort laced with schadenfreude – “Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Which brings me to the third reason why it’s valuable to study history – it helps you gain perspective. The United States is going through some trying times right now, and if you pay attention to the blogs and the cable news networks, you might believe that these are indeed the worst of times. That having a sitting governor traipse down to Argentina for a little Latin loving is the nadir of morality. That having a news organization foment protest rallies and marches is the height of unethical behavior. That accusing your white opponent of having fathered a black child, or spending some private time with a White House intern, or making IM passes at teenage boys are all signs that America is on a one-way trip to hell, even if we can’t afford the handbasket.

History is the antidote to the common belief that the times in which we live must be special. Every generation thinks it – that I am here, therefore the events of my times must be the most important events to have ever happened. It’s egocentric and very, very human, but – and this is important – it’s not true. There is nothing special or different about the times in which we live, because human nature hasn’t changed. For every scandal we see today that frightens or enrages or disgusts us, you can look to history to see that it’s already been done, and done worse. History provides perspective, and it offers hope. The country has seen a lot of bad things in its time, but it has survived. It has seen abuse of civil rights that were far more egregious than anything that happened after 9/11 and it has survived. It has seen civil unrest that makes the Tea Partiers or the G20 protesters look like sulky children – and it has survived.

So turn off the TV, step away from the computer and pick up a good history book – like this one – and let your worries settle down to a much more manageable size. You’ll thank yourself for it.

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“I don’t know what to do about this taxation matter. Somewhere there must be a book that tells all about it, where I could go to straighten it out in my mind. But I don’t know where the book is, and maybe I couldn’t read it if I found it! My God, this is a hell of a place for a man like me to be!”
– Warren G. Harding
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A Treasury of Great American Scandals on Amazon.com
Michael Farquhar at Penguin.com

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Filed under american history, history, Michael Farquhar, presidential history

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