The 10 Most Shocking Scandals Involving US Presidents

Watergate was one of the biggest political scandals in US history. Image credit:
Watergate was one of the biggest political scandals in US history. Image credit:
  • U.S. presidents have been involved in scandals since the 19th century.
  • The best known scandal in the presidential history revealed the imperfections of the U.S. political system.
  • Matters of private lives of presidents were often the cause of scandal.

U.S. political history is a road of great ups and downs. Still, there is nothing quite like a presidential scandal to catch the interest of the public eye. Interestingly, scandals involving presidents have been around long before the modern media we know today. These ten scandals involving U.S. presidents have stood out as the most shocking ones.

10. President Andrew Johnson's Impeachment

Andrew Johnson fired Edwin Stanton, which led to Johnson's impeachment trial. Image credit:

After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln back in 1865, the then Vice President Andrew Johnson took over the presidency and moved into the White House. Johnson was in strong opposition to giving the freed slaves the right to vote as well as with many other efforts of the Reconstruction period. He was constantly butting heads in Congress, mainly with Radical Republicans who had the majority. They managed to pass the Tenure of Office Act in 1867, which forbade Johnson to fire Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, without Senate approval. He did so anyway, which entered him in a long impeachment trial. Still, Congress was left one vote short of having the two-thirds majority to confirm the impeachment. 

9. The Sally Hemings Scandal

Thomas Jefferson had six children with Sally Hemings. Image credit:

President Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, was a widower in 1782 but hardly single. He fell in love with Sally Hemings, who was his servant and of mixed-race. This scandal did not break out in real-time as its details were revealed years later when a journalist broke the story in 1802. It turned out that Jefferson and Hemings were together for more than thirty years and had six children. The story was not confirmed until 1998 when DNA analysis of their descendants showed a very high chance of kinship.

8. Teapot Dome Scandal

Albert Fall took bribes in exchange for oil contracts. Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

In 1922, under the term of President Warren Harding, Albert Fall served as interior secretary. He managed to get full control of oil reserves in Wyoming for the Department of Interior, one of them being Teapot Dome Oil Field. This step enabled him to award contracts to private oil companies to suit his own benefit. The process did not include any bidding, meaning that the Department of Interior, ruled by Fall, was able to award a contract to the company of their own liking. When smaller oil companies complained about it, the Senate launched one of its most essential investigations in U.S. history. Investigations showed that Fall received extensive bribery from companies he eventually contracted. For many in Washington DC, it finally became clear how Fall got so rich so quickly.

7. Corrupt Bargain

Henry Clay chose John Quincy Adams to be president in exchange for a cabinet position. Image credit:

None of the candidates in the 1824 election managed to win the majority of votes. The race was up to Congress to decide. The candidates in question were President Andrew Jackson, a war hero, and President John Quincy Adams, son of the founding father, President John Adams. Before the vote in Congress, Henry Clay announced he was going to support Adams. Since Clay was a very powerful House Speaker, the House followed and elected Adams president. To everyone's disbelief, Adams then made Clay his secretary of state. Jackson won the popular vote, so he and his supporters united in disagreement with the "Corrupt Bargain" between Adams and Clay and helped to elect Jackson in 1828. The group was the foundation of political actors who would later form the Democratic Party. 

6. President Woodrow Wilson's Engagement

Woodrow Wilson engaged Edith Galt one year after the death of his first wife. Image credit:

President Woodrow Wilson was a respected statesman and president, famous for his role in the progressive movement. Still, even he was involved in a presidential scandal. His first wife, Ellen Louise Axson, died in 1914. The next year, Wilson met Edith Galt, and they were soon engaged. Back in the day, this event was big enough to cause a public scandal. The scandal went to such an extent that there were even rumors saying Wilson murdered his first wife so he could marry Edith.

5. The Whiskey Ring

The Whiskey Ring involved the diverting of tax revenues. Image credit:

Exposed in 1875, The Whiskey Ring describes the group of politicians, distillers, distributors, and others who conspired in tax fraud. Whiskey distillers bribed the officials who then helped them evade tax by approving the stamp as if they had paid the full tax fee. However, they would only pay $0.30 to the required $0.70 per gallon. Millions of dollars of bribery were collected until the scheme was revealed. The scandal did not involve President Ulysses S. Grant until the investigation implicated his secretary, Orville Babcock. Grant testified in court in Babcock's defense, who was then acquitted.

4. President Grover Cleveland's Illegitimate Son

The public was outraged when it was discovered that Grover Cleveland had an illegitimate son. Image credit:

Even back then, in the 19th century, it was not so unusual for a presidential campaign to revolve around a scandal. A scandal happened to President Grover Cleveland during his first presidential campaign in 1884. The information broke out that he had an illegitimate ten-year-old son. Cleveland admitted it, and even though it caused a public scandal, he was still elected president. In fact, he was elected again in 1892, making him the only president in U.S. history who served two non-sequential terms.

3. Iran Contra Affair

Ronald Reagan's administration broke the trade embargo with Iran and sold them weapons. Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

To the concern of the Democratic party, President Ronald Reagan's plan for his second term was to support foreign anti-communist organizations worldwide. In 1982, Democrats passed the Boland Amendment, thus limiting U.S. engagement in international conflict. At the same time, Iran and Iraq were at war, and Iran wanted to purchase weapons from the U.S. Reagan's administration broke the trade embargo with Iran and sold them the weapons. When the deal became public in 1986, the investigation showed that the portion of the arms deal went to financing the Contras, a right-wing extremist and militant group in Nicaragua. Fourteen members of the Reagan administration were charged. Still, no evidence was found to link Reagan to the deal even though he later admitted his involvement.

2. The Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton Affair

President Clinton was impeached because he lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

In 1996, 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky had to move from the White House office to the Pentagon because of the rising concern she had been too close with President Bill Clinton. The phone conversations between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp revealed that she was having an affair with Clinton. Clinton and Lewinsky made the whole thing even worse as they both denied the relationship. Lying about it presented the severe grounds for charges of perjury against Clinton. Eventually, The House of Representatives impeached Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998. Still, he was able to serve out his term as the Senate acquitted him.

1. Watergate Scandal

Nixon's re-election campaign broke into Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Image credit:

The scandal of Watergate, under the term of President Richard Nixon, completely changed the landscape of contemporary politics, and it is probably the most referenced presidential scandal in U.S. history. Five members of Nixon's re-election campaign broke into Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. The goal was to collect information that could be used in the campaign. Nixon supposedly did not know about the plans for the break-in, but he did everything to cover up the scandal. Eventually, the news broke out about his involvement, only to cause a great shock all over the nation.


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