“The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.“
When former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, released the so-called ‘Reynolds Pamphlet’ in 1797, the new nation basked in its very first sex scandal. Years before, Secretary Hamilton had engaged in an affair with the much younger Maria Reynolds, a poor woman with a wrong ‘un for a husband. James Reynolds extorted Hamilton by dangling the threat of exposure over his head, earning thousands of pounds. Whether or not Maria entered the affair with the plan to extort Hamilton is not known, but the rumours stated rumours for years.
These rumours are believed to have come from James Monroe or Thomas Jefferson, who Hamilton alleges passed on to famous muckraker James Callender. Hamilton had been forced to tell Monroe and others after he was implicated in a financial scam that Reynolds had been jailed for. With his reputation on the line, Hamilton released the lengthy pamphlet. Not only did he admit to the affair with Maria Reynolds, he also wrote it in great detail.
What he may not have expected, however, was that this scandal derailed his career. The fact that he had an affair was not the troubling part to most. It was widely expected that men of his stature had affairs and that so long as it was not widely advertised, then it was acceptable. The fact that he’d dragged his wife, a woman of high standing and virtue, into it made him deeply unpopular. Hamilton airing the dirty laundry of his family and going into deep detail was far from necessary, and he was punished because of it.
Whilst he remained extremely important behind the scenes, Hamilton never regained his standing in federal politics and would never again hold a government post. His willingness to humiliate his wife and family made people believe that he was not capable of holding high office. As for his wife, we have no information on how Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton reacted. They are believed to have informally separated at the time, as she was pregnant with their sixth child. They would eventually reconcile.
There was not much choice for Elizabeth anyway. Divorce would likely see her lose her children and status, despite being the wronged party. Being divorced was particularly scandalous for women and would likely have embarrassed her prominent family. She stayed with Hamilton, with whom she had two more children. Following her husband’s death in 1804, Elizabeth remained singularly devoted to his memory throughout her long widowhood, even treating James Monroe coldly when he came to call years later.
America’s first major sex/adultery scandal led to a finished career. Over two-hundred years later and we’ve seen our fair share of cheating politicians. Some have defied expectations to stay at the top of the ladder, whilst others have seen their careers crumble. As societal views on adultery change, so do how politicians are treated. Despite society being much more permissive of sex in general, we have a dimmer view of adultery.
Take for example adultery in the royal family. It was once considered strange for a king such as George III to be entirely faithful to his wife, as taking mistresses was a sign of virility. Compare this to how King Charles III is seen for his affairs when married to the almost deified Lady Diana Spencer.
Still, adulterers cannot know whether their careers will sink or swim. It entirely depends on multiple factors, all of which we can see throughout history.
Andrew Jackson: Bigamy and Petticoats
When Andrew Jackson and Rachel Donelson married in 1791, they did so under the genuine belief that Rachel’s first marriage to the bullish Lewis Robards had been legally dissolved. Upon discovering that this was not the case and Rachel had been an accidental bigamist, the pair legally wed in January 1794 when the divorce had been finalised.
Unfortunately for them, this made them a target for slander. Jackson’s opponents vilified Rachel in the press. For his part, Jackson was a devoted husband who fiercely defended Rachel, often through deadly duels. The 1828 election proved to be particularly dirty and Rachel suffered greatly. In December 1828, between her husband’s election victory and his inauguration, Rachel had a heart attack and died. Jackson blamed his critics for sending her to an early grave. He never got over her death.
Meanwhile, alleged adultery would bring down Jackson’s government. Margaret ‘Peggy’ O’Neil Timberlake was a beautiful and popular boarding house worker known to many in the capital. She had been married at a young age to a man named John Timberlake who died twelve years later whilst at sea. Only eight months later, Peggy married Secretary of War John Eaton. As the average mourning period was between a year and two years for widows, this was treated with scorn. Soon, rumours spread that Eaton and Peggy had been carrying on together before Timberlake had died, and that he’d killed himself in despair.
Led by Floride Calhoun, the Second Lady and De Facto leader of Washington society, the Cabinet wives refused to receive or accept Peggy socially. They were joined by Emily Donelson, Jackson’s niece and the acting First Lady. Jackson was incensed. He felt a strong kinship with the couple due to the treatment of his late wife. Despite his flaws, Jackson was an incredibly loyal friend.
Eventually, Martin Van Buren helped Jackson out by resigning. He was a widower with no skin in the game regarding the social issue, and his resignation allowed Jackson to fire his entire cabinet. Calhoun, a strong enemy of Jackson, would eventually resign and Van Buren would take his place as Vice President.
The Eatons lived happily together until his death in 1856. Unfortunately, Floride Calhoun and her gang got the last laugh. Peggy’s third husband, a much younger Italian man, eventually ran off with her teenage fortune and all of her money. She died in poverty in 1879.
Jackson was able to overcome the challenges of the alleged adultery of his wife, probably helped by the 1824 election that he and his supporters alleged was stolen from him. When it comes to his legacy, Jackson’s loving relationship with and defensiveness of his wife is one of the more positive things about him against a lot of controversy. Rachel remains a figure of great tragedy to this day- an innocent woman accused of adultery.
Nelson Rockefeller: If You’re Happy and You Know It
There was quite a bit of shock when Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller announced that he was divorcing his wife of several decades, Mary Clark. Rumours abound that he was rather close to former campaign worker Margaretta ‘Happy’ Fitler Murphy. These were confirmed to be true when he married the former Mrs. Murphy a year later. Mrs. Murphy was a mother of four, eighteen years younger and more youthful compared to the older looking Mary. It was also believed that Rockefeller was the true father of her youngest daughter Malinda.
Religious and political leaders were up in arms. They decried Rockefeller abandoning his wife and mother of his children, and decried Happy from walking out on her own family. Christian leaders across the divide attacked the pair, and the clergyman who married the pair was told off for not having them wait for a year after their subsequent divorces.
Rockefeller had been in the lead regarding the Republican nomination for 1964, but that lead shrank rapidly before disappearing. Feminists and conservatives alike were concerned about the threat to women and family. In one striking example of the thought of the time, father and grandfather of two future presidents, Prescott Bush said this:
‘Have we come to the point in our life as a nation where the governor of a great state can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her, then persuade a young mother of youngsters to abandon her husband and their four children and marry the governor?’
Whilst Rockefeller was unable to get the nomination in 1964 or 1968, he remained as Governor of New York for another decade. In 1974, he was given the cushy role of Vice President. Unfortunately for him, other circumstances forced him off the ticket, though he did not seem particularly upset by it.
Rockefeller and Happy remained married until his 1979 death, and had two children together. It’s widely believed that Rockefeller was having close relations with 25 year-old Megan Marshack when he had a heart attack. Ms. Marshack waited for an hour to call an ambulance, and her later dalliance with a much older man had people questioning the events. She has never publicly discussed it.
Gary Hart: Follow Me Around
Following two terms of Ronald Reagan, the Democrats were desperate to get the keys to the White House in 1988. For a time, Colorado Senator Gary Hart was the front runner. Young (25 years younger than Reagan) and charismatic, Hart was doing well.
Unfortunately for him, rumours swirled that he was a womaniser. It’s alleged that he slept with the young women who worked on his campaign. He then encouraged the press to follow him around to see if they could get anything.
The Miami Herald, who had received a tip that Hart was having an affair with actress Donna Rice. They staked out Hart’s home and saw the two together. When confronted, Hart denied it all. Almost immediately after, both the Herald and New York Times printed articles reporting on the issue. Controversy arose and only one week later, Hart suspended his campaign.
In December that year, Hart continued his campaign. Unfortunately for him, voters were upset by his adultery, lying, and financial irregularities. After failing to receive above 5% in early primaries, Hart once again dropped out.
There’s a good chance that Hart could have been the nominee had this scandal not occured, though we’ll never know for sure. Perhaps voters were more upset by Hart’s arrogance than the adultery itself, but the fact is that was the act that killed his campaign. Eventual nominees Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush both had quite strong ‘family man’ vibes that Hart would have never been able to live up to.
Hart went into journalism and speaking following the campaign, as well as becoming Special Envoy for Northern Ireland under Barack Obama. He and wife Oletha Lee remained married until her 2021 death. Donna Rice has gone into advocacy work.
Bill Clinton: I Did Not Have Sexual Relations With That Woman
Even before Bill Clinton ever stepped foot in the White House, he’d been accused of having an affair. Gennifer Flowers’ accusation nearly tanked his campaign, saved possibly by Hillary Clinton’s passion and virulent defense of her husband on television. Flash forward several years later and nobody would be able to hide it any longer.
Young aide Monica Lewinsky worked in the White House between 1995 and 1996. Between then and 1997, Clinton and Lewinsky had several sexual encounters, including oral sex in the Oval Office. Clinton’s staff became concerned that Lewinsky was spending too much time in the White House and had her transferred to the Pentagon. It was there that Lewinsky befriended Linda Tripp. Tripp eventually started taping the conversations and ensuring Lewinsky kept the evidence, such as her stained blue dress.
Lewinsky gave a sworn affidavit in relation to the Paula Jones case. Ms. Jones had accused Clinton of sexual harassment and the case soon went to court. Tripp then handed her tapes over to Ken Starr, the Independent Counsel on the case.
A Newsweek reporter had been holding onto the story for a year, but his editors didn’t give it any credence and killed the story. Instead, blogger Matt Drudge reported it on his website Drudge Report in January 1998, beating all of the traditional media to it. Only then didNewsweek and other larger publications break the news.
Days after the story broke, Clinton famously denied the allegation in his ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky’ speech. Hillary continued to defend her husband, as Clinton had not yet confessed to her that he was indeed guilty. Evidence was gathered and in August, Clinton knew the jig was up. He confessed the truth in August 1998.
This confession led to something that nobody likely expected. Though he was not liable for the adultery, Clinton’s lying about it led to an impeachment trial. The House charged him with lying under oath and obstruction of justice. They impeached him under the charge of lying under oath to the grand jury by a total of 228-206, rejecting other charges. The Senate went for 50-50 either way, and the impeachment failed as they did not reach the requisite two-thirds needed.
Clinton finished his second term as a relatively popular president. Interestingly, he was seen as a president who had been ‘feminist’ in terms of his legislation and appointments. The tide, however, has been turning. His relationship with a much younger subordinate has people questioning the power imbalance between them. The recent Epstein releases have also not helped him too much. Back in the 90s, Gloria Steinem wrote a piece regarding the accusations of sexual harassment against Clinton, something she said she would never write now.
Perhaps the outcome would be different if the Lewinsky scandal happened in 2024 instead of 1998. The way we view it has massively changed over 25 years. Either way, it didn’t dent Bill Clinton’s career at all. He came out of it as a perceived victim of cruel Republican politics.
Newt Gingrich: Hypocrite
Whilst Newt Gingrich was pushing for Bill Clinton to be impeached, he was harbouring a secret of his own. He was married, but had been having an affair with young staffer Callista Bisek for several years. Soon after his wife Marianne was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Gringrich filed for divorce and married Callista soon after.
This was not the first time either. He’d married his first wife Jackie, his former teacher, in 1962. Throughout that marriage, Gingrich was unfaithful to her, even as she was sick with cancer. It’s alleged that Gingrich said that she wasn’t ’young or pretty enough to be the wife of the president,’ something he denies. Jackie had to go to court and receive charity after he divorced her, as Gingrich did not pay the adequate amount of child support.
During the impeachment hearings, Gingrich portrayed Clinton was an immoral man. Whatever you think of that, it was a clear case of hypocrisy. So bad was his adultery that one Christian group made him sign a promise of fidelity forever in exchange for potentially backing him as President. He has since converted to Catholicism, the faith of Callista, and their marriage is recognised due to the death of first wife and the annulment of his second.
Gingrich’s political career declined steeply after the poor showing at the 1998 midterms for the Republicans- possibly due to the impeachment hearings. He also had an ethics scandal that caused him to be censured. House Republicans were tired of him as Speaker and eventually forced him out. Gingrich would never again hold major political office.
He has remained somewhat powerful in Republican politics, and has had a fairly successful career in writing, particularly in alternate history novels. In 2012, Gingrich ran for the Republican candidacy. He did poorly in early caucuses and primaries, but later won the South Carolina primary. Gingrich was unable to emulate that momentum as he went on with the exception of a win in Georgia. He suspended his campaign on the 2nd May 2012.
Wife Callista served as the US Ambassador to the Holy See during the Trump administration.
Other scandals ousted Gingrich and whilst adultery didn’t stop him from winning in 2012, it’s something he remains known for. His hypocrisy was noted even by people who might usually support him. Perhaps he would not have had so much grief had he not attacked Bill Clinton for doing the same thing.
John Edwards: The Enquirer
In October 2007, tabloid newspaper The National Enquirer stated that Democratic and former VP candidate John Edwards had an affair with a campaign volunteer. They followed this up in December by claiming that Edwards was the father of videographer Rielle Hunter’s baby. Edwards and his campaign strenuously denied it, saying that the father was actually a man named Andrew Young. As the story was reported by the National Enquirer, few took it seriously.
Months later and the NE got a tip that Edwards would be visiting Hunter and the baby at a hotel in July 2008. They arrived and eventually saw him there. The story was passed onto Fox News, who eventually reported it. After a short time, other media groups started to report it, including more established newspapers. Meanwhile, Edwards, who had dropped out of the race months prior, continued to deny the affair and paternity.
In August 2008, Edwards admitted to a short fling, but again denied paternity. Elizabeth Edwards, his wife, backed him up. It was by this point that Elizabeth was dying of cancer. Meanwhile, those who knew Hunter said that both she and Edwards were lying. They said the affair had started months before she was hired by the campaign, that it was an excuse for them to be together, that Edwards was the father and that the affair was still going on, despite Elizabeth being so ill.
On top of this, Edwards’ former campaign finance chairman said that he’d solicited funds to pay off both Young and Hunter, with the help of a wealthy donor. He denied that anything came from the campaign fund. This led to an allegation of financial misconduct and a legal trial charging Edwards with fraud. On the 31st May 2012, he was acquitted.
By then, much more had come out. On the 21st January 2010, Edwards finally admitted that he was the father of Hunter’s baby. This caused Elizabeth Edwards to separate from her husband, with the intention of waiting the requisite year before filing for divorce. Unfortunately, Elizabeth died on the 7th December 2010.
Edwards has returned to private practice and has not been a public figure in over a decade. His once promising career was tarnished. Despite being found not guilty of fraud, cheating on your dying wife and fathering an illegitimate child did not make him particularly popular with voters. His name is now a by-word for scandal. Cheating may be one thing, but doing it on your dying wife- who has already lost a child in tragic circumstances- does not win you any favours. He and Hunter dated until 2015.
Donald Trump: A Stormy Time
With three marriages to his name, it’s no shock that Donald Trump loves women. He had cheated on first wife Ivana Trump with second wife Marla Maples after all. Allegations have dogged him throughout his life, but it was his entanglement with Stormy Daniels that really got him into trouble.
Porn actress Stormy Daniels- real name Stephanie Gregory Clifford- alleges that she and Trump had a single sexual encounter in July 2006. She alleges they met at a celebrity golf tournament before having sex in his hotel room. Melania Trump was not present, having given birth to their son Barron just four months prior.
Just before the 2016 election, Stormy Daniels alleged that Trump’s lawyer, the controversial Michael Cohen, paid $130K in hush money. The alleged affair was already known about, but the hush money was not. This was all revealed in 2018. Mr. Cohen eventually pleaded guilty to eight counts of fraud and other financial irregularities. He initially said he’d paid Daniels out of his own pocket and that Trump had no involvement, before testifying under oath that Trump had directed him to do it. Cohen eventually spent over two years in prison.
Meanwhile, the legal trouble continued for Trump. Daniels won the first lawsuit, but lost the second. In 2023, a grand jury in Manhattan indicted Trump for his role in the hush money scandal. This includes 34 counts that could net him a very long time in prison. Payments to another alleged paramour named Karen McDougal have also been discussed. The legal case is ongoing and could last even after the 2024 election.
In this case, it is the legal component that is more worrying for Trump’s campaign. Nevertheless, Trump’s adultery has people questioning his support from evangelicals. The religious right, especially evangelicals, tend to be very socially conservative about things. Trump’s very public three marriages and affairs would usually make him persona non grata in these circles, yet support remains high. He attempted to ease their minds in 2016 by choosing the religious and conservative Mike Pence as his running mate. Trump could very well do the same should he win the 2024 election.
Donald Trump remains the frontrunner going into the 2024 election, with a large amount of support surrounding him. Those supporters don’t seem to care too much about his personal life.
Cal Cunningham: An Army Affair
The 2020 North Carolina Senate race was one of the most hotly anticipated of the election season. It had been a very unusual year due to the COVID outbreak, and North Carolina was a swing state on every level. Whilst Trump and Biden duked it out to win the state’s sixteen electoral votes, incumbent Senator Thom Tillis was up against army reservist Cal Cunningham.
Throughout the vast majority of the campaign, Cunningham was ahead of Tillis in the polls. That was until the 3rd October.
Tillis had tested positive for COVID and had to lay low, but things were much worse for Cunningham. Right wing blog National File reported that the married Cunningham was sexting with another woman. Whilst the texts were rather PG compared to some of the things on this list, it was still sexting. Whilst Cunningham apologised, he refused to exit the race. The woman further disclosed that she and Cunningham had been having an affair for some time.
This revelation worried voters, and they now had cause to question his morality as a person and politician. Further complicating matters was the army probe that had been announced. Adultery is a violation of military code and one can be dishonourably discharged for it. The husband of the woman that Cunningham had been sexting was also a veteran.
Cunningham’s lead essentially disappeared and the race became a toss-up. Tillis ended up winning by 1.8%, a pretty close margin. Whilst the Democrats took the Governor’s House, Trump managed to take the state’s electoral votes.
It’s far too early to tell whether or not the affair has finished Cunningham’s political career. He’s still young- at least by political standards- and his wife stayed with him. Nothing seems to have come from the army probe either. Unfortunately, voters can have a long memory.
Does It Matter?
Adultery scandals have been around since America’s founding and aren’t likely to go away anytime soon. Presidents Garfield, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had affairs during, before and after their presidencies. Kennedy is almost a byword for adultery, while Harding, Roosevelt and Johnson’s affairs are well known. Only Garfield’s indiscretions are not as widely known among the public. Even then, each of these presidents has a hugely different legacy and ranking among historians. Their moral failings are always separated from their actual presidency.
Even more have been said to have affairs- Wilson, Nixon and both Bushes among them, but not much is said about those.
Generally, there is a huge variation in how political careers are affected by adultery. As a whole, voters can be quite squeamish about it. They like wholesome, family friendly candidates. Look at how Kennedy’s father pushed him to marry- an unmarried Senator in the 1950s was treated with mistrust and even allegations of homosexuality. Whilst voters will always look at policies first, adultery is seen as a moral failing. Can someone with those failings be a good candidate?
There are also levels of just how ‘bad’ the adultery is. Donald Trump’s one night stand or affair as his marriage broke down are treated with less scorn, albeit without total sympathy. Contrast with how John Edwards fathered a child with a younger woman whilst his poor wife was dying of cancer. Such a horrific act ended his career.
Sensibilities also factor in. Rachel Jackson’s accidental bigamy was shocking in early 19th century America, in which views of sexuality were much more conservative. That being said, there is a strange paradox. Views of sexuality were more conservative throughout most of American history, but people were more understanding of affairs- though only if it was the man doing it. Contrast this with today- we’re less tolerant of affairs but much more permissive with sex generally.
One only has to look at the Sixties. Whilst the Sexual Revolution had not happened when Kennedy and Rockefeller were with other women, they still occurred just before the cultural crossroads. The press kept Kennedy’s astronomical philandering secret because it was seen as a gentleman’s agreement. They thought it wasn’t relevant and many of them were carrying on with their own affairs. Rockefeller leaving his wife for a young married mother was a different story. The differences were twofold. Firstly, Kennedy did stay with Jackie. Secondly, his affairs weren’t with ‘respectable’ married women with children.
It’s not a matter of if the next major candidate turns out to have been having affairs, but when. We just have to wait to see how voters feel about it.