Sex, Lies, and Major Headlines

While candidates' moral failings are big news, many voters forgive them their sins.

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Descendants of Thomas Jefferson, including those from his liaison with Sally Hemings, gather at Monticello in 1999.

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The allegations of illicit sex hit the presidential campaign like a tornado, leaving many Americans outraged at the evidence of sin and others concluding that it was a private matter that should be ignored. In the end, the country decided that a candidate's moral flaws were less important than sound policymaking and public service—and the accused candidate won.

Bill Clinton in 1992? No, Grover Cleveland in 1884.

It goes to show that the "character issue" is nothing new. In fact, it has erupted periodically and dramatically throughout American history:

Thomas Jefferson. There wasn't much for Thomas Jefferson's critics to use against him as he sought re-election as America's third president in 1804. The country was prosperous and peaceful, and the historic Louisiana Purchase had been finalized, so his opponents turned personal.

Led by journalist J. T. Callender, a former Jefferson supporter, the opposition promulgated the rumor in the Richmond, Va., Recorder that the new president had fathered at least one child with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves at Monticello, his Virginia plantation. The story was picked up by Jefferson's opponents, who said the president's involvement with "Black Sal" made him unfit for the nation's highest office. His friends denied the allegation, but the president himself remained silent, saying a response was beneath him. In the end, Jefferson won the Electoral College with 162 votes to only 14 for his main opponent, Charles Pinckney. (In a fascinating postscript, some historians have recently revived the issue and determined that Callender was right. Jefferson did father at least one child with Hemings.)

Andrew Jackson. The 1828 presidential campaign between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams was one of the ugliest, with venom spewed by both sides. What infuriated Jackson the most were salacious stories in pro-Adams newspapers and pamphlets about his beloved wife, Rachel. He had married her in 1791 after Lewis Robards, her first husband, abandoned her, declaring he would get a divorce. Andrew and Rachel learned later that the legalities were never completed. When the divorce was granted, the Jacksons immediately remarried.

During the 1828 campaign, the anti-Jackson newspapers played up the charges with ferocity. One paper asked voters, "Ought a convicted adultress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?" Jackson tried to shield Rachel, but his sickly wife learned of the allegations and was mortified that her honor was besmirched before the entire country. She died in December 1828, just before Jackson took office as president. Jackson believed it was the pro-Adams press that killed her. "May God Almighty forgive her murderers, as I know she forgave them," he said at her funeral. "I never can."

Grover Cleveland. New York Gov. Grover Cleveland was almost ruined by the character issue, and his problems in some ways foreshadowed those of Bill Clinton more than a century later.

During Cleveland's 1884 presidential campaign, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph reported salacious gossip that the Democratic reformer as a young man had fathered an illegitimate child by a widow named Maria Crofts Halpin. Its headline declared: "A Terrible Tale: A Dark Chapter in a Public Man's History: The Pitiful Story of Maria Halpin and Governor Cleveland's Son." Although the paternity was in some doubt, Cleveland had supported the boy, Oscar Folsom Halpin, and his mother for years. The story, picked up by other newspapers, created a sensation, and Cleveland was pressured into admitting both his liaison with Maria Halpin and the possibility that he had fathered Oscar.

There were many other negative issues in the 1884 campaign, which was largely fought in the gutter. James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate, was pilloried as a corrupt and venal man surrounded by grasping millionaires. In the end, Cleveland's reputation for honesty as a public official carried the day, and he narrowly won the White House despite his personal lapses.