Dirty Deals: 8 American Political Scandals in History

Depiction of Preston Brooks beating Charles Sumner with his cane. Shmoop

For almost as long as humans have been around, politics and scandal have gone hand in hand. No country or organization is immune to it. No matter where you look, you can find examples of something scandalous, even in the most unlikely of places.

American politicians are not strangers to scandals of all sorts, and that was just as true at the beginning of the democracy as it is today. In today’s article we’re going to look at the most famous scandals of early American politics.

The Whisky Ring. History Channel

The Whisky Ring

Surprisingly, there are more scandals surrounding booze than you might expect. The Whisky Ring was a large conspiracy of politicians, government employees, whisky distilleries and distillers. This was a nationwide crime ring that was focused on siphoning off taxes that were applied to the sale of hard liquor.

This was brought to the attention of the public in May 1875 during the Presidency of Ulysses S Grant. At the time the country was in a period called Reconstruction. This period was started with President Andrew Johnson, and was meant to renew and heal the country after the terrible losses it faced during the American Civil War.

By the time Grant took office, Reconstruction had been ongoing for several years, and there was a large number of people in the United States that felt disillusioned with the process. A lot of this had to do with several political scandals that shook the confidence Americans once had in the Republican party.

When the Whisky Ring was uncovered by US Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow in 1875, it signaled the pending doom the Reconstruction era. As part of Reconstruction, Northern Republicans had moved South and imposed a lot of policy onto the South. As you can imagine, this made a lot of former Confederates angry, and displaced the Southern Democrats, who still had some power even after the war.

The Whisky Ring was a gigantic conspiracy all focused on money. There was a web of people in every level of government from the White House to the IRS, who conspired with the liquor industry to siphon off taxes paid by that industry. In order to expose the conspiracy, Bristow needed to hire outside investigators as he didn’t know who in the Treasury department he could trust.

By the end of it, 110 people were convicted, and nearly $3.5 million in tax revenue was recovered. The impact this had on the Republican party, which was the dominant party because of the outcome of the Civil War, was vast. It also allowed a resurgence of the Democratic Party, which was becoming more liberal by necessity, especially in the South.