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Imperfect American politicians: babies and bathwater?

Where would the U.S. be without all its imperfect, libidinous politicians?

Buchanan, Franklin and Hamilton, left to right

“…the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy”

Senator Cochran’s marriage last week to Kay Webber revived gossip about whether their relationship before his wife’s death had offended Puritan sensibilities.

Cochran lost consortium with his wife at least a decade and a half before last year’s election battle. During the campaign, Cochran’s Tea Party opponents tried to stir electorate wrath against him by charging, without proof, that the senator and the comely Kay had a carnal relationship. More than a few Mississippians did claim to be shocked and offended. Other voters, particularly those of us long-in-the-tooth, were cheered by the thought that the two nice-looking septuagenarians might be happily having good time.

Puritanism,” said H. L. Mencken, “is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”

The general tackiness of the gossip aside, it is beside the point. Realizing that we are all natural-born sinners prone to error in our ways, the point must become whether or not, in spite of human failures, a person is able to get the job done to the satisfaction his electorate. When he fails that test, and that test alone, he will be replaced.

Little sinners, big sinners: a brief reprise of (sometimes neglected) history

Many of those who have read a little history wonder what the condition of the republic might be had we ejected every politician who, one time or the other, violated the Puritan code.

Consider BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, writer, inventor, scientist, postmaster, diplomat, and many other things, especially a shrewd and effective politician. Many historians call Franklin the “First American” because he was ahead of most thinkers in imagining the benefits of combining 13 independent colonies into a single nation, one independent of Great Britain.

Franklin fathered a son out-of-wedlock whose name was William Franklin. When he was 24-years old, Ben formed a common law marriage with Deborah Reed in 1730. William was raised in their home. He and Deborah had two children together.

Franklin, while discrete, was known by his friends to have had several mistresses in his 84 years. He spent a great deal of time in France on diplomatic missions. His dalliances with married women while in France were not only open, but helped make him more popular at court, and thus a more successful diplomat. What was sin in America was sport in France. In his autobiography Franklin describes an unsuccessful attempt to seduce the mistress of a friend during his time in England.

Franklin’s “Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress,” is among his more candid writings on carnality. Written in a letter in June of 1745, Franklin’s “Advice,” is that a young man should make an older woman his mistress. He lists several reasons for his advice, including better conversation, less risk of unwanted pregnancy and “greater prudence in conducting an intrigue.” He particularly emphasizes that an older woman may give more pleasure to a young man because of her experience: “the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of improvement.” Perhaps Franklin’s sage advice contributed to our modern practice of young men seeking relationships with older women, or ‘cougars,’ as we currently refer to them.

GEORGE WASHINGTON  has been said by some to be literally the “father” of his country, but very little, if any, contemporary accounts support arguments about Washington’s amorous adventures.  There is one documented case of Washington having carried on a long flirtation and correspondence with a married woman, the wife of a friend, but nothing to indicate it went any further than that. About the same sin Jimmy Carter once admitted to.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON, a native of the West Indies, was Washington’s close friend and principal aide, both as a military officer and as a politician. A man of unequaled brilliance and ambition, Hamilton, a graduate of King’s College (now Columbia University), was an intrepid and successful military officer. Washington made him the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and he established much of the financial system that survives to this day.

In 1791, while serving as Treasury Secretary, Hamilton had an affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds, in New York City. Hamilton, himself married, may have believed Reynolds to have been abandoned by her husband. However, on December 15, 1791, Hamilton received two letters, one from Maria warning that her husband, James Reynolds, was going to blackmail Hamilton, and the other, from James Reynolds himself. Although it is not certain, it appears that Maria and James Reynolds may have conspired together to blackmail the Treasury Secretary. Hamilton paid $1,300 in blackmail to them.

After he left office in 1795, there was a congressional investigation that brought the blackmail episode to public awareness. It was determined that Hamilton had not used public money, but had paid Reynolds from his own money. No legal case was made against him.

When the scandal became public, George Washington sent a gift to the Hamiltons as a token of his continued friendship.

THOMAS JEFFERSON, the third president of the United States, was the first president about whom there is forensic evidence of sexual misconduct. The case is now well-known. We have nothing to add, so this account will be brief. During Jefferson’s presidency a journalist named James T. Callender published allegations that Jefferson had taken one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, as his concubine. Jefferson fathered several children by Hemings. DNA testing done in 1998 showed a “high probability” that Jefferson was father to all of Hemings’s children.

JAMES MADISON. During the presidency of the fourth U.S. president, James Madison, his wife Dolley was a flamboyant First Lady.  Two of her sisters lived with them in the White House and there were many reports of wild parties involving them. The evidence is thin, but it is documented that one of his cabinet members warned Madison, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but your wife has single-handedly turned the White House into a brothel.” I wonder if they jumped on the beds.

Andrew Jackson still did not appear to be a man to be trifled with in 1845, the year of his death at age 78.

ANDREW JACKSON, the seventh President of  the United States, proved several times that he was not a man to be trifled with. In 1791 Jackson married Rachel Donelson Robards. Rachel had been married, and was separated from a man named Lewis Robards, who had fits of jealous rage. Jackson said he believed Rachel had been divorced by Robards. However, it turned out that the divorce action was never completed, which meant Rachel and Old Hickory were in a legally bigamous relationship. After a divorce was completed in 1794 they had another marriage ceremony.

Jackson bitterly resented it when political opponents brought up the marriage complication. In May 1806, a man named Charles Dickinson was foolish enough to write about the bigamy in a newspaper article. Jackson sent Dickinson a written challenge to a duel. Dickinson was considered a good shot, so Jackson decided to let Dickinson turn and fire first, hoping Dickinson’s aim might be spoiled by haste. Dickinson did fire first, striking Jackson in the chest. However, Jackson remained standing, took careful aim and killed Dickinson with a single shot. The bullet could not be removed from Jackson’s chest and was still there when he died 39 years later, at age 78, having completed two full terms as president.

KING AND BUCHANAN. For more than 50 years in the middle of the 19th century they served in high offices in the American government: congressmen, senators, ambassadors, vice-president and President of the United States. They lived in the same room together in a Washington boarding house for more than a decade. They were inseparable and attended every social function together. They were the first two gay men to serve at the top of the American government. Andrew Jackson called them “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” They planned to run together on the same ticket as President and Vice-President in the 1844 election, but that never came about.

They were William Rufus DeVane King, from Alabama, and James Buchanan, Jr., from Pennsylvania. King was five years older than Buchanan and was considered the dominant member of the duo. Contemporaries said Buchanan adopted King’s mannerisms and took up the Alabamian’s romanticized opinions about the “Southern Way of Life.”

King left his U.S. Senate seat to be Ambassador to France from 1844 to 1846. Buchanan remained in Washington, representing Pennsylvania in the Senate, and was President James K. Polk’s Secretary of State for four years.

After King left for France, Buchanan was devastated with loneliness and wrote in a letter to Cornelia Roosevelt: “I am now ‘solitary and alone’, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone, and [I] should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

King returned from France and in 1852 was elected vice-president to President Franklin Pierce. He was sworn into office on March 4, 1853, and died of tuberculosis six weeks later at his home near Selma, Alabama. Buchanan fled Washington after King’s death, accepting Franklin Pierce’s appointment as United States Minister to the United Kingdom.

In 1856, four years after King’s death, James Buchanan, Jr. returned to the United States and was elected President. The question of slavery and whether it should be expanded into new territories or abolished entirely was coming to a boil during Buchanan’s presidency. Buchanan had the opportunity to save the republic, but he was considered a “doughface,” a Northerner with Southern sympathies. Instead of using the power of the presidency to provide leadership, to calm hot tempers, to seek common ground between abolitionists and Southern radicals, Buchanan wrung his hands, watched as the Union crumbled.

Years earlier President James K. Polk had said of him, “Mr. Buchanan is an able man in small matters [but is] without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.” The appellation “old maid” was applied to him by many contemporaries who witnessed his inability or unwillingness to act to prevent secession.

Just to point out that indiscretions don’t necessarily make one a great politician, many historians consider Buchanan’s performance as president the worst of any chief executive in the history of the country.

In came ABRAHAM LINCOLN, a barely known country lawyer whose only experience in national politics was a single term as a congressmen in the 1840s. He’d had nearly no formal education. He had gone broke in business. He contracted syphilis in the 1830s and recovered from it. His backwoods pronunciations, fondness for telling dirty stories, ungainly looks, and lack of sophistication made him the target of ridicule by members of the Eastern political and financial establishment.

Before long, however, Secretary of State William Seward, worldly New Yorker, Phi Beta Kappa, highly successful lawyer and former governor of New York, who had assumed that he, not Abe Lincoln, would be the Republican presidential nominee, was telling his wife and others that Lincoln “is the best of us.”

Shrewd, humane, wise, incredibly strong-willed, ruthless when necessary, and determined to do whatever he had to do to save the Union, Lincoln became something of a dictator, albeit a “benevolent despot.” Patiently, stubbornly, fighting chronic depression, suffering enough domestic tragedy and pain for any three men, he assembled a team of talented subordinates, and finally found a competent general for his armies. As a result, the Union remains today. The late writer Shelby Foote noted that before Lincoln, the country was called THESE United States, and after Lincoln and forevermore it is THE United States.

The next part of this series — Grover Cleveland through Franklin Roosevelt — about American leaders and their foibles, sexual and otherwise

Want to know what started this journey? Thad Cochran and his judges   Thad Cochran, Scenes at a New Albany jewelry store

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