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American History: April 1999 From the Editor

Originally published on Published Online: August 11, 1999 
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Thoughts on History

Sometimes it seems that the thing politicians do best is create scandal. As I write this just after New Year's Day, a president of the United States has been impeached by the House of Representatives for only the second time in the country's history, and the Senate is preparing for a trial. What will happen next is anyone's guess–but it will certainly be fodder for future history books. As appalling as the whole spectacle is (and people on both sides of the political aisle can find plenty to appall them), there's no doubt that this is history in the making.

It's no coincidence that we chose this time to run a feature about Warren Harding and the various scandals–political and personal–surrounding his presidency. Harding died before he could be tarred by the chicaneries going on under his nose, but his reputation suffered posthumously. He is routinely remembered as one of the worst presidents the United States ever had.

Other administrations had their own travails. Ulysses S. Grant's presidency weathered a number of scandals, including an attempt by whiskey distillers to defraud the government; this affair of the Whiskey Ring involved officials as highly placed as Grant's private secretary.

Harding's personal failings weren't unique either. Grover Cleveland won the presidency in 1884 despite the charge that he had sired an illegitimate son. While Cleveland may or may not have been the boy's father, he did help support the child, leading to a much-recited piece of political doggerel: "Ma! Ma! Where's my Pa? Gone to the White House. Ha, ha, ha!" When Franklin Roosevelt suffered his fatal stroke, one person in the room was his former mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. John F. Kennedy's sexual shenanigans are now public knowledge. Of course, Roosevelt's and Kennedy's private lives weren't reported, and I'll leave it to the individual reader to decide whether or not that was a good thing.

Even the founding fathers aren't free from scandal. For years historians have wondered about Thomas Jefferson's relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Did Jefferson father any of her children? As early as 1802 a man named James Callendar printed the story. "It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY….The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking, although sable resemblance to those of the president himself."

It seemed that we would never know the truth, until recent DNA testing showed a strong likelihood that Jefferson had in fact fathered at least one of Sally's children. Though it's not proven beyond the shadow of a doubt, the evidence is strong enough to change the way we look at our third president.

As Joseph J. Ellis pointed out in his 1996 award-winning book about Jefferson, American Sphinx, "the primal urge to know about the sexual secrets of the rich and famous is apparently as timeless as the primal urge itself. Long before we learned about the sexual escapades of Presidents Kennedy or Clinton or, before them, Harding and Franklin Roosevelt, there was the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally." Ellis concluded that the chance that Jefferson and Hemings were sexually involved was "remote." He has since changed his mind. In fact, he co-authored the article in the journal Nature that revealed the results of the DNA testing. As he pointed out in the article, the Jefferson case reminds us of "a truth that should be self evident. Our heroes–and especially presidents–are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans, with all of the frailties and imperfections that this entails." I should also point out that without those frailties and imperfections, history would be a whole lot less interesting to read.

Tom Huntington, Editor, American History

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