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4 Early American Politicians Rocked by Sex Scandals

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General David Petraeus resigned his position and ended any hope of a run for the presidency over a sex scandal. While his actions weren't appropriate, he was just carrying on a long tradition of powerful men in government ruining their careers for a roll in the hay.

1. Alexander Hamilton

It took less than two years into George Washington’s first term as president for a member of his administration to get embroiled in the brand-new country’s first major political sex scandal. While serving as the Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton began an affair with the already married Maria Reynolds. When her husband found out, he decided not to challenge Hamilton to a duel, as was standard in those days, but asked for hush money instead. Hamilton paid.

After a few years, some political insiders found out about the affair, but at first no one leaked it to the press; that is until Thomas Jefferson wanted to make sure his nemesis Hamilton didn't run for president. Jefferson got his hands on some love letters and passed them to a reporter who printed them in full in the paper, and Hamilton was forced to admit his indiscretion. Maria Reynolds divorced her husband and Hamilton’s political career was effectively over. But while Hamilton had avoided one duel, another would end his life a few years later, coincidentally with the same man who had handled Reynolds’ divorce: Aaron Burr.

2. Richard Johnson

You wouldn’t think having sex with your wife could cause a scandal, but if it was the 1820s, you were white, and that wife was black, it was shocking enough to hurt your career. Johnson, a Senator and the ninth vice president of the United States, openly kept one of his slaves as his common law wife and even publicly acknowledged his two children with her. While his constituency wasn't bothered by this at first, as word of his situation spread, his career took a hit—and he lost his seat in the Senate.

Johnson pointed out that he was far from the only politician to have a relationship with a slave, and he defended his honor as being better than others who were secretive about their affairs, saying, "Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter, and others, I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections.” Despite his love for his wife, Johnson never freed her and she was his slave until she died.

3. John Eaton

Peggy O’Neale was just 17 when she married 39-year-old Navy purser John Timberlake. While John was away at sea for months at a time, Peggy would host prominent politicians in her Washington home. Then John died on one of his voyages and Peggy found herself a young widow with two children to support. Thankfully, Senator John Eaton, an old friend, was there to help her pick up the pieces. The two married almost immediately after her husband’s death.

While today getting remarried so quickly might raise a few eyebrows, in the 1800s this was just not done. There were strict rules on mourning, and waiting less than a year before getting hitched again indicated a ferocious sex drive or the existence of a previous affair. The O’Neale-Eaton marriage scandalized the women of Washington, who made sure their husbands knew just how to feel on the matter. In 1829, President Jackson tried to show support for the couple by making Eaton his Secretary of War. But by 1831 the scandal had engulfed Jackson's administration, and all but one member of his cabinet resigned. All because Eaton married a pretty young widow too quickly.

4. James Henry Hammond

Over the course of a quarter century, from 1835 to 1860, James Hammond was a member of the House, a Senator, and Governor of South Carolina. However, he only spent a total of six of those 25 years holding office, due mostly to his questionable sex life. In college, Hammond had a gay affair with a friend (which is documented in a series of explicit letters kept at the South Caroliniana Library), and rumors of this followed him his whole life. When he got older, he had relationships with four of his own nieces; in his diaries, he blamed the girls for coming on to him. When these relationships came to light, Hammond had to leave the national scene for 13 years before his reputation recovered enough to allow him to get reelected; the girls had their reputations tarnished forever, and never married.

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Courtesy of Freeman's
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History
For Sale: More Than 150 Items of Victorian Mourning Art, Clothing, and Jewelry
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Courtesy of Freeman's

Funeral fashion hasn't always been reserved for memorial services, judging from a massive memento mori auction that's being billed as perhaps the largest collection of mourning art ever offered for sale. Spotted by Atlas Obscura and sponsored by Philadelphia-based Freeman’s auction house, the online sale—which kicks off on Wednesday, November 15—features more than 150 works from a renowned private collection, ranging from clothing and jewelry to artworks.

During the Victorian era, people paid tribute to their loved ones by wearing black mourning garb and symbolic accessories. (The latter often featured jet or real locks of hair, according to a 2008 article published in the academic journal Omega.) They also commissioned death-themed artworks and objects, including paintings, as exhibited by Angus Trumble's 2007 book Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria.

These items have long since fallen out of fashion, but some historic preservationists amassed their own macabre private collections. Anita Schorsch, who’s arguably the most famous collector of memento mori, used her historic treasures to launch the Museum of Mourning Art back in 1990. Located in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, the museum is—as its name suggests—the only institution in the nation devoted exclusively to mourning art. The museum has been closed since Schorsch's death in 2015, and the items featured in Freeman's auction are from her collection.

Check out some of its memento mori below, or view the online catalogue here.

Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Courtesy OF Freeman's


Hairwork shroud pin, 19th century, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's


18th century iron and brass cemetery padlock from London, England, part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
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History
Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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