The recently published book “Presidential Misconduct,” edited by James M. Banner, Jr, is eye-opening. It gives us a new perspective of today’s events. It is the only comprehensive study of American presidents’ misconduct. It contains essays on all of the presidents from George Washington through Barak Obama by leading presidential historians. The historians reveal that every president has been accused of misconduct, including the well-liked hero George Washington, with the sole exceptions of William Henry Harrison who served less than a month before dying, and Gerald R. Ford, Jr., who followed Richard M. Nixon for a short term. The scholars also describe how each of the presidents was attacked by politically-motivated journalists and how there was an attempted court suit against a president after he left office
The project began in 1974 when President Richard Nixon faced impeachment after the Watergate Scandal. The House Judiciary Committee commissioned noted presidential historians to investigate and report to the House a historical account of the misdeeds of past presidents. The plan was to use this historical information to better understand the deeds of President Nixon and help decision makers avoid past mistakes and distinguish between genuine corruption and political and policy disputes. The present 2019 book is an update of this 1974 study.
The information in this book will surprise many people. The brief essays will give readers a deeper understanding of the largely neglected American history generally and of the reactions of the public, fellow government officials, and the press to American presidents in particular. It will also prompt readers to view the attacks against President Trump differently than in the past.
George Washington, for example, was the hero, indeed the savior, of the new country in its war with England. “But this did not shield [him] from accusations such as few American leaders ever had to hear.” It was during his eight years in office that the country split into two rival political parties, and each attacked the other viciously and fraudulently in newspapers and speeches, and frequently blamed Washington for what the opposition considered a wrong policy, which they mislabeled as corruption. The opposing party “concluded that they could destroy the policies only by damaging the President’s prestige.” He was charged among much else with exceeding his expense account. His patriotism was impugned. He was blamed for the behavior of people in his administration. “Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was accused of conspiring with officers of foreign governments and was caught up in a sex scandal that involved the payment of blackmail.” In his farewell address, Washington warned “his countrymen to be constantly awake against ‘the insidious wiles of foreign influence.’”
Washington’s successor as president, John Adams, was also assaulted, and, as with Washington, “the Republican [opposition party] quarrel was fundamentally ideological.” He was condemned because he was prone to bellicose extremes in public statements, he was called senile and insane, he was charge with improper dealings with France, his stand on immigration and naturalization was mocked, his administration was attacked by a Congress controlled by the opposition party for violating the “norms of free speech and assembly and [criminalizing] criticism of government with the infamous Alien and Sedition Act of 1798,” and, among much else, he was condemned for giving his son John Quincy Adams, a future president, a government position.
“Washington retired under a torrent of abuse, and John Adams fared little better.”
Thomas Jefferson, to cite one more example, suffered as well. He was accused with becoming president only because he paid for the position. His Vice President, Aaron Burr, who engaged in a duel with Alexander Hamilton and killed him, was called a murderer. Jefferson in turn was assailed for trusting Burr. Allegations were made against him that he personally enriched himself in the purchase of Florida. A Congressman charged him with a “high misdemeanor … committed against this nation” and sought his impeachment. The House agreed with an overwhelming 93-24, but the attempt to embarrass the administration ultimately failed. A suit was brought against Jefferson after he left office for alleged executive misconduct in public office. It was dismissed based on a technicality, but the question whether a president can be tried for an alleged misconduct while in office has not been resolved even today.
In short, readers will see that much of what they hear today echoes, often even in the wording, what was said about all but two presidents in the past.