For many American adults, contemporary political history has been defined more by negatives than positives. In the past thirty-odd years, major scandals have marked the executive and legislative branches of the federal government in a relentless parade of revealing headlines. Keywords now brand the recent presidencies: Iran-Contra, Watergate, Abscam, Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky. The collective response has been to lower our approval rating for the very officials who require the highest confidence.
When first exposed, any scandal now seems to have the potential to be career threatening, and too few voters are willing to take a politician's avowal of innocence at face value. Worse, many Americans believe that all politicians are tainted—with scandal, unethical standards, corrupt behavior, or similar substandard character—and the country is gradually regressing, losing its traditional values, and spiraling downward toward a degraded, immoral finale.
Is this perception appropriate, much less accurate? One of the goals of this project is to provide a new measuring rod with which to gauge the breadth and depth of the current political environment, both the activities of politicians and the process of electing them. A chronological history—from our colonial roots onward—provides just such a unique barometer of reality. And it becomes quickly apparent, once this approach is under way, that the past provides a considerable wealth of evidence to support the folk saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Pick any category of modern political wrongdoing—sins of the flesh, theft, bribery, extortion, lies, coverups, election fraud—and historical precedents are easy to find. Add an element missing from most political activity in the past few decades, bloodshed, and the historical record often outshines today's antics.
Yet our human inclination to focus on the sensational does us a disservice. Even in colonial America, people read newspapers, the main source of information about current events, but then, as now, "normal" isn¹t news. As the saying goes, it¹s only news when the man bites the dog. The current and historical record of political misdoings covers just that, misdoings, not the standard, mundane, day-to-day operations that keep local and national systems operational.
Consider the bigger picture. Since the first Congress, just under 12,000 individuals have served in the U.S. House and Senate, but far less than one percent of these have been expelled, indicted, or tried for criminal activity. Only two presidents out of forty-two have been impeached, and neither of those was convicted. Out of more than 2,100 governors, only fifteen have been impeached, with only seven convicted after impeachment. A similar record holds for federal judges: more than 3,100 have served and only seven have been convicted after impeachment. Politicians who screw up are the exception, not the rule.
Even when politicians have erred and elections have been rigged, life goes on. The country and the Constitution have survived. Rules have been added to reduce opportunities for malfeasance, to remove barriers for participation in both politics and voting, and to provide fairer platforms for both. Those who do not play by the rules—then or now—are individuals who may be "good people making bad decisions,"sinister manipulators, or followers more willing to imitate their peers than do what is right. But these miscreants have one thing in common: they are all in the minority.
Here we focus on that minority with the knowledge that their brethren were tending to business while they were screwing up or screwing around. It¹s an equal opportunity exposé, with plenty of room for participation regardless of party affiliation, wealth, intelligence, age, race, ethnicity, gender, or geographical location.
Most important, the story of this group of misfits is much more entertaining than that of their mainstream colleagues. And it is a story that is unlikely to end. With that in mind, we wrote the last line first... to be continued.
In 1730, Jonathan Belcher (16821757) was appointed royal governor of Massachusetts and the province of New Hampshire. Belcher had on going problems with the residents, including charges of corruption. The legislature refused to grant him an annual salary, although this was an issue based more on colonial vs. British rights than a personal affront; the assembly refused the same request for twelve other governors. He remained in office until 1741, when he was forced out for receiving a bribe, a charge he successfully defended against. He later served as the governor of the Province of New Jersey and is credited as the founder of Princeton
In 1734, George Burrington (16801759), royal governor of North Carolina, was sent back to England because of complaints about his leadership. Burrington had previously been the Lord Proprietor of North Carolina (17241725) before the territory was made a colony. While there, he had incurred charges of improper conduct, including an indictment for assaulting the previous governor. Some—or all—of the dislike for his rule may have been politically motivated. In any case, there was no shortage of vindictive descriptions of his character and activities. The slurs included: "notorious ignorance and profligacy," "vileness of character," "mad extravagence of behaviour," "drunken and quarrelsome," "character unadorned by a single virtue," and "dirty rogue and villain." One of his political enemies circulated a story that while in England, he had been convicted and imprisoned for physically attacking an old woman. He was reportedly killed in a street brawl in London.8
At the end of the colonial era in America, 130 governors had served as heads in the colonies, including those in the Caribbean Islands. Of those, forty died in office and the rest served terms of varying length before they were replaced. The record for the longest term was twenty five years, for Benning Wentworth in New Hampshire. The record for the shortest term was two days, for Sir Danvers Osborn in New York, who killed himself two days after his inauguration. Average term: about five years.