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Top 8 Hatfields and McCoys of Politics

May 30, 2012 by NCC Staff


When it comes to violence, pettiness, and feuding, the Hatfields and McCoys don’t have anything on some of the biggest names in American history. Here’s a look at eight big feuds since 1787. Read our list and tell us which dispute had the biggest impact on our country.

Alexander Hamilton v. Aaron Burr

The most famous of all political feuds was one of the earliest. Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father, while Aaron Burr was the vice president of the United States.

The Burr-Hamilton Duel

The bad blood between the two men might have dated back to the Revolutionary War, when Hamilton received a field promotion, while Burr didn’t. Burr then defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law in a U.S. Senate election. Then Hamilton helped defeat Burr in the 1800 presidential election after Thomas Jefferson and Burr tied in the general presidential election.

After Hamilton made insulting remarks about Burr that were published, the two men agreed to terms for a duel.

On July 11, 1804, Burr fatally wounded Hamilton in their duel. The vice president wasn’t tried, but he was charged with murder in two states.

Aaron Burr v. Thomas Jefferson

That's right, Burr again--the man was a prolific feuder.

President Thomas Jefferson wasn’t fond of Burr before the Hamilton duel, and he had already dropped Burr from the presidential ticket in 1804.

Burr eventually became involved in some schemes in the Deep South that involved Spain and Mexico and Burr's possession of a large amount of land.

In 1807, Jefferson ordered Burr's arrest on treason charges. But in a trial supervised by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, Burr was found not guilty.

Burr then became a non-factor in American politics, while Jefferson remained irate at Marshall.

Andrew Jackson v. John Quincy Adams

In one of the nastiest electoral feuds in U.S. history, both men used hand-to-hand campaign tactics that would shock modern political operatives.

Adams defeated Jackson in a House runoff election in 1824, even though Jackson had received much more of the popular and electoral vote.

The rematch in 1828 was especially bitter, as Adams operatives claimed Jackson was a bigamist and called his wife a prostitute, while Jackson’s campaign said Adams had offered women as concubines as part of his diplomatic career.

Jackson won the election, but his wife died of a heart attack before his inauguration. He blamed her death on the Adams campaign. Both men wouldn’t speak to each other at Jackson’s inauguration.

Preston Brooks v. Charles Sumner

In an attack that further divided the North and South, Preston Brooks attacked Charles Sumner on the U.S. Senate floor with a metal-tipped cane in 1856, leaving Sumner seriously injured. Brooks received a $300 fine.

The incident started when Senator Sumner, an abolitionist, went on a two-day rant on the Senate floor after an incident in Kansas.

Sumner made fun of Brooks’ relative, Senator Andrew Butler, who had suffered from a stroke, and he used language that compared the South’s use of slavery to prostitution.

An irate Representative Brooks sought advice from fellow South Carolina Representative  Laurence M. Keitt, who talked Brooks out of a duel. Instead, Brooks confronted Sumner on a nearly empty Senate floor, and beat the defenseless Sumner to a pulp as Keitt stood by with a drawn gun.

Sumner survived but didn’t return to the Senate for three years. Brooks was later challenged to a duel by another politician but backed out at the last moment. Brooks died in 1857 from the croup.

James Buchanan v. Stephen Douglas

A long-forgotten feud that led to Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860 was the split between President James Buchanan and Senator Stephen Douglas in the run-up to the election.

Buchanan long had presidential ambitions, but he inherited a nation in 1856 that was on the path to Civil War. He defeated Douglas for the Democratic presidential nomination prior to the election.

Douglas was an esteemed member of the Senate who defeated Lincoln in the 1858 Senate campaign in Illinois.

Douglas was also a powerful member of Congress, but he split from Buchanan over issues related to the Kansas situation.

The bitter feud between Douglas (as the leader of the northern states of the Democratic party) and Buchanan (who was favored by the South) opened the door for the little-known Lincoln to become president.

The South knew where Lincoln stood, and the succession began as Buchanan ended his presidency.

Grover Cleveland v. James Blaine

James Blaine was a top leader in the Republican party who had twice been denied the presidential nomination, and forced out as secretary of state in 1881, after President James Garfield died.

Grover Cleveland was a national political newcomer from New York with a reputation as a reformer.

But as their parties’ respective nominees in 1884, Blaine and Cleveland engaged in the most mudslinging since the 1828 Jackson-Adams election.

The Democrats called Blaine “the continental liar” after documents surfaced that seemed to tie Blaine to railroad interests.

The Republicans dug up claims that Cleveland had a child out of wedlock, and used the slogan, "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?” to target Cleveland.

Cleveland’s supporters countered with claims that Blaine, like Andrew Jackson, might not have been legally married when he had his first child.

The final straw was when a Blaine supporter insulted Catholics just before the election--costing Blaine the vote in New York City and the margin of victory in a narrow race.

Cleveland probably had the last laugh: once he ascended to the presidency, his supporters responded to the Republican's taunt of "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?"--"Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!"

FDR v. Supreme Court

The president had feuded with the Supreme Court before, with the struggles between Jefferson and Marshall, and Lincoln and Roger Taney, as prime examples.

But what about a president who sought to change the number of Supreme Court justices to ensure a favorable outcome in cases?

In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to “pack the court,” as his opponents claimed, as FDR battled to enact widespread government programs.

The court had ruled against several Roosevelt initiatives and the president used a radio fireside chat in 1937 to tell the public about a bill to give him the power to expand the court.

The measure met a lot of public opposition, and then Roosevelt ran into barriers among his own Democratic Party in the U.S. Senate.

When Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson died, Roosevelt lost his chief supporter of the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937.

Eventually, Roosevelt got his friendly court, as most of the justices he inherited in 1933 retired or passed away.

George Bush v. Al Gore

The 2000 general election was settled by a Supreme Court decision involving a small number of votes in Florida.

Gore and Bush had been locked in a tight race that actually started as the Bill Clinton impeachment case was winding down in 1999.

The Republicans campaigned as agents of social and political change in Washington, while Gore touted his experience.

But in many ways, the bitterest part of the campaign happened after he polls closed, when both sides discovered that Florida’s 25 electoral votes would decide the election, and all the votes there hadn’t been counted yet.

At one point, TV networks declared both candidates as winners of the election. Gore conceded to Bush and then retracted his concession.

After a series of legal appeals, the original vote count in Florida stood and on December 12, the Supreme Court overturned a Florida ruling permitting a wider recount.

Bush had taken Florida by a little over 500 votes, but it was enough to win the election.

A New York Times analysis right after the election showed that Bush would have taken Florida under the recount rules proposed by the Gore camp.

But in subsequent years, there were reports of some scenarios that might have given Gore the 25 electoral votes he needed.

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