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CAPITOL CRIMES: Sex, Violence, And Congressional Scandals Through History


Wednesday, Jul. 18, 2001

During the past month, many Americans have begun to suspect that California Congressman Gary Condit caused the disappearance of government intern Chandra Levy — intimating that the representative had an affair with her and then perhaps silenced her in a terrible act of murder. As casual observers who lack access to the bulk of the information, including the most important piece of evidence, Ms. Levy herself, we can only guess whether a crime was even committed in the first place, let alone whether Condit was the perpetrator. But from the perspective of history, it is interesting to note that if Representative Condit is indicted for Ms. Levy's murder, he will be the first Congressman or Senator ever charged for this sort of crime.

Though sexual scandals have dogged politicians since the beginning of our nation, it appears that no legislator has been caught using physical force to quiet his or her accusers. And in the few cases where sex has provoked violence, men, not women, were the victims.

A History of Scandal

Congressional scandals have usually revolved around three main issues: betrayal, money, and sex.

The first Congressman accused of treason was Senator William Blount, a Federalist from Tennessee. In 1797, Blount was impeached for aiding the British in an attempted conquest of Spanish Florida. In and after the Civil War, many Southern and some Midwestern politicians openly favored the Confederacy, and they faced similar charges.

Bribery, too, has been a common sin. Major scandals have dotted the history of Congress: ABSCAM, Koreagate, and Credit Mobilier to name just a few.

Congressmen have also often succumbed to the temptations of the flesh, and exposure of their peccadilloes has occasionally — but not invariably — ended careers in the Capitol. For example, in 1976, two different Congressmen, Allen T. Howe (Dem.-UT) and Joe Waggonner, Jr. (Dem.-LA), were arrested for soliciting prostitution from undercover police officers. The differences between Utah and Louisiana being what they are, it is perhaps unsurprising that Howe's constituents ousted him, while Waggoner survived the scandal and gained reelection.

Congress and Violence

Contrary to popular images of a sober, civil, and collegial Congress, violence was quite common around the Capitol before 1860.

As Rice University historian Mark Schmeller has recently shown, antebellum politicians often fought duels to defend their public image against mild personal slights. In 1802, for example, Congressman John Stanly (Federalist-NC) ensured his re-election by dueling and killing Richard Dobbs Spaight, his predecessor in office and his Jeffersonian opponent in that year's election.

Congress banned the issuing of challenges in the District of Columbia in 1838 after Representative William Graves (Whig-KY) killed Jonathan Cilley (Dem.-ME) in a duel.  The law largely ended the practice around the Capitol, but politicians continued to duel elsewhere.

In 1859, for instance, U.S. Senator David C. Broderick (Dem.-CA) dueled David S. Terry, the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. Terry won, killing Broderick and perhaps establishing the supremacy of the judicial branch to boot.

Though Justice Terry's actions undoubtedly appealed to the law-and-order vote, a higher court eventually overruled the judge. Having lived by the gun, Terry died by it too. In 1889, Terry made the mistake of slapping the bodyguard of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field in a restaurant in Lathrop, California. The guard responded by shooting him to death.

Sex Scandals Caused Violence … Against Men

Sexual scandals have occasionally provoked bloodshed, too. But in these cases, the victims were usually men.

In 1831, for example, U.S. Congressman Robert Potter (Jacksonian-NC) attacked his wife's male cousin and another man in a fit of jealousy. A North Carolina court sentenced Potter to six months in prison and a $2,000 fine. (His wife waited until 1834 to divorce him).

After his release from prison, Potter was elected to the North Carolina legislature but he was later expelled for "cheating at cards." Potter decided he needed a change of scenery, and he moved to Texas, where he became one of that state's founding fathers. But Potter could not escape his violent destiny; he died in 1842, shot by his political opponents.

Jealousy also provoked one of the most famous Congressional murders. In 1859, Congressman Daniel E. "Devil Dan" Sickles (Dem.-NY) shot and killed his wife's lover, U.S. Attorney Philip Barton Key– the son of the author of our national anthem, Francis Scott Key.

Defended by future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Sickles was acquitted, in one of the first cases featuring the temporary insanity defense.  Sickles later served as a General in the Civil War, lost his leg at the Battle of Gettysburg, and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Women, Scandals, and Silence

No Representative or Senator in U.S. history has been indicted for murdering a woman. In part, the inadequacies of the justice system to detect and prosecute the crimes of wealthy and powerful men may explain this fact

But the sexual values of American society before 1970 are an equally significant explanation. Though the culture generally condemned extra-marital affairs, exposure promised especially serious consequences for women. If a woman risked her virtue by having an affair with a married politician, she would gain little and lose much by publicizing the relationship. And if she did reveal her scandalous involvement, the public would have granted her little credibility. Indeed, the affair and its revelation would have destroyed her respectability and made her testimony unconvincing to an audience that held women to a higher moral standard.

At the same time, the Congressman that murdered his female accuser would have faced serious punishment. Killing a man in anger or jealousy might be forgiven. But murdering a "vulnerable" woman could not be. Thus, had Representative Daniel Sickles killed his wife along with her lover, the courts would have been less lenient with him.

Today, of course, social realities are very different. Though the public still questions the credibility of female accusers such as Monica Lewinsky and Anita Hill, their allegations now fall on far more fertile ground.

Indeed, flight attendant Anne Marie Smith, who asserts that she was one of Gary Condit's lovers, says she told the media her story because she believed exposure would protect her from violence. Times have changed: Rather than assailing the virtue of Smith (who, after all, claims she was sleeping with a married man), the public and press have listened carefully to what she has to say.

Chandra Levy, too, might have faced far fewer hazards by telling her story than by keeping silent (confiding, it appears, only in her aunt). Though the reasons for Ms. Levy's disappearance are still uncertain, we may find that the power to speak made her Congress's first female victim.

Andrew Wender Cohen is an Assistant Professor of History at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.

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