It’s no surprise that even those worth admiring have their faults. But certain highly-regarded Americans have done incredibly lowly things that warrant a legacy double-take.
This topic brings several prominent, accomplished Americans throughout history immediately to mind. For the sake of saying something original, we’ll be exempting some highly blameworthy big-shots from this list. Nobody needs to relive Bill Clinton’s cigar-wielding affair with a White House intern, nor do we need reminding of how J. Edgar Hoover harassed and blackmailed some of our finest Americans, among them Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK. And OJ Simpson, a hall-of-fame running back (and not-so-hall-of-fame actor) turned double murderer, certainly doesn’t deserve additional ink.
We’ll also be omitting those whose bad sides were more sins of the times than standalone crimes. We all know George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and history should judge them more harshly than their monolithic memorials suggest. But again, that’s been done, and we’re looking to share less widely known stories.
Here, then, are ten admirable people who’ve sullied their reps with far less historical or press scrutiny. From nearly annihilating an entire species of mammals to shocking-even-for-the-times racism – and from ruining careers to ruining their own children – some very respected folks have very repugnant stains on their permanent records.
John Adams is one of the most impressive, important figures in American history. In 1770, when the states were still colonies, Adams – a lawyer by trade – performed a service no other noteworthy litigator would dare tackle: defending the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre. Testament to his eloquence and talent, despite overwhelming anti-Crown public sentiment Adams got six of the eight soldiers acquitted.
He was not, however, the King’s man. As the Revolutionary War began, Adams, now a delegate from Massachusetts, was among the leading voices for independence rather than reconciliation. He knew full well he and his ilk would be hanged should the rebels fail to defeat the most powerful army on Earth. Going all-in on America took principles and guts.
It also took two things for which Adams isn’t typically known: pride swallowing and political savvy. Biting his famously acerbic tongue, in 1776 Adams allowed Constitutional Convention delegates unwilling to vote for independence to alternately abstain or be absent, knowing full well that the fledgling nation’s declared independence would truly unite the colonies only if unanimous (it was: 12-0, with New York – the top target of the British Army and therefore scared into silence – abstaining).
Adams, though, had a dictatorial streak. As the nation’s first Vice President, he argued that his boss, George Washington, be addressed as “His highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” (Washington opted for the decidedly lower-key “Mr. President.”)
Then in 1798 Adams, now President, went full-blown authoritarian. The Alien and Sedition Acts he signed into law imposed, upon other harsh measures, tight restrictions on speech critical of the government. First Amendment much, Mr. Adams?
It was a terrible idea from an otherwise terrific person and, aptly, led to Adams being America’s first one-term president.
Alexander Hamilton’s accomplished resume has all the prerequisites of a Broadway star: A determined self-taught orphan who became George Washington’s most trusted Revolutionary War aide. The primary author of the Federalist Papers, which played an essential role in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Stabilizing the fledging country’s economy as its first Treasury Secretary.
But if he hadn’t died so tragically – granting him a martyr’s legacy – it may have been fellow duelist Aaron Burr immortalized in an unlikely hip-hop musical. Not only does history owe Burr a fonder fate than infamy, but Hamilton’s death made many forget how viciously he’d hounded his rival leading up to their famous final meeting.
Hamilton’s obsessive animosity toward Burr culminated in the presidential election of 1800. After Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied in the Electoral College, the decision fell to the House of Representatives. To foil his foe, Hamilton embarked on a letter-writing campaign whose ferocity rivals the current president’s Twitter feed. To any and all influencers, Hamilton slandered Burr as an “unruly tyrant,” “bankrupt beyond redemption” and, referencing the traitorous ancient Roman Senator, “the Catiline of America.”
Eventually, Hamilton’s relentless smear campaign helped cost Burr not only the presidency but, four years later, the governorship of New York. It’s hard to blame Burr for shooting him.
8William Tecumseh Sherman
Second, only to Ulysses S. Grant in Civil War stature, General William T. Sherman did more than make a famous march. He kept the finest president the nation has ever known from being a one-termer.
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln faced an unprecedented prospect: winning reelection during a bloody rebellion that had raged for three years. It wasn’t going well. Lincoln needed victories, fast. If he failed, the do-nothing general he’d removed from leadership not once but twice – now-Democratic Party nominee George McClellan – would assume the presidency and quite possibly abandon efforts to abolish slavery or even keep the Union together.
Grant did his part: The Overland Campaign chased General Robert E. Lee across Virginia in a series of mostly Union victories. Unfortunately, despite his battlefield successes, a worrisome result of Grant’s increased pressure on Lee was an accelerated casualty rate that concerned even the staunchest Lincoln supporters. Many were wondering whether the cost in blood was worth the price of preventing Southern secession.
Further south, though, Sherman would present Lincoln with his shiniest gift: Atlanta. When it fell in July, Lincoln’s reelection went from possibility to strong likelihood.
The ensuing Sherman’s March, a slash-and-burn trek across the deep South that hindered both Confederate supplies and morale, cemented Sherman as a tough-yet-strategic warrior. But when he kept this no-holds-barred approach after the war, Sherman took the “necessary” out of “necessary evil.”
After the war, the U.S. refocused on westward expansion. And to expand west unimpeded, something needed to be done about the Native Americans. Unfortunately, Sherman knew full well that the tactic employed on his March – destroying the South’s ability to wage war – was brutally effective.
His strategy involved destroying what, for many Native American tribes, was an irreplaceable lifeblood: the buffalo. Like no other single figure, William Sherman is responsible for reducing the millions of buffalo roaming the Great Plains to near extinction. So in addition to stealing land from its original inhabitants, one of America’s most celebrated generals nearly wiped out an iconic American animal.
One ghastly picture sums up Sherman’s post-war legacy in gruesome fashion: this multi-story pile of buffalo skulls. Times were different back then, yes, but this is sickening in any era.
7Nathan Bedford Forrest
Whether nipping at Union ranks through hit-and-run raids or winning battles against long odds, Nathan Bedford Forrest was a perpetual thorn in Lincoln’s side during the Civil War. Among other escapades, a surrounded Forrest once pulled a Union infantryman up into the saddle with him, using the soldier as a human shield while galloping to escape.
Renowned historian Shelby Foote opined that the war produced two true geniuses: Abraham Lincoln and Forrest. While the cause for which he fought was deeply flawed, Forrest’s military prowess is widely respected both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And despite his capture being paramount among Union priorities throughout the war, Forrest emerged unscathed to ride again.
And ride he did. Right into infamy. Because after the war, Forrest traded in his rifle for a burning cross – as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. “PR nightmare” doesn’t begin to describe this decision.
In doing so, Forrest went from respectable cavalry leader to domestic terrorist. Trading in the signature Confederate gray garb for a white hood wasn’t a good look.
To his (at least partial) credit, Forrest eventually quit and denounced the KKK because it became too violent even for his tastes. Despite this, he lit the flame – or should we say the flaming cross – of the most disgusting organization in American history, one that unfortunately has yet to be extinguished. And though history is rarely simple, it’s understandable to boil down Forrest’s legacy to a lone couplet: “If you started the Klan, you’re a bad, bad man.”
Baseball has been played professionally in the U.S. for more than 150 years. Of the legions of players that have taken the field, Tyrus Raymond Cobb – a rail-thin, lightning fast turn-of-the-20th Century player with the Detroit Tigers – lays claim to the highest batting average ever: an other-worldly .366.
Cobb was, quite simply, sensational. Over a 24-year career, he amassed more than 4,100 hits and nearly 900 stolen bases. His 151.1 WAR – or “wins above replacement,” which measures a player’s worth compared to an average player at his position – is sixth all time, just behind Willie Mayes and above Hank Aaron. Pretty good company, right?
But not to Ty Cobb. Because Cobb, despite recent efforts to repair his legacy, once beat up a handicapped person in the stands for calling him a “half-n___er.” Even considering the widespread racism of his times, that’s not something nice people typically do.
Neither is this: A few earlier, in 1907, Cobb got into a fistfight with a black groundskeeper over the condition of the field. When the man’s wife intervened, Cobb choked her.
Ty Cobb: Great hitter, less-than-great person.
Henry Ford’s many contributions to American society make him among the most remarkable men of the early 20th Century. Most famously, of course, was his groundbreaking Model T – the first mass-market automobile that turned cars from exclusive playthings for the wealthy to a middle-class mainstay.
Just as extraordinary was how Ford achieved this. The assembly line he debuted in 1913 to build complete automobiles revolutionized manufacturing, ushering in a new era of efficient, robust American productivity and cementing the US as an economic powerhouse.
His contributions to workers are also impressive. Ford paid his line workers a then-lofty $5 per day, decreased the workday to eight hours and – surprisingly considering the next paragraph – was the first to hire African-Americans in significant numbers.
Ford’s legacy, however, is forever tarnished by a four-volume set of pamphlets published and distributed in the early 1920s. Collectively titled “The International Jew,” the subtitle of the series’ first publication, “The World’s Foremost Problem,” speaks for itself.
The man who pioneered the American assembly line and brought mobility to the masses was, quite simply, a disgusting anti-Semite. How someone so smart can be so stupid is baffling.
Few figures had a more positive influence during the tumultuous 1960s that JFK’s little brother, Robert Francis Kennedy.
For starters, you’re currently reading this post instead of having been incinerated or never born: As his brother’s Attorney General and closest confidant, RFK was instrumental in peaceably deescalating the Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest the world has ever come to full-blown nuclear war.
Later, as a Senator and eventually presidential candidate, RFK’s dual priorities were starting a war on poverty at home and ending the Vietnam War abroad. He had as good a chance as any candidate of winning the White House before being assassinated in June 1968.
RFK’s 1950s, however, were far less noble. Most disturbingly, he worked passionately for Joseph McCarthy during the Wisconsin Senator’s infamous anti-Communist witch hunt, a distinctly un-American endeavor disguised as ardent American patriotism.
In fact, RFK was so close with the scheming (and eventually shamed and censured) McCarthy that RFK made him Godfather to his first son. How (Red) scary is that? Fortunately for the nation, McCarthy died a disgraced drunkard in 1957, freeing RFK up to spearhead his older brother’s history-altering presidential run three years later.
If he wasn’t, as he claimed, “the greatest” boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali was certainly up there.
When Ali retired, he’d amassed 56 wins – 37 by knockout – against just five losses. Along the way, the irrepressible prizefighter won the Heavyweight Championship not once, not twice, but three times.
Two factors make Ali’s pugilistic prowess even more outstanding. First, his competition was as fierce as any time in boxing history, pitting Ali against such all-time greats as George Foreman and Joe Frazier. Second, he lost three peak-condition years when he was suspended from boxing for refusing to fight in the controversial Vietnam War.
This principled stance, as well as his flamboyant, assertive style both in and out of the ring, made Ali a divisive yet widely admired figure. For many, he epitomized black pride, dignity and empowerment.
But Ali did one man very, very wrong: the aforementioned Joe Frazier.
Over the course of three epic bouts, Ali did what he did nearly as well as he boxed: talked trash. But at a time when blacks were struggling for equality, All’s caricature of Frazier as “the other type of Negro” – in other words, a cowardly, complacent Uncle Tom – was so damaging to his reputation and hurtful to his dignity that Frazier deeply resented Ali for the rest of his life.
Watching their trilogy of terrific fights in hindsight, it’s hard not to hope Frazier knocks those awful words out of Ali’s mouthpiece.
There’s a lot to admire about Caitlyn Jenner. Given her celebrity family’s already-enormous fame, it took courage to undergo a gender transition when doing so meant instantly becoming the highest-profile transgender person on the planet. Jenner knew that the resulting media microscope would be relentless and, in our troll-happy world, the judgments sometimes bigoted, cruel and unwarranted.
Against this landscape, it’s no wonder that Jenner drew praise for the brave choice to bring her body into alignment with what her brain had told her for years: that she is a woman. In short order, Jenner was included in lists of most admired women, and even a runner-up for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2015.
But before she was courageous Caitlyn, Bruce Jenner was such a heartless, absentee dad that he made Darth Vader look like Mike Brady.
For starters, Bruce Jenner wanted his eldest daughter aborted and, when then-wife Chrystie Crownover refused, didn’t even show up for her birth. That’s an awkward Christmas dinner conversation to say the least.
Jenner’s parenting didn’t get much better from there. Bruce was such a historically bad dad to his kids Burt, Casey, Brandon and Brody that, to cope, they made macabre jokes about it. Once, following the magnitude 6.7 Northridge Earthquake of 1994, Brandon told his mother – Bruce’s second wife, Linda Thompson – that his father had called to see if they were safe. She was pleasantly surprised until Brandon quickly informed her that he was just kidding.
Ouch. That’s some above-and-beyond child neglect for someone so admirable.
Regardless of his current role on Donald Trump’s legal team in these divisive times, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s steady leadership during and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were highly commendable.
And contrary to criticism that his leadership that dark day was his lone bright spot, it’s worth noting that, even before he became mayor, Giuliani was instrumental in crippling the mafia during the 1980s, when he served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. In fact, he was such a thorn in the mob’s back that they almost whacked him.
His performance on 9/11 was nothing short of remarkable. The images of Giuliani calmly giving direction – minutes after he himself narrowly escaped with his life when the first of both Twin Towers collapsed – and his reassuring, instructive public appearances in the ensuing days and weeks earned him the title America’s Mayor. It also made him Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2001. Amazingly, Time almost went inglorious (and possibly out of business, considering the backlash that would have occurred) that year by choosing the villainous catalyst, Osama bin Laden, for that distinction.
A year prior to his finest moment, however, Giuliani had his worst. On May 10, Giuliani announced at a press conference that he and his wife of 16 years, Donna Hanover, were divorcing. It was news to everyone… including Hanover herself. Anyone who’s been summarily dumped over text can take comfort in knowing that this is much, much crueler.
After turning New York’s most public cold shoulder ever, it’s little wonder why Rudy was so calm under pressure on 9/11. The guy’s got ice water running through his veins. That or as many current memes suggest, he really is Nosferatu.
These are, of course, but ten chronologically ordered examples throughout US history. A lust of honorable (or in this case dishonorable) mentions could extend about as far as any collection of prominent Americans past and present. Nobody’s perfect – not even the best of us.
John F. Kennedy, who literally saved the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was a chronic philanderer whose wide-ranging dalliances included everyone from Marilyn Monroe and the gumar of a high-ranking mafioso to a pair of interns he affectionately called Fiddle and Faddle.
Charles Lindbergh gained heroic stature by being the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo – a distinction that made him Time Magazine’s inaugural Man of the Year in 1927 – before becoming one of America’s most prominent Nazi sympathizers in the buildup to World War II.
Recently deceased Senator John McCain, one of the finest public servants the country has ever known (author’s note: a Democrat is writing this), once engaged in a crooked quid pro quo scheme he later called “my asterisk” on his otherwise unimpeachable resume (author’s note #2: McCain also selected the least qualified Vice Presidential candidate in modern history in 2008).
These sins teach us not to deify the dead or immortalize the mortal. These flaws – some trivial, others tragic – make the heralded more human, and therefore more attainable as teachers in their finer moments. We serve their memories and ourselves best when we remember them honestly, warts and all, without the veneer of valor that too often glosses over history.