Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > Presidential Rivalry and Bad Blood in American History (Part 1)

May 27, 2020

Presidential Rivalry and Bad Blood in American History (Part 1)

tags: presidential history

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.



Rivalries, conflict, and “bad blood” between presidents are part of the story of American history, whether in the course of a competitive campaign or after the election has been resolved.

Most of the time, the presidents involved have been direct rivals in the same election, but not always. Sometimes their conflicts and “bad blood” receded over time, but at other times, the presidents go to the grave with strong unresolved emotional conflict.

So how many such cases are part of the history of the American presidency? This scholar finds 12:

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were rivals in the presidential campaigns of 1796 and 1800, with Adams winning the first time and having Jefferson forced on him as his vice president under the unsettled rules of the Electoral College in this first contested election.  There was plenty of criticism and vicious attacks, and then they faced each other again. In 1800, Jefferson vanquished Adams, embittering Adams such that he left Washington before the inauguration, fearing for the future of the nation.  But after Jefferson retired, the two men reconciled and wrote extensive correspondence back and forth for 17 years from 1809-1826. Their renewed friendship, which had existed before the 1790s, was a remarkable moment of reconciliation.

John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were rivals in the presidential campaigns of 1824 and 1828. Adams, who finished in second place in both popular and electoral votes, was chosen by the House of Representatives over Jackson in 1824. Jackson alleged a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Henry Clay resulting in the first presidency not won by the national popular vote winner (it would happen another four times).  The bitterness continued in 1828 when Jackson soundly defeated Adams. Like his father, John Quincy Adams did not attend the inauguration, and feared for the future of the nation.  

Adams decided he needed to return to the nation’s capital and keep a watch over a man he considered a demagogue, running for and serving nine terms in the House of Representatives from a Boston seat. He actively engaged in criticism of Jackson’s attacks on the Second National Bank, opposition to abolitionism, and forced removal of five Native American tribes to Oklahoma, over what became known as “The Trail of Tears.”  Even after Jackson left office, the two men continued to be sharp enemies and critics for the rest of their lives.

These types of personal political rivalries between presidents did not occur again until the 20th century, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt and his two successors in the Oval Office, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.

TR and Taft were great friends. Taft was appointed Secretary of War in the Roosevelt cabinet, and then promoted as TR’s successor in the presidential election of 1908.  But Taft sorely disappointed TR in his handling of the political issues that he faced, including the protective tariff, and even more importantly, TR’s major commitment to the environment and conservation, which Taft didn’t share.  By 1912, TR had decided to challenge his own handpicked successor, coming back to oppose him for the Republican party nomination, and, when that failed, running against him as the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party candidate.  The two men were vicious in their attacks during that campaign, including personal insults unbecoming of two former presidents. Their anger was unleashed, and it was shocking to many observers.  Their old friendship was never rekindled, and only once did they cross paths and shake hands during the six years before TR passed away at the young age of 60 in January 1919.

The TR-Wilson rivalry was also a major conflict. Roosevelt resented both that Wilson claimed to run as a “progressive” in 1912 and that Wilson benefited from the split in the Republican Party to win the White House with only 42 percent of the national vote. When Wilson adopted many ideas of TR’s “New Nationalism” program and added it to his own “New Freedom” agenda in 1915-1916 to gain some Republican and independent support in his reelection campaign of 1916, TR resented it as if Wilson had stolen his ideas, rather than being flattered that he was adopting more progressive reforms beyond those he had run on in 1912.  TR’s anger was greatly increased when Wilson rejected his advice to go to war against Germany after the Lusitania and Sussex incidents in 1915-1916.  Any possibility of cooperation ended when TR visited the White House, anxious to form a regiment to go to war against Germany when Wilson might decide to do so.  Wilson responded  that he had no such intention, and in any case, would not allow TR—then in his late 50s—to seek the national attention he craved by once again leading troops into battle abroad.

The rivalry between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt followed their original warm friendship during the Wilson years, when Hoover served as the head of the US Food Administration during World War I and FDR was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. FDR was so impressed with Hoover’s humanitarian work that he floated the idea that Hoover, who was nonpartisan at the time, should be considered for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1920. Instead, FDR became the vice presidential nominee, and Hoover went on to be Secretary of Commerce under Republican Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and then the Republican nominee and winner of the presidential election of 1928.  With the Great Depression coming on in late 1929, the contrast between Hoover’s laissez-faire policy, and FDR’s “Little New Deal” policies, pursued as the governor of New York, encouraged FDR to challenge Hoover for the Presidency in 1932. After Roosevelt’s a landslide victory, bad blood boiled to the surface.  Hoover wanted FDR to support Hoover’s policies during the interim between the November election and the March 4 inauguration; FDR wanted Hoover to allow Roosevelt to lead as unemployment mounted.  Hoover refused, and on Inauguration Day kept a sour expression, refusing to communicate with FDR as they traveled by automobile to the inaugural ceremonies.  

Hoover became an unrelenting critic of FDR, labeling him as a “Socialist” or a “Communist.” He opposing not only the New Deal, but also FDR’s foreign policy. Hoover was an outspoken isolationist and major speaker for the powerful America First Committee before the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.  The two men never spoke to each other over the 12 years of FDR’s presidency, and Hoover was never invited to the White House at any point until FDR’s death.

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