Presidential Rivalry and Bad Blood in American History

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

Rivalries, conflict, and “bad blood” between presidents are part of the story of American history.

By Dr. Ronald L. Feinman
Adjunct Professor of History
Florida Atlantic University

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.

Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower

Harry Truman had two famous feuds with other presidents: his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, who as a Congressman from California accused Truman of being “soft on Communism,” even before the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Truman and Ike originally got along well. Truman at one point made a stunning proposal to Ike that he run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1948 with Truman, who had low public opinion ratings, serving as his vice president.  But Ike was then nonpolitical and uninterested, and turned Truman down.  Later, when the Korean War was raging, Ike agreed to run for the Republican nomination in 1952. Even though Truman quickly ended his reelection campaign, the two men were now at loggerheads, as Ike was critical of Truman’s Korean policies.  So the two men did not get along during the Eisenhower Administration, and only met and agreed to reconcile at the 1963 funeral of John F. Kennedy. They were never close again in the six years before Eisenhower passed away in 1969.

The Truman-Nixon hatred was clear in 1948, when Nixon rose to prominence as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Alger Hiss. At that time, Truman crudely insulted Nixon, then a freshman Congressman from California, whom he did not personally know.  And when Nixon was vice president under Eisenhower, Truman was a regular critic, most specifically when Nixon ran for president in 1960 against John F. Kennedy.  But when Nixon finally won the Presidency in 1968, he decided to make the first move to heal the bad blood, determining that he would bring the White House piano used by Truman (it was still in the White House as Nixon also played), to be permanently settled in the Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.  The scene of Nixon meeting with Truman, then 85 years old, was a nationally televised event, and Truman seemed not very thrilled, but accepted the gift, and it made Nixon look more presidential to overcome the rivalry. But after Nixon was forced out of office in 1974, two years after Truman’s passing, comedians joked that the dirt moved over Truman’s grave in Missouri, as if Truman in heaven was laughing that Nixon had received his “just desserts”!

Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter competed against each other in 1976. Ford was very bitter about his defeat, and considered joining Ronald Reagan as his vice president against Carter in 1980.  Ford was critical of Carter’s record, but in a short time after Carter’s loss to Reagan, the two men and their wives became fast friends, visited each other and their presidential libraries, and held symposiums together. Some considered this rapprochement, the most impressive since that of Adams and Jefferson in the early 19th century.  The two men agreed among themselves that the survivor would give the eulogy at the deceased’s funeral, and Carter did precisely that in December 2006.

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan also had a major rivalry in 1980. The two men did not get along or interact during the Reagan Presidency. One famous moment displaying their continued rivalry occurred when Reagan ordered the solar panels that Carter has installed on the White House roof removed. But Carter went to the funeral of Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981 by Reagan’s invitation, and also attended the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in 1991 and the funerals of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 2004 and 2016 respectively. So in a sense, there was a mild reconciliation.

The same situation occurred between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton during the presidential Election of 1992, and over the next eight years. A reconciliation came during the administration of George W. Bush, whose father and Clinton became close to the point that the senior Bush and his wife Barbara jokingly said Bill Clinton was an adopted son from another mother. Clinton and the elder Bush engaged in Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005, with Clinton offering his sleeping quarters on their shared plane to the older Bush. 

Finally comes the story of Donald Trump’s rivalry with both Bill Clinton and his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton, and the conflict between Trump and Barack Obama.

It may be hard to imagine, but Trump had invited the Clintons to his wedding to Melania in 2005, and had said good things about both of them, but then turned against both, to run a vicious campaign of insults in 2016.  The Trump attack on both Clintons has continued to this day, as has the totally nasty and bitter Trump attack on Obama beginning with the “Birther” conspiracy that Obama is not an American citizen and was born in Kenya, but continuing incessantly ever since.  

Trump has set out to destroy everything that Barack Obama has accomplished in both domestic and foreign policy during his eight years in the White House. Trump has accused Obama and all of the people in his administration of treason, and no attack by him or his two older sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, on Obama and his wife is beyond the pale.  And now, the baseless accusation that Trump calls “Obamagate” is becoming the newest line of attack in the 2020 presidential campaign against Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden. So anything is possible in the campaign of hatred and division being waged by the 45th president against the 44th president and his vice president. It’s probably no coincidence that this is happening in the midst of the Coronavirus driven collapse of the American economy from the peak of recovery accomplished under Obama after the Great Recession of 2008, arguably the greatest economic recovery in American history (surpassing FDR’s after Herbert Hoover).

While presidential rivalries have happened before, they have reached a new peak with the current president, more vicious and divisive than any other in American history.

Originally published by History News Network, 05.31.2020, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.