10 Best Political Rivalries in American History

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A healthy democracy is fraught with political rivalries. Some of our nation's brightest minds have stood on opposite sides of the aisle, verbally sparring with each as they promote their ideologies. The best debates serve to educate the public, enabling it to determine which policies benefit the country the most. On the other hand, rivalries can emerge from petty personal spats and elevate to irrational levels, as evidenced, of course, by the infamous duel between Burr and Hamilton. The following are the 10 best rivalries in American history — the importance of each one varies, but all of them were heavyweight bouts.

  1. President Thomas Jefferson vs. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton

    As debate between the Federalists and Antifederalists intensified during America's early years, Hamilton and Jefferson were present to lead each side. Most people are familiar with their differences — Hamilton advocated a strong central government and Jefferson advocated decentralization with only a strong government when it came to foreign relations. Jefferson ardently opposed Hamilton's fiscal views, particularly his effort to establish a national bank, as it wasn't allowed by the Constitution. The conflict eventually contributed to Jefferson's resignation as Secretary of State in 1793. When he became president in 1801, Aaron Burr, another enemy of Hamilton's, became his vice president.

  2. Vice President Aaron Burr vs. former Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton

    The longstanding feud between Burr and Hamilton couldn't have been settled in any other way. Not only did they disagree politically, but they despised each other personally. Hamilton, still depressed about the death of his son Philip in a duel, likely felt as though he had little to lose, and Burr was bitter over Hamilton's attack on his character in the papers. The duel occurred with two shots, one hitting and mortally wounding Hamilton. Burr's political career would later be damaged beyond repair when treason charges were brought against him for attempting to establish an independent republic consisting of parts of Louisiana and Mexico.

  3. Congressman Preston Brooks vs. Senator Charles Sumner

    When tensions between political adversaries reach a boiling point these days, we expect a couple of clichéd insults and perhaps a personal attack, the latter of which is exactly what Sumner, an abolitionist, did to his colleague South Carolina Senator Andrew P. Butler in 1856 as the ongoing fight over slavery in Kansas expanded. Butler's cousin, Brooks, volunteered to defend the man's honor, entering the Senate chamber, beating Sumner with a cane. Sumner suffered serious injuries, as his legs were pinned under his desk, preventing him from avoiding Brooks' wrath. Sumner survived, but it took three years for him to recover and return to the Senate.

  4. Former Congressman Abraham Lincoln vs. Incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas

    Two brilliant political minds and skilled speechmakers, the Lincoln vs. Douglas debates of 1858 remain the stuff of legends. Although the two politicians were merely vying over an Illinois Senate seat, they discussed the era's most pressing issues, such as slavery and the preservation of the Union. Lincoln promoted equality and opposed the concentration of power possessed by slave owners, while Douglass advocated giving settlers the right to determine if slavery is right or wrong. Douglass eventually retained his seat, but Lincoln's newfound popularity enabled him to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

  5. President Andrew Johnson vs. Radical Republicans

    Thrust into the presidency after the death of Lincoln, Johnson took a more lenient approach to rebuilding the South, favoring readmitting the states into the Union quickly. As a result, the South kept many of its prewar leaders and began to implement Black Codes, essentially making blacks second class citizens with barely more freedom than they possessed as slaves. Johnson's policy of restoration was viewed as weak by Radical Republicans, who wanted stricter control of the region. In response, they passed bills protecting the rights of blacks, restricted Johnson's power and eventually impeached him when he violated one of those restrictions. He was acquitted by one vote.

  6. Vice President Richard Nixon vs. Senator John F. Kennedy

    Eventually, everyone became a rival to Nixon, whose intense insecurity about himself elevated to paranoia during his waning days as the president. His competitive fire was initially sparked by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, which he narrowly lost. To Nixon, who grew up poor, Kennedy was the privileged, handsome rich boy to whom he always felt inferior. Nixon couldn't compete with the image conveyed by Kennedy despite having impressive credentials. When he ran again in 1968, Robert Kennedy was emerging as the Democratic frontrunner and chief ideological adversary until he was assassinated, eventually making Ted the new archenemy.

  7. President Richard Nixon vs. Senator Ted Kennedy

    Because Ted Kennedy was a possible opponent in the 1972 presidential election, Nixon attempted to sully his reputation by ordering secret service agents to dig for dirt about his personal life. Just two years after the infamous Chappaquiddick incident, Kennedy's undisciplined personal life was well-known, but Nixon still wasn't sure it was enough to prevent Kennedy from winning the presidency. As it turned out, Nixon's men found nothing, and Kennedy never ran for president. The episode served as proof that Nixon was constantly haunted by the Kennedy mystique during his political career.

  8. President Ronald Reagan vs. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill

    Much has often been made about the supposedly genial relationship between Reagan and O'Neill, but when battles between Republicans and Democrats heated up, they were just as fierce with each another, at least verbally, as almost any other political adversary throughout history. For example, O'Neill disapproved of what he perceived as Reagan's ignorance about the intricacies of government, calling him the most ignorant man to occupy the White House. Reagan once compared O'Neill to Pac-Man because he was "a round thing that gobbles up money." Reagan's popularity combined with O'Neill's Democratic majority in the House made both of their jobs difficult.

  9. President Bill Clinton vs. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich

    A somewhat tumultuous first two years in office for Clinton brought forth the Republican Revolution led by Gingrich, who coauthored the Contract with America. Offering a strong conservative opposition to the moderate-to-liberal policies of Clinton, he worked to secure tax cuts, welfare reform and a balanced budget. During the government shutdown, however, things got contentious, as Gingrich implied the ordeal was due in part to personal problems he had with the president. Three years later, he overstepped his bounds in the public's eye by leading the charge to impeach Clinton after the Lewinsky scandal. The move hurt his popularity nationally, causing him to leave office.

  10. President Barack Obama vs. Speaker of the House John Boehner

    The smoke is still clearing from the gun fight between Obama and Boehner over the federal debt ceiling. With debt rising to all-time highs, Tea Party members clamored for massive cuts, encouraging Republicans to stand firm on the issue. Obama insisted on raising the ceiling, eventually settling on a $1 trillion increase accompanied by a $1 trillion cut in discretionary spending. During the negotiations, Obama and Boehner traded verbal jabs when they weren't participating in private meetings or playing golf with each other. To many political observers, the showdown was reminiscent of the 1995 government shutdown, though, interestingly, Gingrich claims Obama's icy demeanor contrasted from Clinton's willingness to engage with Republicans.

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