The History of Vice-Presidency
As the country waits to see who the GOP Vice-Presidential nominee will be this year, I thought it might be enlightening to take a glimpse into the lives of the men who have served as Vice-Presidents. The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s famous tag line was ‘I get no respect.’ The same may be said of the occupants of the office of our nation’s Second-in-Command. Over the last 220 years, 47 men have held the office. John Adams, our nation’s first ‘Second-in-Command,’ was quoted as saying: “I am Vice President and in this I am nothing.”
John Nance Garner, who occupied the office a century and a half later said that “the Vice-Presidency was not worth a warm ounce of piss.” Yes, you read that correctly. What can I say, Garner was a colorful character who did not mince his words.
It will probably come as a surprise to many that the vast majority of US Vice-Presidents have been men of extraordinarily high ability and achievement. Now you may know that we have had four presidents who were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. They were, of course, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama but did you know that we had two Vice-Presidents (one incumbent and one former VP) win this prestigious award? Charles Gates Dawes, who served as Calvin Coolidge’s Vice-President from 1925-1929, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his drafting of the plan that settled the question of war reparations following the First World War. Under the Dawes Plan, methods were adopted to balance Germany’s budget and to stabilize its currency. Surprisingly, despite his enhanced international prominence, Dawes was not his party’s first choice for Vice-President at the GOP convention in 1924. He was nominated only after the convention’s initial choice, former Illinois Governor Frank O. Lowden declined the offer. Things got only worse for the new Vice-President, as he and President Coolidge had an icy, if not hostile working relationship with one another.
More recently, Former Vice-President Al Gore was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize.
We have had Vice-Presidents who came to the office with lengthy political resumes. Two Vice-Presidents had reached, what many revere to be the pinnacle of congressional leadership, the position of Speaker of the US House of Representatives. They were Schuyler Colfax, who was Ulysses S. Grant’s first Vice-President and John Nance Garner, FDR’s first VP.
Three Vice-Presidents came to their office by way of their service as Majority Leaders of the US Senate: Republican Charles Curtis, who was Herbert Hoover’s Second-in-Command, and Democrats Alben Barkley and Lyndon Johnson who served under Truman and Kennedy, respectively.
Four presidential cabinet members went on to become Vice-President: Thomas Jefferson who served as Washington’s first Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun who served as Monroe’s Secretary of War, Martin Van Buren who served in Andrew Jackson’s first administration as Secretary of State, and Dick Cheney, who served as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense in the early 1990′s.
Others came to the Vice-Presidency after serving as their state’s governors. Among the most noteworthy of these were: George Clinton and Nelson Rockefeller who served 21 years and 15 years, respectively, as New York State’s Chief Executive. Thomas A. Hendricks and Thomas R. Marshall both served as the Governor of the Hoosier State of Indiana. While Thomas Jefferson and John Tyler had served as the Governor of Virginia.
13 of these gentlemen have gone on to become president:9 by the death and or resignation of the president, (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Alan Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S Truman, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Gerald Rudolph Ford) and 4 were elected in their own right after serving as Vice-President (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush).
3 sitting Vice-Presidents have run unsuccessfully for President (Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and Al Gore), while two former VPs ran for the nation’s top job. Richard Nixon, having served as Vice-President from 1953-61, was defeated in his 1960 bid, but was elected as our 37th President, 8 years later in 1968. Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s Vice-President from 1977-81, lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The rest of these gentlemen, who never quite made the brass ring, should nonetheless be saluted for their service to our country. They have come from a variety of backgrounds, and their road to the Vice-Presidency has been equally diverse. Whether it was to achieve political or geographical balance to their party’s national ticket, or as a reward for a longstanding public service career. These men, once elected, have been, literally, a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Granted, some or most of these gentlemen’s names would escape the average individual. Daniel D. Tompkins, Richard Johnson, George Mifflin Dallas, Levi Parsons Morton and Garret Augustus Hobart to name but a few. But, each, in his own way, contributed to what the office now represents. We have had one vice-president who has been immortalized in our political lexicon. If you look in your dictionary, you will see the definition of ‘gerrymander,’ a process by which political parties carve out legislative districts favorable to them. Elbridge Gerry, while serving as Governor of Massachusetts in 1812, oversaw the state legislature’s redistricting plan. The Republicans redrew the state’s legislative districts along party lines, that left the Federalists none too pleased. A cartoonist for a Federalist backed newspaper drew Gerry’s head atop a map of the new Essex County district. The cartoon’s caption drew attention to the district’s resemblance to a salamander, and the name ‘gerrymander,’ as we all know it today, was born.
A Vice-President who actually coined a moniker for his office was Alben Barkley. His 10 year old grandson, Stephen, thought that two e’s should be inserted between the initials V.P., thus creating the word ‘veep.’ The proud grandfather told this story to the reporters, and the nickname stuck, and is used in newspaper jargon to this very day.
On the opposite end of the spectrum we had a vice-president who would have been wise to consult a dictionary, or two, in his day. I am referring , of course, to Dan Quayle, who, as we all remember, misspelled potato in 1992.
Between 1812 and 1912, we had seven Vice-Presidents die in office. They include George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry, both of whom served under James Madison, Henry Wilson who was Ulysses S. Grant’s second VP, Thomas A. Hendricks, Grover Cleveland’s first VP, Garret A. Hobart, William McKinley’s first VP. Rounding out this list are William Rufus DeVane King and James Schoolcraft Sherman.
The latter two’s stories are most unique and are worth mentioning. William Rufus DeVane King had served in both houses of Congress, representing the states of North Carolina and Alabama for nearly 40 years. In 1852, the Southerner was named as the Vice-Presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket headed by Franklin Pierce. In November, the ticket won, but by this time, King, then age 66, was seriously ill with tuberculosis. In an effort to regain his health, and to prepare for his new duties as Vice-President, King sailed for Havana, Cuba. It was hoped that the warmer, tropical climate would reinvigorate him. But as Inauguration Day, 1853 drew closer, it became obvious that King’s condition would prevent him from making the arduous journey to Washington, DC for the swearing-in ceremonies. By a special act of Congress, he was permitted to take his oath in office in Havana. A short while later, he was transported by ship to his home state of Alabama, where he died just six weeks later, thus having never officially carried out his duties as presiding officer of the US Senate.
James Schoolcraft Sherman served as William Howard Taft’s Vice-President. The native New Yorker, who hailed from upstate Utica, has a most unique distinction. He actually stood for re-election to the Vice-Presidency AFTER his death. In the Summer of 1912, the Republican Party was split. Following the incumbent’s re-nomination, Teddy Roosevelt bolted from the convention and formed his own ‘Bull Moose’ Progressive Party ticket. Rounding out the three way race for the White House was the Democratic Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson. The 57 year old Vice-President was seriously ill with a kidney ailment known as Bright’s Disease. As the campaign progressed, Sherman’s condition deteriorated and on October 30, 1912, the Vice-President died. Six days later, on November 5, Americans went to the polls. 3 1/2 million people cast their ballots for a president and his dead running mate. The team of Taft and Sherman, however, came in third. The Republican ticket managed to carry only two states, Utah and Vermont, for a total of 8 Electoral Votes.
Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller represented a larger-than-life figure in American history who achieved nearly every prize he desired except the one he most sought: the presidency. As an heir to one of the largest family fortunes in America, Rockefeller funded many philanthropic projects. As a special counsel to six presidents, he helped to shape US foreign and domestic policy. As four-time governor of New York State, he promoted major social and political reforms. During three decades of public philanthropy and political service, Rockefeller pursued the office of the presidency. Ironically, after three unsuccessful attempts to become president as well as his legendary disdain to be second in anything, Rockefeller accepted Gerald Ford’s offer to become vice-president in August of 1974.
Within six short years, Spiro Agnew went from being County Executive for Baltimore County, Maryland, to Governor and then finally Vice-President. The controversial Agnew often served as the Nixon administration’s point man in their continual verbal jousting with the liberal media. But less than a year after the Republicans’ re-election in 1972, Agnew resigned the vice-presidency and pleaded ‘no contest’ to charges of bribery and income tax evasion.
Another Vice-President who had more than his share of legal entanglements was Aaron Burr. Elected Vice-President during the first Jefferson administration, Burr had set his sights on a more prestigious political prize — the governorship of New York. His longtime political rival and legal adversary, Alexander Hamilton made inflammatory remarks about him during the campaign that resulted in Burr’s losing the election. A short while later, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. The two men met at Weehawken, New Jersey on the morning of July 11, 1804. Gunfire was exchanged and the former Secretary of Treasury slumped to the ground, with a bullet wound in his chest. Hamilton died the following day. Burr was later charged with murder in two states but never tried in either jurisdiction. He escaped to South Carolina, then returned to Washington, DC, and completed his term of service as Vice-President. Virtually a political exile, Burr fled to Philadelphia in early 1805. It was here that he became acquainted with Jonathan Dayton. Together, the two men created an elaborate conspiracy, the goal of which is unclear. At its grandest, the plan called for Burr to form a new nation in the west, created from the conquered provinces of Mexico and the states west of the Appalachian Mountains. Burr was then to be installed as head of this Southwestern republic. A co-conspirator, by the name of General James Wilkinson, betrayed Burr’s plans to President Jefferson, who issued a proclamation for Burr’s immediate arrest in early January 1807. Burr turned himself in, but soon jumped bail and fled to Spanish Florida. He was, however, captured in Alabama by federal authorities. He was formally charged with treason and was brought to trial before the US circuit court at Richmond, Virginia. Burr was eventually arraigned four times for treason before a grand jury. The government was finally able to secure an indictment on its fourth try. Burr was brought before Chief Justice John Marshall for his trial. Due to lack of the constitutionally required two witnesses, Burr was acquitted, in spite of the fact that the political influence of the national administration was thrown against him. Immediately afterward, he was tried on a misdemeanor, and on a technicality, was again acquitted. Politically broken and financially ruined, Burr fled America and his creditors where he spent the next several years in Europe. He eventually came back to New York, where he practiced law under the assumed name of Aaron Edwards.
Vice-President Thomas Marshall is quoted as saying: “There once was a mother who had two sons, one became a sailor and the other became Vice-President, she never heard from either one of them.
On the contrary, several of our former VPs have continued their public service careers in a variety of capacities. Five returned to serve in the very body they had once presided over. Returning to the US Senate after their vice-presidencies were: John C. Calhoun (who actually resigned his position to become a US Senator), Hannibal Hamlin, Andrew Johnson, Alben Barkley and Hubert Humphrey. Levi P. Morton was elected Governor of New York State, while George M. Dallas was appointed US Minister to Great Britain. Two former Vice-Presidents ran for their old jobs as ‘Second in Command.’ Adlai E. Stevenson, who had served as Grover Cleveland’s VP during the Democrat’s second term, ran unsuccessfully with William Jennings Bryan in 1900. Charles Fairbanks, who served as Theodore Roosevelt’s VP from 1905-09, ran unsuccessfully for the Vice-Presidency on the 1916 Republican ticket headed by Charles Evans Hughes. In addition to having a Nobel Peace Prize to his credit, Charles Gates Dawes was a musical composer. In 1911, he penned ‘Melody in A Minor.’ Ironically, forty years later, the year in which Dawes died, the song experienced a revival with new lyrics and a new title, ‘It’s All in the Game,’ the song became one of the most popular songs of that year (1951).
Two Vice-Presidents whose social relationships raised eyebrows were Richard M. Johnson (Martin Van Buren’s Vice-President) and William Rufus DeVane King (Franklin Pierce’s VP).Both Johnson and King were lifelong bachelors. The Kentucky born and bred Johnson maintained a long term relationship with Julia Chinn, one of his slaves. She lived in his house, ran his farm in his absence, and even accompanied him to Washington. She was, in short, his wife in every way but the legal sense. They had two daughters, Adeline and Imogene. Johnson insisted that they be educated as well as any woman of the time. He also arranged marriages for his daughters to white men and provided them with substantial farms. In most circles, Johnson’s family was accepted. When he was placed on the Democrats’ 1836 national ticket, however, Southern party leaders voiced their vehement displeasure. Outgoing president Andrew Jackson, remembering all too well how his beloved late wife, Rachel, had been vilified in the press (due to their unknowingly getting married before her divorce was finalized) came to Johnson’s defense and pushed through his nomination. The attacks continued during the general election campaign. The verbal barrage of name-calling was too much for young Adeline to bear, and she died just before her father’s election. She was now reunited, in death, with her mother, Julia, who had died from cholera, three years earlier. Johnson won the election, but his family and his chance for higher elective office had been destroyed.
William Rufus DeVane King, as we have seen, never lived to officially carry out his duties as Vice-President. But it was his long term relationship with a future president that had many in Washington, DC’s social circles talking. For more than two decades, while serving in their various governmental capacities, King was closely associated with James Buchanan. Often sharing a room in a boarding house, the two were referred to as ‘the Siamese twins.’ During Buchanan’s tenure as Secretary of State, King was often referred to as ‘Mrs. B’ or ‘Miss Nancy,’ or as ‘Buchanan’s wife.’ When President Tyler named King as Minister to France, King wrote the following letter to Buchanan, expressing his reluctance on leaving him: “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation. For myself, I shall feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for there I shall have no friend with whom I can commune as with my own thoughts.” Over the next twelve years, Buchanan remained a powerful force within the Democratic Party. He unsuccessfully sought the party’s presidential nominations twice, in 1848 and in 1852. Following his second straight loss, Buchanan urged his supporters to push through King’s nomination for Vice-President. The Democratic ticket of Pierce and King was elected, but, as we noted earlier, King died just six weeks after taking his oath of office. Buchanan, meanwhile, went on to win his party’s presidential nomination in 1856. He was subsequently elected as our 15th president where he had the misfortune of leading a country that was, at that point, on the brink of civil war. Were Buchanan and King gay lovers? Historians have debated this for years. We may never know the answer as Buchanan directed many of his public and private papers destroyed after his death.
So, there you have it. A brief look into the men who have served as Vice-President. The much maligned office has grown in stature over the past 200+ years, thanks, largely in part to the men who have held the position. We’ve been thrown a bump or curve once or twice over the lifetime of our republic, but, generally speaking, these men have more than ably fulfilled their duties, and when called upon, have been able to fill even bigger shoes. Who will the Republican candidate for Vice-President be in 2012, we just have to wait and see.