Five Unusual Vice-Presidents


The Vice-Presidency is perhaps the most overrated job in the entire government. And they have become politically obscure in some cases. So-much-so, most Americans are largely unfamiliar with our vice-presidents. In addition, according to a Stanford Poll, Americans on average could name only five or fewer vice-presidents. As crazy as this sounds, there have been sixteen occasions where America had no vice-president. Still, there are as many interesting stories about our Vice Presidents as there are with those who have led the nation.

Here are the top five – or more unusual – vice presidents.

Thomas Marshall: (D-Indiana)

Vice President Under: Woodrow Wilson, (1913-1921)

Memorable Quotes:

‘’Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea, the other was elected vice president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.’’

‘’What America needs is a really good five-vent cigar.’’

‘’Indiana is the mother of five Vice Presidents , home of more second class men than any other state.’’

How History Remembers Marshall:

Marshall will be remembered more for what he didn’t do rather than what he did do. When Wilson was stricken with a stroke, Marshall was unsure how to assume the roles of the presidency. Marshall felt morally obligated to carry out the president’s wishes regarding the League of Nations, even though he

A Little History:

Marshall was the target of an assassination in July of 1915. Eric Muenter, a German professor at Harvard, opposed the American involvement in the first World War. Fearing that the Americans would officially declare war and turn the tide for the allies, Muenter broke into the US Senate and planted two sticks of dynamite outside the reception door. The bomb detonated late at night and as a result, no one was hurt.

Muenter was arrested three days later after shooting the son of JP Morgan. It was upon his arrest that he admitted to the attempted assassination of the Vice President.

Fun Facts:

Marshall was quite the contrast to the austere and uber-serious Wilson. In fact, Marshall’s humor was not appreciated by the president and he finally became so upset with the bawdy jokes and laughter that he moved Marshall’s office away from the White House.

Marshall and Wilson simply did not like one another. Wilson however, needed Indiana’s electoral votes and thus, a ‘’functional animosity’’ was born.

Marshall was the first Vice-President to hold cabinet meetings – which he did while Wilson was in Europe. Furthermore, he figured out a way to end filibustering. Several anti-war senators kept the senate deadlocked on a proclamation of war by endless filibustering. Marshall, ever the shrewd politician, authored a bill that became law, ending a filibuster with a two-thirds majority vote.

Andrew Johnson: (R-Tenneesee)

Vice President Under: Abraham Lincoln (1864-1867)

Memorable Quotes:

‘’Slavery exists. It is black in the South and White in the North.’’

‘’It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.’’

‘’If the rabble were lopped off at one end and the aristocrats on the other, all would be well with the country.’’

How History Remembers Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson had the unlucky distinction of following in Abraham Lincoln’s impossible footsteps. Being a Southerner that was a Unionist, he was seen as a traitor to the South and untrustworthy to the North. It was enough to drive a man to drink, and drinking was something that Johnson liked to do. While Lincoln was affable and friendly, Johnson was surly and stubborn. It didn’t take long for the Radical Republicans in the North to demand that Johnson punish the South. Johnson, wanted to follow Lincoln’s plan but he did not have the fortitutde to stand up against the whims of the Radicals.

Both parties sought to impeach Johnson once he became president and they needn’t have to wait long for a viable excuse. Edwin Stanton had proven to be an able Secretary of War under Lincoln. Yet even under the president, Stanton could be difficult to work with. Johnson didn’t want to outright fire Stanton for being so difficult to work with but soon was left with no choice. Stanton was in line with the Radical Republicans who considered Johnson’s extension of Lincoln’s policies to be too soft on the South. Johnson could take no more and dismissed Stanton as his War Secretary.

Just one year prior, Congress approved the ‘Tenure of Office’’ act which was designed to protect cabinet members from being removed without due process. The U.S. House of Representatives impeached Johnson on eleven articles surrounding the dismissal of Stanton and for ‘’high crimes and misdemeanors.’’ The effort to impeach Johnson failed.

A Little History:

Andrew Johnson did not learn to read and write until he met his wife-to-be, Eliza. She taught him to read and write at the age of eighteen.

Johnson was an alcoholic and was one of two presidents not to own a family pet.

Fun Facts:

He is one of just five presidents to ascend to the high office without running for the office of the presidency.

Johnson was a tailor at one time and even made his own overcoat.

Despite the fact the North was fighting a war with the South that would likely decide the fate of the slaves, Andrew Johnson own a slave!

His name was Sam. Apparently Sam was on very good terms with Johnson and by all accounts was a distinguished man.

Sam Johnson – Slave of VP Andrew Johnson

Samuel Johnson had a close relationship with the president. In a letter dated in 1867, the former slave sends a letter to the president. (Papers of Andrew Johnson, v. 12, pg. 183 --- http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2010/20101125001in/20101125001in.pdf)

"I have been appointed one of the Commissioner of the Freedmens Bureau, to raise money with which to purchase a suitable Lot on which to build a School House for the education of the Coloured children of Greeneville - and my object in troubling you upon, the subject is to ascertain if there would be any chance for me to purchase an acre Lot off of one of your Tracts that lies out West of Town close to the Reble Graveyard. If you will let us have the Lot and will send me word as to the price of it I will send you the money, and would like for you to send me a deed to it. I am getting along as well as usual and have not changed any in Politics still being for you as much as ever. I would like to see you all very much"

William Rufus King (D-North Carolina)

Vice President Under: James Buchanan (1853)

The Only Vice President with the name of ‘’Rufus’’

Memorable Quotes:

In our laws...by the oath which they prescribe, we appeal to the Supreme Being so to deal with us hereafter as we observe the obligation of our oaths. The Pagan world...are without the mighty influence of this principle which is proclaimed in the Christian system.

"Gentlemen: Before the Senate adjourns, I desire to return my thanks for the very kind and complimentary resolution unanimously passed on Saturday last, and to assure the Senate that so long as I shall have the honor of continuing Presiding Officer, my highest ambition will be to retain the personal regard and confidence of my colleagues. In pursuance of the resolution adopted on Saturday last, I now declare the Senate adjourned sine die."

How History Remembers King:

Well, he isn’t remembered for much. He died just 25 days after taking the oath of office from tuberculosis.

A Little History:

William Rufus King lived in the same home owned by his long-time companion, James Buchanan. When he ran for the Presidency, he took King with him as his VP and together, the two ‘’bachelors’’ lived in the White House. Buchanan is the only president to have never married and it just so happened that William Rufus King, was the only vice-president never to marry. What are the odds?

Fun Facts:

Even before he took office, King was quite sick. In fact, a doctor told him that he should go to Cuba to recuperate. He was so gravely ill in 1853 that he could not return to Washington in order to take the oath. Congress took the unusual step of passing a law allowing him to take the oath of office on foreign soil. It was the only time in history that this has ever happened.

He was one of the very few to serve in legislature for two different states, Alabama and North Carolina.

King was a man of his time, and thus supported slavery, but he didn’t believe in secession.

While he was a minister to France, he persuaded France not to oppose plans of the U.S. to annex Texas.

John C Calhoun (D-South Carolina)

Vice President Under: John Quincy Adams (1825)

Memorable Quotes:

‘’The surrender of life is nothing to sinking down into the acknowledgment of inferiority’

‘’There is often in the affairs of government, more efficiency and wisdom in non-action than in action.’’

‘’We make a great mistake in supposing all people are capable of self-government.’’

How History Remembers John C Calhoun:

Calhoun was a man of sophistication and intelligence. He wrote a 100-page essay titled ‘’The Disquisition on Government.’’ In it, he discusses his ideas on government, which he worked on intermittently for six years. It systematically presents his arguments that a numerical majority in any government will typically impose a despotism over a minority unless some way is devised to secure the assent of all classes, sections, and interests and, similarly, that innate human depravity would debase government in a democracy.

Calhoun endorsed the practice of slavery and was known as the ‘’cast-iron man’’ for his uncompromising rigidity.

He was an incredibly outspoken proponent of war with Britain. He felt the Brits had ‘insulted’ the Americans just one too many times. He followed up his war-frenzy talk with some serious back-up. He labored to raise troops, write propaganda, rescue the currency and regulate commerce to aid the war effort. Indeed, he was known as ‘’The Young Hercules.’’

Calhoun was considered quite the traitor in his day when he spurned his old boss, John Quincy Adams, for a new boss, Andrew Jackson. He became the second of two vice-presidents to serve under two presidents. High tariffs and increased centralization of government turned Calhoun away from Adams late in his presidency.

A Little History:

Calhoun would turn on Jackson too. Although Jackson was a southerner, he was opposed to secession. (It was also known as nullification) Calhoun wouldn’t budge or alter his position as the sectarian dispute became steadily worse. Jackson ordered US Navy Warships to Charleston harbor and threatened to hang Calhoun or any other man who worked to undermine the federal control of the government.

Under Jackson, Congress passed ‘’The Force Bill’’ which made it legal to use military force to ensure state compliance, This only deepened the rift between Calhoun and just about everyone in the country.

Fun Facts:

It was a different era, to be sure, but that didn’t stop Calhoun from marrying his first cousin once-removed. She even shared the same last name – BEFORE they got married.

Theodore Roosevelt (D-New York)

Vice President Under: William McKinley – 1898-1901

Theodore Roosevelt and friends

Memorable Quotes:

‘’In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing. ‘’

‘’Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe’’

‘’Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time. ‘’

How History Remembers Roosevelt:

He is best known for his presidency. Roosevelt may have been one of the most popular presidents of all time. As President, he led America through war, an economic downturn and for greatly changing America’s position in the world. But as a Vice President – he was not so successful and certainly not so popular.

A Little History:

McKinley’s first vice-president, Garret Hobart, died of heart failure not long after taking office. With no one else deemed to be a viable choice, Teddy took the position believing it would be a help to his career ambitions. The inaction of the office of VP did not suit Roosevelt’s aggressive personality. Boredom completely drove him crazy, so he took up boxing again. He drew pictures of birds. He attended Law School while Vice President and frequently fell asleep during sessions, frustrating other members of the senate.

Roosevelt had wanted to be the head of the War Department but McKinley considered him to be too war-hawkish. To show just how powerless the office of the vice-presidency is, McKinley told supporters close to him that the best place to put Roosevelt was as his number two. McKinley would be assassinated in 1901 and after just six months, Theodore Roosevelt would be sworn in as our nation’s 26th president.

Fun Facts:

Roosevelt was the first president to truly understand the power of the press, holding press-conferences almost every day. He didn’t mind critics in the press but he would not tolerate inaccurate reporting.

The Smithsonian Institution, the New York Museum of History, and financier Andrew Carnegie sponsored an ambitious trip for Roosevelt after the second term of his presidency ended. The former president planned on not only going on a safari, but to also go to places in Africa that were completely unknown to the world.

An avid hunter, Roosevelt sought to bring back exotic animals for scientific exploration in the United States. From insects to elephants, the former president trapped, caught, and killed over 11,400 specimens, all carefully detailed and inventoried by the Smithsonian. There were four tons of animal hides and even some rare, and now extinct, white rhinos. (These went extinct in the last three years according to the World Wildlife Fund)

Although the idea of such a mass hunting expedition might seem repulsive to some, Roosevelt greatly aided scientific research and anthropology. Roosevelt’s detailed meeting peoples from all around Africa in the book ‘’African Game Trails,’’ helped anthropologists to a huge understanding of indigenous tribes throughout the continent.

Roosevelt was the first president to fly in a plane, ride in a car, be a passenger in a train and ride a horse. He liked to get around.

Finally….There are a lot more Vice Presidents of interest than I could write in this article. Some of them were historic in their contribution to the country, but almost none of them had an impact while actually SERVING as a Vice-President. John Nance Garner, the longest serving Vice-President, poignantly said ‘’the vice presidency is about as exciting as a bucket of warm spit.’’

And so it is.

Robert Bluestein ©2016


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