John Adams (George Washington’s Vice President) called it “The most insignificant office that ever invention of man contrived.” Thomas Riley Marshall (Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President) said, “Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea, the other was elected Vice President, and nothing was ever heard of either of them again.”

It’s not nearly as bad as all that. The forty-seven guys who have held the office of Vice President of the United States are pretty fascinating, and because they’re often chosen to “balance a ticket” regionally or ideologically, they’re often nothing like the President they’re paired with. Although long gone are the days where the loser in the Presidential election became Vice President, they’re still people of ambition, political skill, and distinction, and many of them became Presidents themselves. Some didn’t even like the promotion as much; Martin Van Buren went on to call the Presidency “Anxious and toilsome probation.”

So, this President’s Day, disabuse the anxious and toilsome regard for Washington and Lincoln and celebrate the folks who, for centuries, have been one heartbeat away from the job. They did some pretty memorable things themselves.


1.    In 1798, John Adams signed An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen, which mandated that privately employed sailors be required to purchase health care insurance.

2.    Thomas Jefferson used to have jam sessions with his wife Martha and apparently scared off some of her potential suitors after they heard the two playing music together.

3.    Aaron Burr believed in sexual equality and his daughter Theodosia became one of the best educated women of her generation before she was lost at sea and probably killed by pirates.

4.    George Clinton had a fun plan for keeping taxes low: He confiscated the property of his political enemies to raise revenue.

5.    Elbridge Gerry redrew a congressional district in Massachusetts in the shape of a salamander; hence the term, “gerrymander.”

6.    Do you like Tompkins Square Park? Thank Daniel D. Tompkins.

7.    John C. Calhoun was the first Vice President to resign the job. He quit in order to run for Senate where he would be an advocate for slavery and nullification.

8.    Martin Van Buren was a nice guy. After Secretary of War John Eaton married his wife Peggy a little too quickly after her husband was lost at sea, all of the other cabinet wives ostracized her. Martin Van Buren went out of his way to talk to her at parties and he was the only one who did.

9.    Richard Mentor Johnson took his slave Julia Chinn as his common-law wife and raised and educated their children as free people.

10.    John Tyler was not buried in the United States. He was in the Confederate House of Representatives at the time of his death and was consequently buried in the Confederate States.

11.    George M. Dallas served as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James, probably the awesomest job title in the world, under three Presidents.

12.    While in Europe on vacation, Millard Fillmore discovered that an American journalist named Horace Greeley was imprisoned in Paris for failing to pay a debt, and Fillmore bailed him out.

13.    William Rufus DeVane King was a notoriously flamboyant lifelong bachelor who Andrew Jackson referred to as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”

14.    Elected at age 35, John C. Breckenridge was the youngest Vice President in history. He went on to be a Confederate general in the Civil War.

15.    Hannibal Hamlin, Abe Lincoln’s first Vice President, didn’t meet Abe until after they were elected.

16.    Andrew Johnson’s wife taught him how to read. Andrew made all of his own clothes, however; growing up, he was indentured to a tailor.

17.    Schuyler Colfax was accused of corruption and only lasted one term as Ulysses S. Grant’s Vice President; he retired to the lecture circuit and died of a heart attack in Mankato, Minnesota after stepping off a train into -30 weather.

18.    Henry Wilson ran a shoe store in Massachusetts before he got into politics. He also changed his name from Jeremiah Jones Colbath after reading a book about some dude named Henry Wilson as a teenager.

19.    Presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes hadn’t even heard of his Vice Presidential nominee, William Wheeler, until they were nominated. But as President and Vice President they became extremely good friends, and Wheeler became kind of a third wheel with Rutherford and First Lady “Lemonade” Lucy Hayes.

20.    The life of Chester A. Arthur’s playboy son Alan bears a strong resemblance to the character Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Also, Chester may have been secretly Canadian.

21.    Thomas A. Hendricks is the only Vice President (who did not also serve as President) whose portrait has appeared on U.S. paper money. He was on the $10 silver certificate of 1886.

22.    In 1881, Charles Guiteau was pissed off that he wasn’t appointed Minister to France and shot President James A. Garfield in a train station. The guy who got the Minister to France gig over Guiteau was future Vice President Levi P. Morton.

23.    Adlai E. Stevenson was described by friends as “windy but amusing.”

24.    Garret A. Hobart cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to deny independence to the Philippines because he wanted to convert that country to Christianity and make it part of the United States.

25.    Theodore Roosevelt was once shot in the chest before delivering a speech, but the bullet was slowed both by a glasses case and the script of the speech, and only gave Roosevelt a flesh wound. Roosevelt delivered the one-hour address with the bullet in his body and went to the hospital after he was done.

26.    Charles Fairbanks’ family home growing up was a safe haven for runaway slaves.

27.    James Schoolcraft Sherman was one of the early Republicans to break from Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive conservativism and form the base of the hard-right Republican party that we know today.

28.    Thomas Riley Marshall not only attended a Stephen Douglas / Abraham Lincoln debate as a four-year-old, he sat on the lap of whichever man wasn’t speaking.

29.    Calvin Coolidge rode a mechanical bull for “exercise.”

30.    Charles G. Dawes wrote the music for Tommy Edwards’ 1958 #1 hit single “It’s All In The Game.”

31.    Charles Curtis was three-eighths Native American and lived for a time on an Indian reservation while growing up.

32.    John Nance Garner was FDR’s Vice President for his first two terms and fully expected to run for President after those eight years. The problem was, Roosevelt changed his mind and ran for a third term. Garner challenged him and lost.

33.    Had Henry Agard Wallace been Vice President when Roosevelt died, the world might be a very different place. Wallace wouldn’t have participated in the Cold War or the Korean War, and may not have dropped the bomb on Japan.

34.    Harry S Truman’s daughter Margaret was a professional singer, and Truman wrote a scathing letter to the Washington Post critic who criticized her performance. “I never met you,” Truman wrote, “But if I do you’ll need a new nose and a supporter below.”

35.    71-year-old Alben W. Barkley was the first Vice President to get hitched while in office, marrying 37-year-old Jane Hadley.

36.    Richard Nixon proposed to his future wife the night he met her. She turned him down and they dated for two years before she finally said yes.

37.    Lyndon B. Johnson also proposed to his future wife less than 24 hours after first meeting her. Johnson went on to have numerous affairs including one with a woman named Alice Glass that lasted over 30 years.

38.    Hubert H. Humphrey caused a rift in the Democratic Party when he announced at the 1948 convention, “To those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years (too) late!” The Southern “States’ Rights” Democrats walked out and most of them were Republicans by the mid-1960s.

39.    Spiro Agnew is famous for calling his opponents “an effete corps of impudent snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

40.    Gerald R. Ford found out at age 17 that he was adopted; he saw his biological father only twice as an adult and Ford did not think much of the guy.

41.    Nelson Rockefeller has been portrayed in the movies by both Edward Norton and John Cusack (so far) and is frequently mentioned in the series Mad Men.

42.    Walter Mondale has lost a statewide election in all 50 states as a nominee of a major party.

43.    George H. W. Bush was the first former Director of the CIA to become either President or Vice President.

44.    Dan Quayle is famous for making off-putting, confusing statements like “The holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history… No, not our nation’s, but in World War II. I mean, we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century, but in this century’s history.”

45.    Al Gore’s work has won a Grammy, an Emmy, and an Oscar.

46.    Dick Cheney is a distant cousin of Barack Obama. They share an ancestor in 17th century French immigrant Mareen Duvall.

47.    Joe Biden overcame a lifelong stuttering problem in his twenties by reciting poetry in front of a mirror.


TAGS: , , , , ,

J. RYAN STRADAL is from the second-oldest town in Minnesota. His writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, Joyland, Trop, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and NFL.com, among other places. He lives and writes in Los Angeles, where he volunteers with students at 826LA and sometimes works on TV shows.

20 responses to “But What About the Vice Presidents?”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    JR, Dan Quayle’s quote is just plain goofy. Sarah Palin’s brilliant when compared to him.

    BTW, I have had email correspondence with Hannibal Hamlin (#15) and read his book on translations of the Psalms; he’s also a brilliant Shaksper scholar.

    I’m way impressed that (#16) Andrew Johnson made all of his own clothes—-which’s why he may have been impeached.

    The film, The King’s Speech might’ve been much different (even better) if King George had done as Joe Biden did (#47).

    This was fun to read!

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      As always, thanks for reading, Judy!

      Your Hannibal Hamlin sounds way more interesting than Lincoln’s …

      And you’re dead on about Quayle. While Palin merely seems ignorant and self-consciously cornpone, to the point of being a little too curated, a lot of Quayle’s quotes are just plain surreal or blindly offensive and show little to no evidence of the careful branding that characterize a lot of Palin’s public emanations.

      • Judy Prince says:

        “And you’re dead on about Quayle. While Palin merely seems ignorant and self-consciously cornpone, to the point of being a little too curated, a lot of Quayle’s quotes are just plain surreal or blindly offensive and show little to no evidence of the careful branding that characterize a lot of Palin’s public emanations.”

        Well said, JR. Quayle’s like a loopy pet that you hide in the garage, whereas Palin’s a media pitbull in a sexy mask.

        Lincoln’s Hannibal Hamlin actually had charisma as well as brains and matched Lincoln in his non-radical anti-slavery stance; that is, they were not abolitionists, they took the relatively more conservative view of not allowing slavery in new states, but permitting slavery to continue in established states. Hamlin, fairly quickly in his tenure as VP, concluded as did so many other VP’s, that the position had no force, no influence and no power. As Lincoln once noted about him, he most preferred being a member of the House of Representatives, to which role he returned.

        I hope you’ll continue to enlighten us about our history, JR! It helps to see it fresh, from different angles than the ones we’re accustomed to.

  2. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    I’d forgotten George Clinton was also VP, and here I assumed he was only a member of Parliament.

    Also I sometimes wish people would describe me as “windy but amusing.” But more importantly, this is the kind of history lesson I like and a fitting way to celebrate President’s Day. If only I could have spent it riding the bull with Coolidge.

    Thanks for the informative post.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Nathan,

      I too wonder what it takes to be regarded as “windy but amusing” … he was an Illinois politician, and the legend goes that Chicago is called “The Windy City” not for its meteorology but for its pleonastic and insincere politicians.

      and re: George Clinton — Ha! Good line.

      Thank you for reading!

  3. James D. Irwin says:

    I love weird facts, and American history.

    Theodore Roosevelt makes all men look pathetic and effeminate.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Thanks for reading James. I never cease to be impressed that people overseas seem to know more about U.S. history than most Americans.

      And damn straight on T.R. — he set an impossible high bar of masculinity. He was also the Roosevelt who got into Harvard’s Porcellian Club (the club that evaded Mark Zuckerberg) while his distant cousin FDR, a mama’s boy who didn’t even letter in football despite years on the team, was shut out. Apparently there was nothing TR couldn’t achieve — besides a third term (his cousin beat him there).

      Thanks again …

  4. Phat B says:

    George Clinton was also responsible for uniting one nation, under a groove, gettin’ down just for the funk of it.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      I know! And to prove it, he was the first Vice President to serve under two different Presidents. Everybody wanted a piece of George. He even got electoral votes in the election of 1808 for no good reason, and finished third. Two tears in a bucket, baby …

  5. Matt says:

    What a fun collection of VP trivia!

    Love the bit about Coolidge and the mechanical bull. What a strange mental image that makes.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      I know, because otherwise he was a famously calm guy. He was known to seriously hoot it up on that thing too. It’s extremely hard to imagine, but there you go.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Greg Olear says:

    I LOVE this. I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff, anyway, but this was extremely well done.

    Oddly, I’d never heard the story about Teddy Roosevelt getting shot, and now I’ve heard it twice in one day. (I do know that he found out his son was killed in he war because he was told by an AP correspondent).

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Thank you, Greg.

      Wow, that tidbit about the AP correspondent was new info to me. That was his son Quentin, right? I think he was the youngest … I remember a story about him as a little kid telling his dad, “I don’t see what good it does me for you to be President.”

      Thanks again for reading & for the kind notes …

  7. Dana says:

    This is so awesome! So many great anecdotes. I’m printing this out and quizzing my dad. (Former teacher, constant student.)

    I was on number 3 before I realized this wasn’t satire.

    Well done!

  8. Gloria Harrison says:

    Out of curiosity, what instrument(s) did Thomas and Martha Jefferson play together? I really, really, really want it to be the guitar. Flamenco style.

    How do you exercise on a mechanical bull? If you knew me better, you’d know how hard it is for me not to make a sex joke right now.

    The Dan Quayle thing is SO funny.

    Man, J. Ryan… Kudos to you. This whole thing is fabulous.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Gloria,

      Pretty sure it was violin (Thomas) and piano or harpsichord (Martha). Sorry about the Flamenco guitar. Maybe they at least played a lot of songs in E.

      No idea what Coolidge was up to but I wouldn’t put anything past him. It’s always the quiet ones.

      Thank you for reading — I appreciate it!

  9. Great stuff.

    Aaron Burr is my personal hero. Any post that mentions the lovely Theodosia is my kind of post.

    Schuyler Colfax is my favorite VP name.

    LBJ is notorious for packing the most “executive branch” in his trousers, if you know what I mean. I’m not entirely sure how that was decided, but I’ve heard it numerous times. Also, he was known for making people come discuss matters of state with him in the bathroom while he was taking a shit with the door open.

    Our next vice president, NY’s Mayor Bloomberg, no doubt has some interesting factoids. You might want to start researching now…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *