07 | 03 | 2020
The vice presidency has long been a contentious position — on the one hand, the 48 men who have held the office have been a heartbeat away from the presidency (and eight succeeded to Commander-in-Chief because of the President’s death). On the other, many have maligned the job since day one: “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” John Adams once said. Nearly 200 years later, Walter Mondale quipped, “Over most of America’s history, the Vice President has been standby equipment.”
Regardless, the role of Vice President is important, and many of those who have held the title are far lesser known. Here are 48 interesting facts — like who wrote a hit pop song and whose grandson coined the term “veep” — about all of America’s Vice Presidents.
1. John Adams — VP to President George Washington
On a trip to negotiate with the British near the beginning of the Revolutionary War, John Adams got stuck sharing a bed with Benjamin Franklin when they found the local taverns and inns to be at near-capacity. Adams, who in his diary called himself “an invalid” (he was 40 at the time) who was “afraid of the evening air,” closed the window. The 70-year-old Franklin implored him to reopen the window, arguing that close quarters and poor air circulation was the root of viral illness. Adams relented and fell asleep to a lecture from Franklin on his “theory of colds.”
2. Thomas Jefferson — VP to President John Adams
While in England in 1786 on diplomatic business, Thomas Jefferson visited the birthplace and home of one of his idols: William Shakespeare. He was joined by John Adams, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Britain. The pair weren’t particularly impressed when they got to Stratford-Upon-Avon — Adams called it “small and mean,” and Jefferson was appalled by the costs, noting each amount paid (“for seeing house where Shakespeare was born, 1 shilling; seeing his tomb, 1 shilling; entertainment, 4 shillings …”).
But the two Founding Fathers did partake in a custom of the time: They cut off a bit of an old wooden chair that was reportedly Shakespeare’s own as a souvenir. Some 220 years later, the chip was displayed at Jefferson’s Monticello home, along with a wry note he’d written: “A chip cut from an armed chair in the chimney corner in Shakespeare’s house at Stratford on Avon said to be the identical chair in which he usually sat. If true like the relics of the saints it must miraculously reproduce itself.”
3. Aaron Burr — VP to President Thomas Jefferson
While Aaron Burr is best known for his deadly duel with Alexander Hamilton, he was also charged with treason in 1807 for allegedly conspiring to lead parts of Louisiana and the new western territories in a war for secession.
The details remain fuzzy on Burr’s exact plan, but the former Vice President recruited allies and soldiers for a western venture and even wrote to the British proposing a secession. President Jefferson was furious — he’d dropped Burr as his VP when he ran for reelection in 1804, and now it seemed Burr had traveled to the frontier to stir up trouble in one of Jefferson’s biggest achievements, the Louisiana Purchase. Burr was later arrested and tried for treason in Virginia, but conflicting accounts of what the former Vice President had been up to got him acquitted.
4. George Clinton — VP to both Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison
George Clinton, a former New York governor, seemed to his party like a solid choice for the vice presidency, in part because he wasn’t nearly as controversial as Burr had been. But, in the VP’s role as president of the Senate, Clinton struggled to keep the nation’s senators in check — he complained about long speeches and about having to sit for too long, and seemed bored by the proceedings.
5. Elbridge Gerry — VP to President James Madison
Elbridge Gerry’s political chicanery as the governor of Massachusetts was so legendary, he gave his name to the practice of redistricting with political aims: gerrymandering.
The word was coined after Gerry’s party drew some absurd state Senate districts in order to elect more Democratic-Republicans, at the expense of their rival party, the Federalists. Redistricting with political aims wasn’t a new practice, but this was a particularly brazen example — one district resembled a salamander — and after Gerry signed off on the bill, critics dubbed it a “gerry-mander.”
6. Daniel D. Tompkins — VP to President James Monroe
During the contentious 1820 debates about admitting Missouri into the Union and how slavery would be handled, Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins lost control of the Senate chamber after inviting a group of ladies to sit and observe the proceedings. When women watching from the Senate Gallery saw a select few women sitting on Senate floor couches with foot stools, they insisted on also joining. The result? “Not less than a hundred ladies” on the floor of the Senate and a lot of visibly irritated senators.
7. John C. Calhoun — VP to both Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson
John C. Calhoun served two full terms as Vice President, one with Democratic-Republican President John Quincy Adams, and one with Democrat Andrew Jackson (Adams’ party split during his presidency). Before the election of 1828, Calhoun switched parties, aligned with Jackson, and was elected his VP.
8. Martin Van Buren — VP to President Andrew Jackson
Van Buren was a politico of many nicknames: Friends called him the Little Magician thanks to both his stature — he stood about 5 feet 6 inches tall — and his cunning strategy as a politician, and his enemies called him the Fox, for the same reason. After the financial panic of 1837 while he was President, he won a nickname that helped doom his career: Critics called him Martin Van Ruin.
9. Richard M. Johnson — VP to President Martin Van Buren
In 1837, Kentucky’s Richard Mentor Johnson became the only Vice President to ever be elected by the U.S. Senate. Johnson had been on the ticket with Van Buren, but he’d fallen one vote short in the electoral vote. (At the time, Presidents and Vice Presidents were elected on separate ballots, even if they ran joint campaigns.) A clause in the 12th Amendment was enacted, and the Senate held a run-off vote between the top two VP candidates, which Johnson ultimately won.
10. John Tyler — VP to President William Henry Harrison
John Tyler became the first Vice President to assume the presidency when William Henry Harrison died after a month in office. Some opposed his assumption of the office by arguing that the Constitution only gave him the duties and powers of the President, not the presidency itself. (Former President John Quincy Adams complained that Tyler was “in direct violation both of the grammar and context of the Constitution.”)
Tyler ignored them — even when his party expelled him — and went about enacting his agenda and finishing Harrison’s term as President. Post-presidency, he purchased a plantation in Virginia and renamed it Sherwood Forest (after Robin Hood’s famed forest), because he reportedly saw himself as a political outlaw.
11. George M. Dallas — VP to President James K. Polk
Vice President George Dallas frequently complained of ill health, most often digestive disorders and sore feet. His home remedy involved regularly soaking his feet in hot water with mustard or cayenne pepper.
12. Millard Fillmore — VP to President Zachary Taylor
Millard Fillmore met his wife and future First Lady when she was his teacher: Abigail Powers, 21, was employed at a New York academy when Fillmore, then 19, enrolled. The pair waited six years while Fillmore continued his education and set up a law practice before they married in 1826; Abigail became the first First Lady to hold a job after marriage when she continued her teaching career until the pair had their first child.
13. William R. King — VP to President Franklin Pierce
William R. King suffered from tuberculosis. After his election to the vice presidency, he left Washington for temperate Cuba to try to recover his health. While there, he petitioned Congress to allow him to be sworn into office outside the country. They complied, and on March 24, 1853, King took the oath of office, administered by the U.S. consul in Cuba. He set sail for Alabama (his home state) days later and died just a day after arriving on U.S. soil.
14. John C. Breckinridge — VP to President James Buchanan
The nation’s youngest-ever Vice President, John C. Breckinridge took office at 36. He was known for his booming, oratory stump-style speaking, even up until his early death at age 54 when he surprised his doctor with a strong, clear voice.
“Why, Doctor,” he famously quipped from his deathbed, “I can throw my voice a mile.”
15. Hannibal Hamlin — VP to President Abraham Lincoln
A young Hannibal Hamlin’s schooling was interrupted when his older brother took ill and he had to return home from boarding school to help on the family farm. Then, when Hamlin was 19, his father died; according to the provisions in his father’s will, Hamlin was required to run the farm and take care of his mother until he turned 21.
16. Andrew Johnson — VP to President Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln’s second-term Vice President, Andrew Johnson, took his 1865 oath of office while visibly drunk. Sick with typhoid fever and hungover from the night before, Johnson drank three glasses of whiskey before giving a belligerent, drunken speech to a room of horrified Congressmen. Lincoln wasn’t pleased. After Johnson kissed the Bible during his own swearing in, the Vice President was deemed too intoxicated to swear in the new senators, as per tradition, so Johnson turned over the job to the Senate clerk.
“I was never so mortified in my life,” Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler wrote to his wife. “Had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight.”
17. Schuyler Colfax — VP to President Ulysses S. Grant
Colfax started writing about local Indiana politics for the New-York Tribune, a top newspaper, at age 16. At 22, he bought the local South Bend Free Press that he’d been editing. After arriving in Washington as a Congressman and eventually rising to be the Speaker of the House, he used his journalism roots savvily, frequently offering interviews and flattery to the reporters who covered him and ensuring ample favorable coverage.
18. Henry Wilson — VP to President Ulysses S. Grant
Henry Wilson’s birth name was Jeremiah Jones Colbath. He was named by his impoverished father after a wealthy bachelor neighbor in hopes of winning an inheritance. He hated the name, and as soon as he came of age, he changed it to Henry Wilson.
19. William A. Wheeler — VP to President Rutherford B. Hayes
William Wheeler was a peculiar character remembered for his timidity and preoccupation with his health. He spoke rarely as a representative unless managing a bill, and when he was nominated to the presidential ticket as Vice President, he refused to campaign and turned down invitations to speak to his fellow partymen, writing to one that his insomnia would worsen if he did so.
20. Chester A. Arthur — VP to President James A. Garfield
A century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, Chester A. Arthur was the lead attorney who defended a Black woman named Elizabeth Jennings, who had refused to leave the white section of a Brooklyn streetcar in 1854. Arthur won the case, which officially desegregated New York City’s streetcars.
21. Thomas Hendricks — VP to President Grover Cleveland
Thomas Hendricks died unexpectedly just nine months into his term as Vice President, prompting President Grover Cleveland to pressure Congress for a new line of succession that gave the job to Cabinet officials over congressional leaders in the event that both the President and Vice President died. That line of succession held until 1947, when congressional leaders were written back in.
22. Levi P. Morton — VP to President Benjamin Harrison
Levi Morton’s first wife disliked his name and instead called him by his initials — L.P., for Levi Parsons. The nickname stuck amongst family and friends, who called the politician L.P. for life.
23. Adlai Stevenson — VP to President Grover Cleveland
Both Adlai Stevenson I and a grandson who shared his name a half-century later ran for President unsuccessfully during their careers.
But as Vice President, the elder Stevenson came the closest to actually assuming the office, albeit unwittingly. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland had a dangerous surgery in secret — on a yacht — to remove a cancerous mouth tumor and part of his jaw.
24. Garret Hobart — VP to President William McKinley
While many a Vice President on this list complained about the limitations of the job, Hobart did something about it. He was a trusted adviser to President McKinley, who consulted him far more regularly than previous Presidents had of their Vice Presidents. It was because of this that he earned the nickname “Assistant President.”
25. Theodore Roosevelt — VP to President William McKinley
Roosevelt didn’t want to be Vice President — he feared the role would be boring — but his party badly wanted their famous war hero New York governor for the ticket. After he appeared at the political convention wearing a wide-brimmed hat reminiscent of his military pursuits, delegates paraded and chanted, “We want Teddy!”
As the New York Senator Thomas Platt put it, “Roosevelt might as well stand under Niagara Falls and try to spit water back as to stop his nomination by this convention.”
26. Charles Fairbanks — VP to President Theodore Roosevelt
Charles Fairbanks was an excellent student — so much so that he completed law school and passed the bar in just six months.
27. James S. Sherman — VP to President William Howard Taft
James S. Sherman suffered from a kidney disease that made it hard for him to campaign for reelection in 1912 with President Taft; his doctors told him to rest and not deliver a speech accepting his party’s nomination at convention for the vice presidency.
“You may know all about medicine,” Sherman reportedly responded, “but you don’t know about politics.”
The Vice President gave the 30-minute speech, but collapsed two days later and was bedridden for weeks. He died that October.
28. Thomas R. Marshall — VP to President Woodrow Wilson
Thomas R. Marshall was known for a wry sense of humor. Once, as a Capitol tour group spied the Vice President through an open office door in the Senate, he approached the door and quipped, “If you look on me as a wild animal, be kind enough to throw peanuts at me.”
He later requested a more private office location, in order to “put his feet on the desk and smoke.”
29. Calvin Coolidge — VP to President Warren G. Harding
Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, were such animal lovers that people often gave the First Family unsolicited pets — dogs, cats, and even exotic creatures including a hippopotamus, which Firestone Tire founder Harvey Firestone sent him. Once, when gifted a pair of live lion cubs, the President named them “Tax Reduction” and “Budget Bureau,” perhaps a nod to his fiscal conservatism.
30. Charles G. Dawes — VP to President Calvin Coolidge
Charles Dawes is the only Vice President (so far) who has written a No. 1 pop song. A self-taught pianist, he wrote a tune called “Melody in A Major” in 1911. Lyrics were added in 1951 and the song was renamed “It’s All in the Game,” but it wasn’t until 1958 when a version of the song sung by Tommy Edwards rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S. and on Britain’s singles chart. Eventually, the song would be covered by artists including Isaac Hayes, Elton John, and Barry Manilow.
31. Charles Curtis — VP to President Herbert Hoover
Charles Curtis is the highest-ranking Native American to ever serve in the federal government. Born in the Kansas Territory in 1860, Curtis was three-eighths Native American and spoke French and Kansa, the language of the Kaw people, before he spoke English.
32. John Nance Garner — VP to President Franklin D. Roosevelt
John Nance Garner was known to use the Senate’s floor clocks to precisely time dramatic entrances to the Senate chamber. The chimes ring for 15 seconds, the exact amount of time needed to go from the Vice President’s Senate office to his seat in the chamber. When the bells rang, Garner would immediately stop whatever he was doing and start walking, allowing himself to take his presiding seat exactly at noon.
33. Henry A. Wallace — VP to President Franklin D. Roosevelt
When Henry A. Wallace was running for Vice President, Republicans got ahold of a set of private letters he’d written about his spiritual beliefs and threatened to go public. Democrats countered that the Republican nominee was having an extramarital affair. The two parties eventually struck a deal: No one would release the embarrassing evidence on the other.
34. Harry S. Truman — VP to President Franklin D. Roosevelt
The “S” in Harry S. Truman doesn’t stand for anything; his parents gave him a middle initial to honor two grandfathers with “S” names (Shipp and Solomon), but no middle name. Whether or not Truman himself used a period after that S is a point of contention among Truman fans: The former Vice President and President’s Florida home, which is now a museum, says he did not use a period and only added it as President to set a good grammar example for America’s youth. The Truman Library, however, says Truman wrote his name with a period throughout his life.
35. Alben W. Barkley — VP to President Harry S. Truman
If you’ve ever called a Vice President “veep,” you have Alben Barkley’s grandson to thank: The Vice President told reporters once that his young grandson had suggested he be referred to as “Veep” instead of the clunkier “Mr. Vice President.” While his successor, Richard Nixon, declined to be called by the same nickname, it has become common vernacular for referencing the office and position.
36. Richard Nixon — VP to President Dwight D. Eisenhower
When he was 25, Richard Nixon tried to make it big on frozen orange juice. Nixon was the president of Citra-Frost, a company which aimed to freeze and sell orange juice. But the venture wasn’t long for this world: Spillage and spoilage were an issue, as was the fact that they were trying to freeze the entirety of the orange juice, not just the concentrate sold in grocery stores today. Citra-Frost went bankrupt in just 18 months.
37. Lyndon B. Johnson — VP to President John F. Kennedy
Lyndon B. Johnson loved helicopters and used one to campaign in a 1948 Texas Senate primary. Once he made it all the way to the Oval Office, his desk chair was actually a green, vinyl helicopter seat with a built-in ashtray.
38. Hubert Humphrey — VP to President Lyndon B. Johnson
In an Associated Press survey of 1,000 congressional administrative assistants, Humphrey, a senator before and after his vice presidency, was named the most effective U.S. senator of the previous 50 years.
39. Spiro T. Agnew — VP to President Richard Nixon
Embroiled in the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon used to joke that having Agnew as his Vice President was insurance against impeachment, because no one would want Agnew, who was involved in a bribery scandal of his own, to become President. (In the end, both resigned.)
40. Gerald Ford — VP to President Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford was a talented football player who received two offers to play professionally after college: one from the Detroit Lions and another from the Green Bay Packers. He turned down both to coach football at Yale University, where he wanted to go to law school.
41. Nelson A. Rockefeller — VP to President Gerald Ford
Nelson Rockefeller liked his co-op apartment at 810 Fifth Avenue in New York City so much that he expanded it up, down, and to the side. During his first marriage, he bought the floors above and below him and grew the home to a 30-room triplex. After divorcing his first wife, the couple split the triplex — he took the bottom floor and she kept the top two. Later, he bought an apartment next door, joining it with his portion of the triplex. He and his second wife reportedly stuck to the next-door elevator, to keep their distance from the first Mrs. Rockefeller. The former Vice President died in 1979, just months before Richard Nixon bought an apartment on the same block.
42. Walter F. Mondale — VP to President Jimmy Carter
Walter Mondale considered a run for President in 1976 but eventually abandoned the idea — in his words, he lacked “the overwhelming desire to be President” and did not want to spend the year “sleeping in Holiday Inns.” It worked out well for him, though, because the winner of the race, Jimmy Carter, selected him to be Vice President, a position in which he succeeded at shaping policies and the Carter administration.
43. George H.W. Bush — VP to President Ronald Reagan
While campaigning for President in 1988, George H.W. Bush dressed up for Halloween as himself, wearing a rubber Bush mask and deploying his own political catchphrase “read my lips.”
44. Dan Quayle — VP to President George H.W. Bush
In an alternate election, Dan Quayle might have remained a senator — Bush briefly considered adding Hollywood heavyweight Clint Eastwood (who was the mayor of his small California town at the time) to his presidential ticket in 1988.
45. Albert Gore — VP to President Bill Clinton
On the campaign trail, Al Gore used to joke about his reputation for being a bit boring with one liners like: “Al Gore is so boring, his Secret Service code name is ‘Al Gore,'” and “How can you tell Al Gore from his Secret Service agents? He’s the stiff one!”
46. Dick Cheney — VP to President George W. Bush
Dick Cheney — then Deputy Chief of Staff in Gerald Ford’s White House — once complained in a terse memo that then-Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld was drinking too much coffee. The bill reportedly topped $100 a month — nearly $500 in today’s money! Rumsfeld’s nine-person staff and their guests were drinking 50 pots of coffee a week.
47. Joe Biden — VP to President Barack Obama
Delaware first elected Joe Biden to the Senate in 1972, and he stayed there for 36 years before he was inaugurated as Vice President in 2009. But Biden was the state’s junior senator for 28 of those years — his colleague, Senator William Roth, had been elected just two years before Biden’s first term, thereby commanding the senior senator from Delaware title. Incredibly, this isn’t the record — South Carolina’s Fritz Hollings served as his state’s junior senator for 36 years alongside Strom Thurmond, who served for a then-record 48 years.
48. Mike Pence — VP to President Donald Trump
Before he went to D.C. as a member of the House of Representatives in 2001 or served as Indiana’s governor in 2013, Mike Pence hosted a radio talk show. The Mike Pence Show debuted in 1992 and was syndicated throughout Indiana two years later, and the television component of his show began the year after that. Pence once called himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” alluding to his much less ostentatious personality and delivery, compared to the widely known political commentator.