Oh, Those Vice Presidents, Part II

Only recently have I come to realize just what a ragged, sickly bunch our vice presidents have been. Today I review the most obvious scoundrels.
Aaron Burr — After finishing in a dead heat with Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, Burr either did, or did not, treacherously angle for the top spot when the House of Representatives had to pick the president. Whichever version of the story you believe (and there are passionate advocates of both), Burr quickly ended up on the outs with Jefferson. Then the fun began.
Burr remains the only vice president who killed another while in office (Dick Cheney gave it a try a couple of years ago, but the birdshot he was firing was not lethal in his hunting “accident”). The Burr-Hamilton duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, is justly the stuff of legend. Having fatally wounded Hamilton, Burr had to stay out of New York and New Jersey for some time in order to avoid prosecution. A vice president of most of the states.
Then there was his trial for treason! He made two highly suspicious trips down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers which were either (a) attempts to organize a settlement in the Louisiana lands, or (b) attempts to organize a “filibustering” expedition to Mexico to free those lands from Spanish rule and possibly set up Mr. Burr as Aaron I, or (c) attempts to persuade the western territories (Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee) to break off from the United States, then invade Mexico, and give Aaron I an even larger domain, or (d) some or all of the above.
When brought to trial for treason, Burr skillfully managed his own defense and won acquittal and a penurious form of freedom. But what a story!
Richard Johnson — Vice president for Martin Van Buren (1837-1841), best remembered (if at all) for installing one of his slaves as his common-law wife, raising their two daughters in the “big house” on their plantation, and recognizing them as his heirs. That was a time when a public official could have a few peccadilloes — Eliot Spitzer, born in the wrong century.
Vice President Richard Johnson, 1837-1841
John C. Breckinridge — Vice President to the totally forgettable James Buchanan (1857-1861), Breckinridge of Kentucky ran for president in 1860 as a Southern Democrat (a splinter group from the national Democratic Party, which nominated Stephen A. Douglas). Although his home state of Kentucky did not secede from the Union, Breckinridge joined the Confederate forces, rising to become a major general. Here was treason, pure and simple.
Schuyler Colfax — In office, the Indianan Colfax picked up the nickname “Smiler” for his ingratiating ways. After serving as Speaker of the House, he was picked by U.S. Grant as his first vice president (1869-1873). Colfax was denied renomination because he was implicated in the “Credit Mobilier” scandal. This scandal has always eluded me, but I have just finished Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It In The World, about the transcontinental railroad, and I understand it a little bit.
The men who built the railroad were, well, thieves. One of their methods of thieving arose during the construction effort. They separated the railroad itself (the Union Pacific) from the construction effort (done through a shell corporation called Credit Mobilier). The advantage of splitting them up was that the railroad had no real revenues, but the construction operation was flush with government payments that were fraudulently inflated.
Colfax, like a couple of dozen other congressmen, acquired Credit Mobilier stock, and thus made out like bandits on the deal, at the same time that they were voting on subsidies, grants, and a variety of other goodies for the railroad. Even in the nineteenth century, that was scandalous. And so his public career ended.
Spiro T. Agnew — A natural-born political thug in the tradition of Baltimore’s plug-uglies, Agnew was Nixon’s pugnacious and divisive hit man and vice president (1969-1973). As Maryland’s governor before being picked for vice president, he was a crook, taking kickbacks from state road contractors. He resigned and cut a plea deal with federal prosecutors in the days before the sentencing guidelines. Today, he would do at least two years in the pokey for the same conduct.
Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland
Agnew finally repaid $268,000 to the Maryland Treasury, which was the amount of the bribes he took while governor.
Pretty good rogues’ gallery, eh?


  1. klkatz on March 19, 2008 at 1:30 am

    like lambs to slaughter, it seems of late, that VPs are a political dead end: Gore had a shot… and GH Bush was legitimate… but c’mon.. Dan Quayle, Dick Cheyney… is the succession plan no longer an option when choosing a running mate?

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