You Gotta Know These Vice Presidents Who Never Became President
- Aaron Burr (1756–1836) was Thomas Jefferson’s first vice president, serving from 1801 to 1805. Before taking office, he served as a senator from New York and helped build the Tammany Society (which became Tammany Hall) and the Manhattan Company (which became Chase Manhattan Bank). In 1800 Burr swung New York to his running mate Jefferson, but due to a constitutional quirk, he wound up tying him in the Electoral College. Burr made a covert effort to become president with support from the Federalist Party, but it was blocked by Alexander Hamilton, whom Burr later killed in a duel. In 1807 the Jefferson administration put Burr on trial for treason for plotting to set up his own country in land acquired from the Louisiana Purchase, though he was acquitted.
- Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814) was James Madison’s second vice president, serving from 1813 to 1814 (when he died in office). At the Constitutional Convention, Gerry joined George Mason and Edmund Randolph in refusing to sign the Constitution, largely because it lacked a Bill of Rights. In 1797 he, Charles C. Pinckney, and John Marshall were sent to France as a diplomatic commission, but French agents demanded bribes during the “XYZ Affair.” As governor of Massachusetts in 1812, Gerry reluctantly approved a partisan redistricting plan. A Federalist publication joked that one of the new districts resembled a salamander, giving rise to the term “gerrymandering.”
- John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) was John Quincy Adams’ vice president and Andrew Jackson’s first vice president, serving from 1825 to 1832 (when he resigned). Early in his career, Calhoun became one of the leading “war hawks” who supported the War of 1812. While Calhoun served as Jackson’s vice president, his wife Floride snubbed the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton during the Petticoat Affair. Calhoun supported the doctrine of nullification embraced by his home state of South Carolina to oppose the so-called “Tariff of Abominations,” and to express his opposition to Jackson, he became the first vice president to resign. During his later career as a senator, Calhoun became the nation’s leading advocate for states’ rights and slavery, which he called a “positive good.”
- John C. Breckinridge (1821–1875) was James Buchanan’s vice president, serving from 1857 to 1861. Taking office at just age 36, he remains the youngest ever vice president. In 1860 the former Kentucky congressman became the presidential candidate of southern Democrats who refused to support Stephen Douglas. He finished second with 72 electoral votes but lost the election to Abraham Lincoln, whose wife Mary Todd was a distant cousin of Breckinridge. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate Army, causing him to be expelled from the Senate. As a southern general, he won the Battle of New Market and served as the last Confederate secretary of war.
- Charles Dawes (1865–1951) was Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, serving from 1925 to 1929. Dawes is the only vice president to compose a number-one song, writing the music for what became the 1958 hit “It’s All in the Game.” A successful banker, Dawes proposed the Dawes plan to resolve the financial crisis in Europe after World War I, through which the U.S. gave money to Germany so it could repay reparations to Britain and France. For his effort, Dawes won a Nobel Peace Prize. He later served as the first head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which Herbert Hoover founded to alleviate the Great Depression.
- Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978) was Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, serving from 1965 to 1969. As mayor of Minneapolis, Humphrey introduced an anti-segregation plank in the 1948 Democratic platform, which led southern delegates to walk out and form the “Dixiecrat” party. As a senator from Minnesota, Humphrey was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After he became Johnson’s vice president, Humphrey faced criticism for supporting the president’s Vietnam War policies. During a convention marred by riots in Chicago, Humphrey won the 1968 Democratic nomination for president, but lost a close election to Richard Nixon. He returned to the Senate, dying in office in 1978.
- Spiro Theodore “Ted” Agnew (1918–1996) was Richard Nixon’s first vice president, serving from 1969 to 1973 (when he resigned). Agnew and John C. Calhoun are the only vice presidents to resign from office. Agnew served as governor of Maryland, where his moderate reputation and “law and order” policies led Nixon to choose him as his running mate. Agnew became known as Nixon’s “attack dog,” unleashing such creative insults as calling liberals “nattering nabobs of negativism.” In 1973 an investigation into Agnew’s tenure as governor discovered that he had received bribes from contractors. Though he professed his innocence, Agnew ultimately pled no contest to tax evasion and resigned as vice president, ending his political career.
- Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1908–1979) was Gerald Ford’s vice president, serving from 1974 to 1977. A grandson of Standard Oil founder John Rockefeller, he served as governor of New York from 1959 to 1973 and crushed the Attica Prison Uprising. Rockefeller led the “Eastern Establishment,” the liberal wing of the Republican Party. He sought his party’s presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968, losing partly due to his controversial second marriage with Happy Murphy. After succeeding Richard Nixon, Ford used the 25th Amendment to appoint Rockefeller as vice president, but reluctantly dropped him as his running mate in 1976 in favor of Bob Dole.
- Al Gore (or Albert Arnold Gore Jr.) (1948–) was Bill Clinton’s vice president, serving from 1993 to 2001. Like his father, Gore was a senator from Tennessee, and during his tenure he wrote the best-selling ecological book Earth in the Balance. As vice president, Gore supported environmental and technological causes, including popularizing the term “Information Superhighway” (and at one point remarking that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet”). As the Democratic presidential candidate in 2000, Gore lost a disputed election to George W. Bush that hinged on the Supreme Court halting a recount in Florida. After leaving office, Gore made the documentary An Inconvenient Truth about climate change, which won him the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
- Dick Cheney (or Richard Bruce Cheney) (1941–) was George W. Bush’s vice president, serving from 2001 to 2009. Before taking office, Cheney served as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, secretary of defense during the First Gulf War, and CEO of Halliburton. Cheney was an extremely influential vice president, shaping strategy around the War on Terror and Second Gulf War. However, he was dogged by controversies: his chief of staff Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the leaking of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, and he shot a 78-year-old man in the face in a hunting accident. In 2016 his daughter Liz Cheney won his old seat as Wyoming’s representative in Congress, where she became a leading critic of Donald Trump.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Mike Cheyne.