Dead Veeps Club

You know, looking at the histories of Dick “Gunner” Cheney and Aaron “Unfriendly Fire” Burr — brothers in the fraternity of vice presidents whose hunts have netted human trophies — disclosed yet another fact that until now escaped me: the number of U.S. vice president who have died in office. Here’s a brief list. Take note: November is the cruelest month for our unrevered second bananas, having claimed four of the seven executive understudies who died in office.

George Clinton (1739-1812): Served as vice president in Thomas Jefferson’s second term and was re-elected to the office for James Madison’s first term. Died April 20, 1812, the first vice president to expire in office.

Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814): Clinton’s office sat vacant, and Gerry — the Massachusetts pol whose skill at drawing imaginative legislative boundaries is memorialized in the word “gerrymander” — was elected for Madison’s second term. But serving as No. 2 for Madison proved too much for Gerry, too. He died November 23, 1814, having served just 20 months.

Daniel Tompkins (1774-1825; honorable mention): Just missed becoming the third consecutive veep to die in the traces. He served two terms as James Monroe’s vice president, leaving office in March 1825. He died three months later at age 50 after what one biography describes as “a decade of financial privation and heavy drinking, coupled with accusations that he had mishandled state and federal funds while serving as governor of New York. …”

William Rufus de Vane King (1786-1853): Served just six weeks as understudy to Franklin Pierce in March and April 1853. Actually, “served” might be padding King’s resume a bit. He suffered from tuberculosis when he was elected and was in declining health as his inauguration approached. He repaired to Cuba for his health and was granted permission to be sworn in there (reportedly the only vice president inaugurated outside the United States). With his condition apparently terminal, he returned home to his Alabama plantation, where he died April 18.

Henry Wilson (1812-1875): Grant’s second vice president. Died midway through his term on November 22, 1875. A former Senator from Massachusetts, he was eulogized thus by a former colleague: “He was not learned, he was not eloquent, he was not logical in a high sense, he was not always consistent in his political actions, and yet he gained the confidence of the people, and he retained it to the end of his life.” Except for the “confidence of the people” part, that sounds very familiar.

Thomas A. Hendricks (1819-1885): Elected vice president with Grover Cleveland as part of the first Democratic ticket to win since 1856. Hendricks died November 25, 1885, a little more than eight months into his term.

Garret A. Hobart (1844-1899): Elected with McKinley in 1896. I’m guessing that he and McKinley are probably the only running mates to both die in office — though McKinley wasn’t assassinated until early in his second term, when he had a brand spanking new vice president in place. Hobart, described in a Senate biography as a “rotund, jovial, hospitable man,” was beset by heart problems that finally killed him on November 21, 1899. Before passing into eventual blog fodder, however, Hobart cast the deciding vote against a resolution that would have promised independence to the Philippines. He made a difference.

James Sherman (1855-1912): Taft’s vice president, he came darn close to serving a full term before dying on October 30, 1912, of chronic kidney failure. He died just days before the presidential election (Taft vs. Wilson and Roosevelt, T.), thus became the only deceased candidate for national office to stand for election (that’s an unverified claim).

6 Replies to “Dead Veeps Club”

  1. I’d heard of Clinton and Gerry; the latter because of a junior high school report I did and later due to his association with the word gerrymander.
    They’re easy to dismiss as anonymous nobodies, but think about whether you’d know anythng about Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson had they not been elevated to the presidency. You could probably make a pretty good case that Roosevelt and Johnson would have made some noise. But the rest of them would be in the cipher file with the likes of ol’ what’s-his-name.

  2. I think Gunner is the exception. If you think about it, the first three vice presidents were all big political actors: Adams, Jefferson, Burr. All three were involved in all sorts of political intrigue quite apart from the administrations they were serving; they were in a position that was formally weak but still had lots of influence. Just looking at the superficial evidence, you would guess Burr’s turbulent tenure was the one that led to the preference for vice presidents who were both politically and institutionally weak. Jefferson managed to replace Burr with George “Not Funkadelic” Clinton, who as VP was a political nonentity. There’s a great quote that introduces his Senate biography: “George Clinton the Vice President . . . is an feeble old man . . . What a vast difference between him & Aaron Burr! One would think that the office was made for Clinton, & not he for the office.” After Clinton, you hardly hear a peep out of the vice presidency until something happens to the president.

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