Vice President Colbath, Part I

Consider for a moment — there’s no reason it must be this moment, but here it is anyway — the life of U.S. Vice President Jeremiah Jones Colbath. No — not a household name. In fact, if you look at a list of all the men who have served as No. 2, from John Adams to the current incumbent, you won’t find him. But he did serve.

When I was tapping out those president and vice president posts last month, I mentioned at one point being surprised at the number of vice presidents who had died in office. One of those was Henry Wilson, who was the second of Grant’s vice presidents. He suffered a stroke while in the Capitol in November 1875. Wilson was taken to the vice president’s suite, near the Senate floor, and died nearly two weeks later, on November 22.

The official biography includes a wonderful quote from one of Wilson’s eulogizers: “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.” The trust of the people, the Senate writeup suggests, came from his tireless habit of sounding out everyone he encountered about the issues of the day. “Confidence of the people” might be a little bit of a stretch, considering candidates for the U.S. Senate were elected by legislatures rather than popular vote until well into the 20th century. Reading about Wilson, you get the picture of someone who rose above the station that lack of learning, eloquence and logic “in a high sense” might have reserved for him — perhaps that of a modestly successful political hack. He had more than enough ambition, drive and smarts to play the game and become a master operator. A 1964 journal article on him was titled, “Henry Wilson: Unprincipled Know-Nothing,” a reference to Wilson’s abandonment of his stated anti-slavery stance in the early 1850s to secretly join the nativist, racist Know-Nothings in order to win support in an election.

That started him on the path to prominence in Republican politics — he became a leader of the party’s radical wing during the Civil War and unsuccessfully campaigned for measures that would ensure racial equality after the war. When he died, the Senate was moved enough by his passing that it commissioned a bust eventually executed by Daniel Chester French, better known for sculpting the statue in the Lincoln Memorial, The Republic, a centerpiece of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. and the Concord Minuteman in Massachusetts. Among others.

[It’s late; to be continued.]

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).