Jack Garner, one of the vice presidents serving under Franklin D. Roosevelt once said to the 1960 incoming vice president, Lyndon Johnson, that the vice presidential office was “not worth a pitcher of warm spit.”
The truth is that the role vice presidents have played in American politics and presidential administrations has changed dramatically over time.
America’s first vice president, John Adams, remarked to his wife Abigail, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate.”
John Adams played little to no role in Washington’s administration, but later vice presidents would play a critical role in American politics while both occupying the office and in their occasional ascendancy to the presidential office.
John Tyler, sometimes derisively called by political opponents, “His Accidency” was the first vice president to become president after the death of the chief executive, and set the precedent for the vice president assuming all the powers of the presidency if the president dies or leaves office. Thomas R. Marshall, who served under President Woodrow Wilson and once made the analogy of the vice presidency that there were once two brothers, “one went out to sea and the other became vice president, neither was heard from again,” was the first vice president to attend cabinet meetings. And Dick Cheney played a vital role in the George W. Bush presidency, helping to craft policy at the highest level.
Clearly the office of vice president is often worth nothing, but occasionally ends up being everything.
So far, Vice President Joe Biden has done little besides occasionally, or rather, frequently open his mouth and embarrass the presidential administration. He has been thought of so poorly by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden that he was left off the assassination list in hopes that he would ascend to the presidency and “ruin the country.” Although Biden has been a comedic punch line throughout his nearly four years in office, there have been other VP’s that have run the gamut from incompetent to murderous to treasonous.
Here is a list of the top 5 vice presidential flops.
1.) Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr was the vice president under Thomas Jefferson from 1800 to 1804, during which time he tried to steal the presidency, got booted from the ticket for Jefferson’s next term, prompted an immediate constitutional amendment that would be the last in over half a century, lost the New York Governor race by the largest margin in the state’s history, and in revenge for failing in that endeavor, murdered a former treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel.
This astounding record puts Burr right at the top of the list of vice presidential failures, even while discounting his later attempts to break off both the northern and then the southern states from the union in order to form his own country, or more accurately, empire.
A Revolutionary War veteran, prominent senator from New York, and grandson of the Great Awakening preacher, Johnathan Edwards, Burr had a promising resume and an incredible amount of talent. However, he turned out to be a fallen Founder that seemed out of place in a generation of such venerated American heroes.
Burr had a charming and engaging persona, but also possessed a dark side that was recognized by a number of other Founders. The great historian of early American history, Gordon Wood, once said of Burr, “No other political leader of his political prominence ever spent so much time blatantly scheming for his own personal and political advantage.”
Alexander Hamilton once said of Burr, “He is a man whose only political principle is, to mount at all events to the highest legal honours of the Nation and as much further as circumstances will carry him.”
In short, Burr was an amoral opportunist.
Burr sparked a constitutional crisis when in the 1800 presidential election he ended up tied with Thomas Jefferson for the greatest number of electoral votes. Although Burr was originally chosen by the Jeffersonian-Republicans to be the vice presidential nominee, there was not yet a rule for a two man ticket. So Jefferson’s supporters voted for Jefferson and Burr in equal numbers. Instead of backing down to the wishes of his party, Burr suddenly tried to scheme to become president only to fail when Hamilton, a Federalist, threw his weight behind his rival, Jefferson.
This disaster forced the country to adopt a constitutional amendment to create the two man presidential ticket, but it could have made the first successful transfer of power from one party to another in human history a monumental catastrophe.
Undoubtedly, Burr will not move off the list of top vice presidential failures any time soon.
2.) John C. Breckinridge
The powerful statesman from Kentucky who served under President James Buchanan, a frequent choice as one of the worst presidents in American history, John Breckinridge one-upped his commander-in-chief, who merely retired to his home in Pennsylvania as the country fell into ruins in the early 1860s.
Breckinridge holds the dubious distinction as the only vice president to take up arms against the United States, abandoning both his country and his state of Kentucky, which remained loyal to the Union.
Breckinridge was a talented politician and rose quickly in Kentucky and national politics. He was the youngest vice president in American history, entering the office at the age of 36.
Unfortunately for the United States, James Buchanan’s cabinet was filled with incompetents and outright traitors. Nearly half would join the Confederacy when the South seceded and included in that bunch would be Breckinridge.
While Breckinridge was not the only former vice president to join the Confederacy—former vice president and president John Tyler was briefly elected to the Confederate House of Representatives—he was the only one to take up arms in battle against Union armies and saw extensive action in the Civil War.
Unlike many other Confederates who simply saw themselves as defenders of “States Rights,” and following what they saw as their sovereign into war, Breckinridge betrayed both his country and his state.
A particularly caustic New York Times editorial in 1863 said of Breckinridge’s betrayal, “In doing it he [Breckinridge] had to turn his back, not only upon the Union, but upon his own State, whose destiny he had solemnly protested that he would follow. Of all the accursed traitors of the land there has been none more heinously false than he — none whose memory will live in darker ignominy. God grant the country a speedy deliverance of all such parricides.”
3.) Lyndon B. Johnson
The vice presidency certainly ended up being worth more than a warm bucket of spit to Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was selected for John F. Kennedy’s presidential ticket in 1960 to create regional balance. Kennedy was a handsome Harvard graduate from Massachusetts and Johnson a gruff career politician from Texas. There were few good feelings between the two men.
When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Johnson became the president and proceeded to enact one of the most ambitious political agendas in presidential history.
Johnson was a masterful legislator and one of the most accomplished senators in Texas and American history. He would work his magic with a heavily Democratic Congress throughout his presidency, passing much of Kennedy’s agenda and then some.
Sensing the changes in national opinion, Johnson passed Civil Rights legislation, but less because of concrete principles and a desire for political equality between whites and blacks and more to solidify his political coalition.
Johnson said of Civil Rights, “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days, and that’s a problem for us, since they’ve got something now they never had before: the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this — we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”
Ultimately, Johnson failed catastrophically as president because he seemed incapable of grasping the larger implications of policies. His calculations included successful legislation and grabbing votes, but bigger issues that required political leadership and decisiveness destroyed his term in office and left him a broken man.
Johnson’s “war on poverty” programs, called the Great Society, were passed amidst an escalating Vietnam War that was spiraling out of control. The programs failed to end poverty, exploded the national debt and distracted Johnson’s attention from the critical war effort.
At the beginning of Johnson’s presidency, liberalism was at its high tide, the Democratic Party was completely dominant in national politics and the country was prosperous. At the end of his presidency, both liberals and conservatives hated Johnson, who was unable to deal with a catastrophic war and presiding over a country more fractured than any time since the Civil War.
Stephen F. Hayward quoted an LBJ aide in his book, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order 1864-1980, who said of Johnson that he was “expunged from the Democratic Party with the same kind of scouring effectiveness that Marxist revisionists used to rewrite Communist history.”
4.) Andrew Johnson
Few men have pulled themselves up farther by their own bootstraps than Andrew Johnson. The impoverished son of North Carolina, who was entirely self-educated, made his way through the world as a tailor before entering the political arena in Tennessee.
Lincoln booted his first term vice president, Maine Republican Hannibal Hamlin, from the ticket for a better candidate that could bring him victory. Being the vice president under Lincoln during the Civil War seemed to be a dead-end political move for many politicians of the day.
Historian Charles Bracelen Flood wrote about the responses to Lincoln’s call for a new vice president in his book, 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History. Benjamin Butler, a talented politician from Massachusetts who was serving in the Union Army, responded to Lincoln’s VP request by writing to a Republican political operative,
Ask him what he thinks I have done to deserve this punishment, at the age of forty-six, of being made to sit as presiding officer of the Senate, to listen for four years to debates more or less stupid, in which I can take no part, nor even be allowed to cast a vote… except when my enemies think my [tie-breaking] vote would injure me in the estimation of the people…
Andrew Johnson, a “war Democrat” from a border state, decided to take the thankless position and was selected for Republican Abraham Lincoln’s presidential ticket in order to cement the political coalition and the shattered pieces of the Union.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is one of the most legendary speeches in American history. Johnson’s address to the Senate was one of the most disgraceful.
Johnson’s first address was a mostly incoherent, drunken mess that shocked the audience that shifted between discomfort to outright embarrassment. Johnson even forgot the name of the Navy Secretary and had to ask a Senate official what it was.
Things got worse for Johnson when President Lincoln was assassinated and he was thrust into a role that might have sunk even the greatest of statesmen, that of putting the United States back together after the bloodiest war in its history.
Radical Republicans warred with Johnson through the rest of his term over Reconstruction policies, passing the unconstitutional Tenure of Office Act to trap him politically and impeach him. Johnson barely escaped impeachment by the hostile Republican Congress by a single Senate vote, which, according to historian David O. Stewart, was probably bought off by the embattled president and his cronies.
Johnson left the presidency in a weakened and degraded state that lasted for nearly half a century and most late 19th century presidents would be relegated to a mere caretaker status by an ascendant Congress.
5.) Millard Fillmore
“God save us from Whig vice presidents!”
That was what Northern Whig Party members said during Millard Fillmore’s term as president. Fillmore had replace “Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor, a popular general from the Mexican-American War.
Fillmore, a New York Lawyer and politician, who is perhaps one least known presidents in American history, came into office during the crisis year of 1850. The compromise that he helped pass and eventually signed, bringing several new states into the Union and enacting a harsh Fugitive Slave Code, precipitated the total disintegration of the Whig Party and paved a direct path to the Civil War.
When Fillmore passed the “Compromise of 1850” he said that it would be the “final settlement” of disagreements over slavery. The New York politico was certainly no prophet.
A New York Times editorial in 1874 said of Fillmore, “It must always be regretted that a man as Millard Fillmore had not a mind comprehensive enough to properly meet a great crisis… It was, moreover, his misfortune to see in slavery a political and not a moral question. Upon this one issue, which, it is true, was one of transcendent importance, he was a politician and not a statesman.”
The Northern Whigs would eventually coalesce with Northern, anti-slavery Democrats to form the Republican Party, and would leave the Whigs in the dustbin of history.
Fillmore left the Whig Party too, but would not join with Republicans. Instead he would lead the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American or “Know-Nothing” Party presidential ticket in 1856. By splitting the newly formed Northern coalition with John C. Fremont and the rising Republicans, Fillmore would hand the presidency to James Buchanan, much to the detriment of the wobbly Union.