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Vice Presidents We Never Knew

Nate DiMeo

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Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins
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William Wheeler

If the name William Wheeler means nothing to you, you're in good company.

Born in the sleepy town of Malone, N.Y., in 1819, Wheeler grew up to be something of a sleepy legislator. During a decade of service in Albany, and another six in the U.S. Congress, he never introduced a single piece of legislation. He barely ever spoke.

So, it's 1876. The Republicans are having a hard time picking a presidential nominee. Supporters of Rutherford B. Hayes finally win the support of a powerful New York party boss. So, to thank him, they tell the boss he can pick the vice president.

As a joke he says, "What about Wheeler?"

Everyone cracks up and heads off to dinner.

But the next morning, no other name has been mentioned so Wheeler gets the nomination.

When Hayes is told who his running mate is going to be, he says, "I am ashamed to say: Who is Wheeler?"

Over the course of the campaign, Wheeler's wife dies and he's a sad, broken man when he becomes the 19th vice president. For the entirety of his vice presidency, he glumly presides over the tedious deliberations of the Senate. And doesn't say much.

William Rufus DeVane King

William Rufus DeVane King was a man born to be vice president. And he was born at a time when that wasn't necessarily an insult.

In the middle of the 19th century, the vice president was expected to run the Senate, providing a steady hand, maintaining civility and keeping the legislative process flowing. In years of service as a lawmaker and a diplomat, King had earned a reputation as a modest and reasonable guy. He was well-liked, accommodating, not interested in glory or fame. In essence, he was a perfect vice president.

And King really wanted the job.

So, in 1852 he gets on the ticket with Franklin Pierce. They're marching toward an easy victory, but meanwhile, King starts coughing. A lot. By the time they win, King is coughing all the time.

Anyone who's ever watched a film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel can guess what comes next. King heads down to Cuba, hoping a little tropical air will help out his consumption. It doesn't.

Out of respect for King -- knowing full well where this whole thing is going -- Congress passes a one-time-only law that allows the vice president to be sworn in on foreign soil. In a somber ceremony, William Rufus DeVane King becomes the 13th vice president of the United States.

A month later he's dead, and John Breckenridge becomes the 14th.

Now there's another interesting historical footnote on King. He and future president James Buchanan were roommates for 15 years. One of several facts that have prompted some historians to propose that the two men were America's first gay vice president and president, respectively. The press at the time wrote articles speculating about it. Both men's relatives suspiciously burned all correspondence between the two. The post master general used to call the pair "Buchanan and his wife." And Andrew Jackson called King "Miss Nancy." Really.

But we will never know for sure.

And at least one historian says that Andrew Jackson called a lot of people Miss Nancy.

Daniel D. Thompkins

Things started off great for Daniel D. Thompkins.

He was born on a farm in Scarsdale, N.Y., at the height of the American Revolution. Went to Columbia University and became a successful Manhattan attorney. He ran for governor as a farm boy made good. It was just the kind of thing that American voters ate up in the early 1800s. Not to mention, he was a patriot.

So much so that, when the New York State Legislature refused to pony up its share of war funding for the War of 1812, Tompkins turned out his own pockets. He borrowed money, put up his own house as collateral and paid for the whole state's contribution himself.

That's the kind of thing that gets a man elected vice president.

But no one paid him back.

So he spends his whole time in office suing the government and trying to get out of terrible debt. And drinking. He spends a lot of time drinking.

At the end of his second term, he finally gets reimbursed. He heads home to New York with vice president on his resume and money back in his pocket.

And 99 days later, he dies.

  • Music Bridge:
    Tambo Hope
    Artist: Antietam
    CD: Opus Mixtum (Carrot Top)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By wtrsadubcyx wtrsadubcyx

    From txwIXhLEBt, NC, 09/19/2014

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    By Kevin O'Rourke

    From Chevy Chase, MD, 05/18/2014

    Two corrections on the Daniel D. Tompkins story: (1) his name is spelled incorrectly, there is no "h" in his last name; and (2) he was not fully reimbursed by the government until after his death.

    By Andrew Beal

    From Wake Forest, NC, 02/16/2008

    I enjoyed these very much. But to be entirely accurate, it is misleading to say "A month later he's dead, and John Breckenridge becomes the 14th [Vice President]." When King was VP (and until the 1960s) there was no constitutional mechanism to fill the office in case of a vacancy, until the next election. When King died, Sen. David Rice Atchison, President pro tempore of the Senate, became President of the Senate, and several senators followed him, but there was no VP. Breckenridge didn't become VP until he was elected in the 1856 election and sworn in on March 4, 1857, almost four years after King died.

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