Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen

There have been more Vice Presidents of the United States than Presidents in American history.  Joe Biden is the 47th Vice President of the United States while Barack Obama is President number 44.  The Vice Presidency has also been occupied longer than the Presidency.  The first Vice President, John Adams, was inaugurated on April 21, 1789, nine days before George Washington took the oath as the first President in the nation’s capital, New York City.

While four Presidents have been assassinated (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy) and four others have died in office of natural causes (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin D. Roosevelt), no Vice President has been assassinated and no assassination attempt has ever been made against a Vice President. 

However, seven Vice President have died in office, including both of James Madison’s Vice Presidents — George Clinton (died in 1812) and Elbridge Gerry (died in 1814).  Franklin Pierce’s Vice President, William Rufus DeVane King, was so ill with tuberculosis that he was inaugurated while recovering in Cuba in 1853 and died 45 days later.  Henry Wilson was Ulysses S. Grant’s second Vice President and died in 1875 while working in his office in the U.S. Capitol building. Grover Cleveland’s first Vice President was Thomas A. Hendricks, but Hendricks was in poor health and died less than a year after taking office in 1885.  Vice President Garret Hobart was just 55 years old when he died in November 1899, but played an active role in William McKinley’s administration, was one of the most powerful Vice Presidents in American history and was frequently referred to as the “assistant President” due to his influence.  Had he survived, Hobart likely would have succeeded McKinley when the President was assassinated less than two years later.  Instead, Hobart’s death cleared the path for Theodore Roosevelt’s rise to power.  

The last Vice President to die in office was James Schoolcraft Sherman who died in 1912 while serving as William Howard Taft’s VP, just days before the 1912 Presidential election.  He was replaced on the ticket by Nicholas Butler, but Taft was defeated by Woodrow Wilson, so Sherman would have been out of a job a few months later anyway.  

It was not until 1967 that provisions were made by the Constitution’s Twenty-Fifth Amendment for filling vacancies in the Vice Presidency in the case of death, resignation, incapacitation, or removal from office.  Up to that point, a Vice Presidential vacancy remained vacant until the next Presidential election and inauguration.  This led to sixteen Vice Presidential vacancies — eight of which were a  of Vice Presidential succession to the Presidency, seven due to death in office, and one resulting from John C. Calhoun’s 1832 resignation in favor of a Senate seat. 

With the passage of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, if a vacancy occurs in the Vice Presidency, the President may appoint a new Vice President who must be confirmed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress.  This has happened twice in American history — in 1973 when Richard Nixon appointed Gerald Ford to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew who had resigned in disgrace following a bribery scandal, and in 1974 when Ford (who had assumed the Presidency upon Nixon’s resignation) appointed Nelson Rockefeller as his Vice President.  Ford and Rockefeller are the only occupants of a national office (President or Vice President) who were never elected to their positions.

The role of the Vice President has changed dramatically in the past few decades as the position has evolved from a powerless figurehead in legislative branch limbo who sometimes breaks tie votes in the Senate and accidentally becomes President because of tragedy into that of an active administrator deeply involved with policy and political issues in the executive branch.  Prior to Walter Mondale in the late-1970s, Vice Presidents didn’t even have offices in the White House and a Vice Presidential vacancy could last almost the full four years of a President’s term without any notice.  Today, the Vice President of the United States is undeniably one of the most powerful people in the world and a Vice Presidential pick can make or break a Presidential election campaign.

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