Yes, quite a few of our Vice Presidents have died in office, actually — SEVEN out of 47 total, so about 15% of the VPs didn’t survive their term.
There are several reasons why that’s not a better-known fact. First of all, it hasn’t happened in the last 100 years. The most recent Vice President to die in office was James Schoolcraft Sherman, VP under President Taft, in 1912. Since Sherman’s death, three Presidents have died in office (Harding, FDR, and JFK), so the memory of a Vice President dying office has been a pretty distant one for decades. Secondly, no Vice President has been the victim of an assassination. The fact that all seven who died in office passed away from natural causes also makes it less shocking or sensational and not quite as memorable as the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy.
More than anything, the low profile, relative powerlessness, and lack of influence of Vice Presidents of the 19th Century and early-20th Century is why most people don’t know that so many VPs died in office and why people often overlook the remarkable fact that since 1789 the Vice Presidency has been vacant for a whopping cumulative total of 37 years, 290 days. I’ve written a few times about the lowly position the Vice President was in until the mid-20th Century and I’ve also detailed all of the situations due to a death in office, resignation, or assumption of the Presidency which left the Vice Presidency vacant with no mechanism for a replacement until the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967.
Here’s a look at the Vice Presidents who died in office:
•George Clinton (1739-1812), 4th Vice President (1805-1812)
Clinton (no relation to Bill) served as VP for two Presidents — Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. A military leader during the Revolutionary War and the 1st Governor of New York, Clinton actually opposed the ratification of the Constitution until the Bill of Rights was included. He served as VP during Jefferson’s second term (1805-1809) and Madison’s first term, but died in 1812 at the age of 72 as Madison was preparing to seek reelection.
•Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), 5th Vice President (1813-1814)
With George Clinton dead, President Madison turned to Elbridge Gerry to be his running mate in 1812 despite Gerry being nearly as old as Clinton was. Vice President Gerry lasted for less than two years, dying in November 1814 at the age of 70. James Madison is the only President to have two incumbent Vice Presidents die in office.
•William Rufus DeVane King (1786-1853), 13th Vice President (1853)
King had an incredible resume featuring a long career full of political and diplomatic experience when he was tabbed to be Franklin Pierce’s running mate. Unfortunately, King, much like Clinton and Gerry, was one of the oldest Vice Presidents in history. Even worse, King was dying of tuberculosis. King was in Cuba hoping that the climate would help rehabilitate his health at the time of President Pierce’s inauguration and was so ill that Congress granted him permission to be sworn in as Vice President while he was in Cuba. His health continued to fail and he headed home to Alabama where he died at the age of 67 after just 45 days as VP. Vice President King never set foot in Washington, D.C. during his brief Vice Presidency.
•Henry Wilson (1812-1875), 18th Vice President (1873-1875)
With his first term Vice President Schuyler Colfax tainted by scandal, Ulysses S. Grant turned to Henry Wilson as his running mate for his second term. Wilson was born into devastating poverty as Jeremiah Jones Colbath and spent 10 years as an indentured servant before he was able to pay for his freedom. Wilson changed his name, self-educated himself, and became a shoemaker before entering public service. Shortly after becoming VP in 1873 Wilson suffered a minor stroke but was recovering well and returned to his duties in the Senate. In November 1875, the 63-year-old Vice President suffered a series of strokes at the Capitol. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the final hours of John Quincy Adams’s life, Vice President Wilson was carried to a room inside the U.S. Capitol building where he died shortly thereafter.
•Thomas Andrews Hendricks (1819-1885), 21st Vice President (1885)
Elected as Vice President for the first of Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms, Thomas A. Hendricks was briefly Vice President — he died just eight months into his term at the age of 66 — at a tumultuous time which left the Vice Presidency vacant so much that Americans could easily be lead to believe that the position was simply abolished. In the eight years between James Garfield’s inauguration (1881) and the end of Grover Cleveland’s first time (1889) the Vice Presidency was vacant for 2,457 out of 2,922 days — that’s 84% of the time! The reason for such a high vacancy rate is because, as I mentioned, there was no way to fill a VP vacancy until 1967 and there was quick turnover in the Vice Presidency from 1881-1889. Garfield was assassinated just a few months into his term in 1881 leading to the succession of Chester A. Arthur and resulting in an VP vacancy from September 1881 until March 1885. Hendricks was inaugurated alongside President Cleveland in March 1885 and finally filled a Vice Presidency that had been empty for nearly four years, but Hendricks was dead eight months later, leaving the office vacant again from November 1885 until March 1889. To show how little the Vice Presidency meant at that point in history, most Americans didn’t even notice that the office was vacant for all but a few months for the last eight years. Fortunately, the country didn’t have to face the possible Constitutional crisis that would have occurred if President Arthur or President Cleveland had died in office without a Vice President to succeed them.
•Garret Augustus Hobart (1844-1899), 24th Vice President (1897-1899)
As I have written on many different occasions, Garret Hobart, the VP during William McKinley’s first term, was truly the first “modern” Vice President in the way that we think of the VP today and the most influential VP from the position’s creation in 1789 until arguably Walter Mondale in 1977. President McKinley was close to Hobart personally, he trusted him professionally, and he made the VP a member of his Administration whereas Hobart’s predecessors (and most of his successors) had no role in the Executive branch and basically spent entire terms half-heartedly presiding over the Senate (if they did it), casting the rare tie-breaker vote, and checking to see if the President had a pulse. Vice President Hobart wasn’t simply a Constitutionally-mandated tie-breaker, he was a full-fledged Presidential advisor and McKinley confidant. Unfortunately, Hobart was seriously ill with heart disease and his health began failing about a year into McKinley’s first term. By November 1899 it was clear that no amount of rest or fresh ocean air was going to save his life and the 55-year-old Vice President was dead by the end of the month. Had Hobart’s health held up, he almost certainly would have continued as McKinley’s running mate in 1900 (a spot that instead went to New York’s young Governor Theodore Roosevelt) due to his value to the Administration and his relationship with President McKinley. And, of course, had that happened, we would know him better today as President Hobart because he would have assumed the Presidency upon McKinley’s assassination rather than TR.
•James Schoolcraft Sherman (1855-1912), 27th Vice President (1909-1912)
Now we return to where we started — the most recent VP to die in office, President William Howard Taft’s running mate, James S. Sherman. Like Hobart, Sherman was relatively young when he died; he had turned 57 years old less than a week before his death. President Taft beat back a challenge from his former close friend and confidant, Theodore Roosevelt, to win the GOP nomination in 1912 and the Republicans renominated Vice President Sherman alongside Taft. Sherman was the first incumbent Vice President to be renominated by his party in over 80 years. Unfortunately, although the 360-pound President looked unhealthy, it was the genial, “Smiling Jim” Sherman who was dying of Bright’s disease when he was renominated. A brutal kidney ailment which was incurable at the time, Bright’s disease had sapped the health of President Arthur 30 years earlier, eventually killing him. It would also soon claim the wife of Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat who defeated Taft for the Presidency in 1912. The 1912 campaign was a hard-fought three-way race pitting incumbent President Taft against New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson and former President Theodore Roosevelt running on a third-party ticket. Sherman did his best to support the campaign but he wasn’t up to it. Usually, the VP or VP candidate is the “hatchet man” during Presidential campaigns, but Sherman’s illness made it impossible for him to fill that role on Taft’s behalf and it caused some strain between the President and Vice President who already didn’t necessarily like each other. President Taft may not have realized exactly how sick Sherman was. Six days before Election Day, Vice President Sherman died. It had no effect on a campaign that Taft was already certain to lose — he carried just two states and finished third in popular and Electoral votes behind Wilson and Roosevelt. With Sherman’s death the 8 Electoral votes intended for him as Taft’s running mate instead went to Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler.
So, there you have it. Seven Vice Presidents have died in office. In addition, there have been eleven more times that VPs have vacated the office: two resigned (John C. Calhoun and Spiro Agnew) and nine VPs assumed the Presidency (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald Ford). In total, 18 of the 47 Vice Presidents — or 38% (!) — have vacated the office for some reason. Since the 25th Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1967, only two of those vacancies have been filled by a Presidential appointment — Gerald Ford, appointed by President Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew, and Nelson Rockefeller, appointed by President Ford to replace…um…Gerald Ford.
(If you’ve lasted all the way through this post to this final sentence, you win a prize for your commitment, congratulations.)