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Hail To The Veep: America's Executive Underdog

Forty-seven men have been vice president. John Adams was the first, and he ascended to the presidency after George Washington's second term. But only 13 other vice presidents did that.

With Presidents Day just around the corner, we want to salute the rest of them — the overlooked vice presidents who never rose higher than that office, and then quietly shrank from the national stage.

Vice presidents may have their own march ("Hail Columbia," in case you're wondering), but that doesn't mean they haven't had it tough. They've been known to endure both obscurity and ridicule.

The prominent Sen. Hubert Humphrey served as President Lyndon B. Johnson's vice president from 1965 to 1969 only to become the target of a musical satire by singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer. Lehrer sings, "Whatever became of Hubert?" and he's right in wondering that. The vice presidency swallowed Humphrey up, just like it did Daniel D. Tompkins, William Rufus King, William A. Wheeler, Thomas A. Hendricks, Levi P. Morton and many more.

In other words, it's possible to be a heartbeat away from the presidency and yet as functional as an appendix.

Memorable And Forgettable New Yorkers

Still, there are ways to escape being forgotten as vice president.

Aaron Burr served as vice president under Thomas Jefferson from 1801 to 1805. In 1804, Burr killed political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel over his reputation.
/ AP
Aaron Burr served as vice president under Thomas Jefferson from 1801 to 1805. In 1804, Burr killed political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel over his reputation.

Thomas Jefferson's first vice president, New Yorker Aaron Burr, managed to keep his name in the history books by taking the shoot-someone-prominent approach. He killed Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel.

Jefferson's second vice president was New York Gov. George Clinton. (Incidentally, New York has given the country more vice presidents than any other state.) Clinton was memorialized with a bridge over the Hudson River — at least kind of. It's called the George Clinton Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, but according to the Rev. Kenneth Walsh of the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, N.Y., "Most people call it the Rhinecliff Bridge."

Clinton is buried in the Old Dutch Church's cemetery. Well, first he was buried in Washington, then he was reinterred in Walsh's graveyard.

"When he was buried here in 1909, it was with great ceremony," Walsh says. "There are actually photographs of people standing next to his skeleton — rather gruesome."

Yet another thing Clinton can be remembered for.

Vice President and fellow New Yorker Daniel Tompkins is also buried in a New York churchyard. He served under President James Monroe from 1817 to 1825. It's said that Tompkins spent much of his vice presidency dead drunk. Despite that, Manhattan's Tompkins' Square bears his name.

Another New Yorker, James Schoolcraft Sherman, served under President William H. Taft from 1909 to 1912. Some say he was the first sitting vice president to fly in an airplane.

Frank Tomaino, a volunteer at the Oneida County Historical Society, says Sherman helped put his hometown of Utica, N.Y. — and Oneida County, N.Y. — in the national spotlight, and locals haven't forgotten him for it. According to Tomaino, the area has two streets named after James Schoolcraft Sherman — Sherman Place and Sherman Avenue — and there's a statue of him on one of Utica's busiest highways.

A Hoosier VP 'Hotbed'

Indiana is America's second-greatest source of seconds in command — that's including those who were born there and those who were just associated with the state.

"We're a hotbed for vice presidents," says Dan Johns, curator of the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center in Huntington, Ind., "Schuyler Colfax, Charles Warren Fairbanks, Thomas [Andrews] Hendricks, Thomas Riley Marshall."

And, of course, there's the center's founder, J. Danforth Quayle.

Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's vice president, was considered to be a big jokester. Once, while presiding over the Senate, Marshall whispered this wisecrack in response to a long-winded member who was cataloging the nation's many needs: "What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar."

"And of course he become immortal for saying that," Johns says.

Lesser-Known Legacies

Most states were not as effective as New York or Indiana in producing vice presidents. Maine has given the country only two: Nelson Rockefeller, who served under President Gerald Ford, and Hannibal Hamlin. Hamlin served as vice president during Abraham Lincoln's first term, so he never succeeded to the presidency. Still, Hamlin wasn't entirely forgotten. There's a statue of him in the U.S. Capitol and in a public park in Bangor, Maine, and according to Dana Lippitt of the Bangor Museum and History Center, "he's also considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Republican Party." Well, at least the Maine Republican Party.

Kansas contributed one vice president under Herbert Hoover, Charles Curtis, who brought a unique ethnic heritage to the office.

"The thing that we celebrate in Kansas is his Indian heritage," says Kansas historian Virgil Dean. Curtis was the only vice president who could claim a strong Native American upbringing.

You'd have good reason for never having heard of Jeremiah Jones Colbath of Farmington, N.H. The man born Colbath later changed his name to Henry Wilson and went on to serve as vice president in Ulysses S. Grant's second term, after Grant's first VP, Schuyler Colfax, vacated the office.

According to Jennifer Hance of the Natick Historical Society in Natick, Mass., "What kept [Wilson] from further political experience was he died."

The Vice Presidential Standout

The list of vice presidents goes on and on, but you get the point. It's a lonely office that doesn't offer much of a legacy — at least not until recently.

No retrospective of vice presidents is complete without including the special status of Calvin Coolidge's garrulous and talented one. In 1925, the year he entered office, Charles G. Dawes was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in World War I. Before that, in 1912, he composed "Melody in A Major." Years later, Carl Sigman added lyrics and renamed it "It's All in the Game." Tommy Edwards made the tune a hit in the fall of 1958, when it spent six weeks as No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

So it was that Dawes — our 30th vice president — distinguished himself from the pack by becoming the only vice president to have both a Top 10 hit and a Nobel Peace Prize. That's an achievement that not even a president can claim.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, incorrectly implies that there were 15 vice presidents who ascended to the presidency. The actual number is 14.