A Brief History
On February 19, 1807, former Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, the same guy that shot Alexander Hamilton to death in a duel while Burr was serving as Vice President, was arrested for treason. Burr is just one of several US Vice Presidents or former Vice Presidents that ran afoul of the law or otherwise engaged in nefarious or questionable behavior. Today we look at some of these ill-starred #2 politicians. As always, feel free to tell us who you would add to this list and why.
Burr first earned notoriety while serving as Vice President when he shot and killed former US Secretary of the Treasury and Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in a duel. It seems Burr was angry because Burr and Thomas Jefferson had tied in the electoral college in the presidential election of 1800, and Hamilton was instrumental in Jefferson being chosen over Burr by the House of Representatives. (Cracked fact: Hamilton’s eldest was also killed in a duel, in 1801.) Hamilton, a longtime rival of Burr, also was instrumental in Burr being defeated for the Governorship of New York. While Burr was not prosecuted for the killing, he later ran afoul of the law when he was accused of leading a treasonous plot to create a rival country to the United States on the Western frontier, allegedly wanting to seize parts of the Louisiana Purchase territory and parts of Mexico for this alleged new country. Burr was accused and charged for treason, arrested and tried on the orders of President Thomas Jefferson, though the evidence was far less than compelling. Burr was acquitted at trial in 1807, but his reputation and political viability had been ruined. Part of the reason for his acquittal was the rationale that conspiracy without actual deeds was not a crime. (Some would debate that logic!) Burr was compelled to leave the United States for Europe, and when he returned in 1812, he assumed a new name, practicing law in New York in relative obscurity until his death in 1836.
A ruthless business type, Cheney wielded out of proportion influence on President George W. Bush during Bush’s first term, including a pivotal role in urging Bush to invade Iraq in 2003. Cheney had his moment of shame when he fired a shot at a low flying Quail between himself and Harry Whittington, a 78 year old attorney. The pellet that hit or penetrated Whittington’s heart (yes, even lawyers have hearts!) caused Whittington to have a heart attack and go into atrial fibrillation, nearly killing the old man. In the manner typical of government lying, misleading and failure to report, the incident was not made public until February 12, 2006, and Cheney did not address the public about it until February 15. When Dick Cheney finally told his story, he claimed Whittington suffered only a “minor” injury (Baloney!) and that the 2 men were close friends. Whittington later said he was an acquaintance of Cheney’s, and not “close friends.” Also, some discrepancy about what day the shooting took place with the owner of the 50,000 acre Texas hunting ranch claiming the incident took place on February 12. The time of the shooting is also somewhat unclear, with the local Sheriff not notified until late afternoon, presumably long after the shooting, though the Secret Service reported notifying the local gendarmes an hour after the incident. The ranch owner said the hunting party “was not drinking,” but also said they were drinking beer at lunch time! Normally, it is illegal to hunt under the influence of alcohol or for that matter to handle firearms. Cheney claimed to have had “1 beer” 4 or 5 hours prior to the shooting, but of course, we do not know because no blood alcohol test was administered as would have been the case if you or I shot someone! Recreations of the shooting imply that the range at which Whittington was shot was closer than the 30 yards reported by Cheney. Comedians and news reporters had a field day making fun of Cheney and denouncing his inconsistent accounts, and Cheney’s already abysmal popularity rating of 23% dropped to 18% with 2 weeks of the incident. Speculation that authorities were not promptly notified in order to allow Cheney to metabolize some of the alcohol in his system were rampant. Cultural references, mostly comedic, are still popping up. Cheney has also been criticized for other bird hunts that amounted to mass slaughters, not the sporting hunting of wild game. Dick Cheney, an infamous grinch, has never apologized to Whittington for shooting the old man with 200 lead pellets in the face, neck, arm, chest and other body parts.
During the tumultuous times of the Watergate Scandal, 1972-1974, the Nixon administration was under fire for not only dirty tricks related to burglarizing and stealing documents from their Democratic political foes, but also for the ensuing cover up involved. For a while it appeared that at least Vice President Agnew, a curmudgeonly crank, abrasive and hard to like, was at least not involved in either the botched burglary or the cover up. Not so fast! It turned out Agnew had a totally different skeleton in his closet that came to light, that of an investigation begun in 1973 by the US Attorney in Maryland, concerning Agnew’s activities while Governor of Maryland and as a Baltimore County Executive. Agnew was believed to have engaged in extortion, bribery and tax fraud involving kickbacks on construction projects. When faced with overwhelming evidence and inevitable conviction, Agnew instead chose to resign the Vice Presidency in October of 1973 and plead guilty to reduced charges and avoided prison. When Nixon himself resigned in 1974, the new Vice President, Gerald Ford, became President. Agnew could well have been that man that assumed the Presidency except for his corrupt past, a past he defended to the grave, but nobody was listening.
After Abraham Lincoln changed Vice Presidents for his second term, dumping Hannibal Hamlin for Andrew Johnson, Andrew Johnson was soon elevated to the Presidency when Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, barely into his second term. Johnson presided over the Union victory in the American Civil War, and the contentious period afterwards, a time when Americans were hotly divided over how to heal the nation. Johnson became the first ever US President to be impeached, in his case for allegedly failing to comply with the Tenure of Office Act that had passed over Johnson’s veto, specifically, over Johnson’s desire to replace Secretary of War Stanton. Johnson was acquitted by the Senate and completed the rest of Lincoln’s second term. The debate with Stanton and with the Congress had been over Johnson’s handling of reconstruction, and Congress seemed eager to look for any reason to impeach Johnson. Failing to find any corruption, Congress went with Johnson’s suspension of Stanton for insubordination as the reason for impeachment. Johnson narrowly avoided removal from office, with 35 Senators voting “guilty” and only 19 Senators voting “not guilty,” a mere single vote shy of removing the President!
Tricky Dick Nixon served as Vice President under President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961, but it was later when he became President on his own (1969-1974) that he got into real trouble. Although Nixon was not involved in ordering or planning the infamous break-in of Democratic offices at the Watergate Hotel complex, Nixon was indeed caught red handed in attempting to cover up the crimes, leading to his threatened impeachment that forced his resignation in 1974 in the face of certain conviction in the Senate if impeached. Nixon so far has been our only President to resign his office. Prior to his resignation, Nixon had vehemently denied being “a crook,” but was found to have cheated on his taxes and was forced to repay $465,000 to the Government!
Question for students (and subscribers):Who is your favorite Vice President? Your least favorite? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Hayes, Stephen. Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President. Tantor Audio, 2007.
Witcover, Jules. Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon & Spiro Agnew. PublicAffairs, 2007.
The featured image in this article, an illustration of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, after the painting by J. Mund, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.