His Superfluous Excellency: Tales of the Vice Presidency

This is a guest post by Valerie Haeder, a reference librarian in the Serial and Government Publications Division.

A handful of presidents are remembered for their greatness, but most are relegated to the footnotes of history. Even fewer vice presidents have achieved fame and favor, with one—Vice President John Nance Garner who served under Franklin Roosevelt—known more for his notorious, if not apocryphal, description of the vice presidency (“[It] is not worth a bucket of warm spit!”) than for his deeds.

“John Nance Garner—‘Superb Democrat,’” The Sunday Star (Washington, DC), March 5, 1933, Magazine section, p. 4.

On this Presidents Day we recognize the men who served in—for what it’s worth—the second highest office in the land.

Walter Mondale was vice president to Jimmy Carter, but he may be remembered best not for what he said but for Ronald Reagan’s quips directed at him during the 1984 presidential debates. At the time, President Reagan was 73, the oldest candidate for president up to that point. When asked about his advanced age, Reagan replied, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Although the joke was on him, even Walter Mondale, couldn’t help erupt into laughter at Reagan’s quick wit.

Cartoon by MStreeter (Mark Goodson Streeter), Savannah Morning News (Savannah, Georgia), October 30, 2002.










A name almost completely lost to history is Hannibal Hamlin, second in command to Abraham Lincoln. He managed a measure of fame with his name being the inspiration for Hamlin County, South Dakota. But most fascinating, he was a private in the Union Army, serving on active duty during the Civil War while vice president of the United States!

“The War Day by Day,” The Washington Herald (Washington, DC), September 14, 1914, p. 4.

“President Cleveland, Vice President Hendricks and the Cabinet,” The Florida Agriculturist (DeLand, FL), March 11, 1885, p. 859.

Thomas Hendricks served—more like butted heads with—Grover Cleveland. The two were at odds with each other, so much so that when Cleveland ran for president, Hendricks tried removing Cleveland from the ticket on the grounds that he was morally unfit for the presidency.  After all, Maria Halpin, a woman with whom Cleveland had an affair, claimed Cleveland was the father of her child. Despite being running mates, Cleveland’s and Hendricks’ relationship improved only when Hendricks died in November 1885, serving as vice president for about half a year…six months too long for both men.

Although Harry Truman succeeded to the presidency, it wasn’t due to hidden ambition for the office. He was content to serve President Franklin Roosevelt with little desire to ascend to the top political office in the country. In fact, when he became president, he was wholly unaware of the Manhattan Project that would come to fruition a few months later in August 1945.

A haberdasher before entering the political fray, Truman was never much of a success throughout his early career. He was a favorite of Missouri political bosses, but personally was upright and known for deferring to his wife and his rather interfering mother-in-law, and fiercely protective of his family. Paul Hume critiqued a vocal recital by Harry’s daughter Margaret, describing in The Washington Post, December 7, 1950, that Margaret had a “pleasant voice…and fair quality. Yet Miss Truman cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time.” Loyal and decent as only a father can be, Harry Truman famously berated Hume, granted, while serving as president instead of vice president: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose.” Isn’t politics so much more tidy and civil today?

“Truman Takes Oath as President of United States,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 13, 1945, p. A-3.

Only 48 people have served as “His Superfluous Excellency,” the term Ben Franklin supposedly coined for the vice presidency. But many still consider it nice work if you can get it.

“His Superfluous Excellency,” The Port Tobacco Times and Charles County Advertiser (Port Tobacco, MD), July 3, 1874, p. 2.

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