7 Vice Presidents: The Great “What-If” Presidencies (revised)

by Jonathan Hobratsch

The following post was originally published by The Huffington Post on 7/21/2011. I retain the rights to my blog, as per Huffington Post‘s conditions. I repost it here with a few revisions for your enjoyment. 

Eight out of forty-seven vice presidents (or 17%) reached immortality as “accidental presidents” either through death or through resignation of the sitting president. Many of them took an independent course from the running mate that they replaced, leading to nation-strengthening or nation-weakening decisions.

Out of the vice presidents that have ascended to the highest office, two became great presidents (Teddy Roosevelt and Truman), two were about average (Arthur and Ford), one was a wild card (Lyndon Johnson), and four have been among the worst presidents (Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and arguably Coolidge).

What other vice presidents-turned-presidents could have altered American history as much as a Roosevelt, Truman, Fillmore or LBJ?

I had many vice presidents worthy of discussion, but I thought these seven inspired the most interesting “what-if” scenarios. As a matter of propriety, I will not include the presidencies of any living presidents. It will be up to the reader to ponder a Quayle or Gore presidency. Here’s my list:

  • Aaron Burr (VP for Thomas Jefferson) killed Alexander Hamilton and was later accused of treason. Despite this, he was roundly considered kind, generous, and a firm believer in equality for women. Although, it is true he could be self-serving and prideful. In my alternate scenario, Jefferson succumbs to illness in 1803 and Burr takes over. Since Burr is busy as president, Alexander Hamilton is not killed at age 49 in their famous duel; therefore, the Federalist Party maintains a strong influence well into the 19th century. Without Jefferson’s leadership, the Democratic-Republican Party is significantly altered. It is interesting to ponder how our country would have developed if Burr had not shot the highly influential Mr. Hamilton.
  • John C. Calhoun’s (VP for J. Q. Adams and Andrew Jackson) selection is merely cosmetic for the most part. Look at him! The only vice president to serve two presidents of two different parties might have caused a lot of damage had he replaced a fallen JQ Adams or Jackson.Adams and Calhoun were vehemently opposed to each other in about everything. Adams valued Northern ideals and was a promoter of a strong central government; Whereas, Calhoun had strong Southern values and was the ultimate promoter of States’ Rights and secession. He jumped to Jackson’s ticket in the next election, but found that Jackson wasn’t extreme enough for him.
  • Richard Mentor Johnson (VP for Martin Van Buren) would have been a conundrum and a disaster as a president in antebellum America. His common-law wife and mother of his children (he raised them as his own) was one of his slaves. If the president’s slave could be a common-law wife, then could this common-law wife be the First Lady? She eventually died and Johnson tried to marry one of his other slaves who decided to run away from him. Eventually, he settled for her sister. More problematic for the presidency was the fact that he generally gave incoherent speeches, was comically unpopular and wore the same bright red vest every day.
  • William Rufus King (VP for Franklin Pierce) was dying of tuberculosis when he was sworn in as Vice President. If Pierce had succumbed, and King shortly thereafter, then the presidency would have fallen to David Rice Atchison, President Pro Tempore of the Senate. The succession law was different from 1792-1886. Also, the president didn’t appoint a new VP to fill out a term until much later. Atchison is famous for the myth of having been “president for a day” in 1849. He was pro-slavery expansionist and may have looked south in expanding the country. King is notable for being best friend, and possible lover, of bachelor president James Buchanan.
  • Garret Hobart (VP for William McKinley) was the first vice president to work regularly with the president. If McKinley had been shot earlier, and Hobart became president, then it is likely that Teddy Roosevelt may never have become president. Hobart died in office, which allowed Roosevelt on the ticket when McKinley ran for reelection. If Hobart was president, and died in office, the presidency under the new Succession Act of 1886, would have moved to John Hay, Secretary of State, making him the new president. Hay had been a close friend and secretary to Abraham Lincoln, and he may have injected some Lincolnism back into the Republican Party.
  • Henry A. Wallace (VP for Franklin Roosevelt) was the second of three VPs under Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure. Wallace, who had pacifist tendencies, might have kept America neutral during WWII had FDR died before December 7, 1941. Controversially, Wallace also supported close ties with the Soviet Union (he later ran as the Progressive Party candidate and was endorsed by the Communist Party). The possible outcomes of a Wallace presidency are seemingly innumerable. Also, there would have been no Truman presidency.
  • Richard Nixon (VP for Dwight Eisenhower) in the 1950s? Surprise! Yes, he became president anyway, but imagine Nixon as president sixteen years earlier. Eisenhower had health problems and this could have been a possibility. In 1953, Nixon would have been 40 years old, possibly less paranoid, and probably a slightly different man politically. Overall, there would have been no Watergate, no “Nixon Shock“, etc.

One Comment Add yours

  1. The young Nixon would have been embroiled in the Vaporgate controversy (involving a sauna and a shadowy character named Infinite Esophagus) only to return for a second term in 1984 in which the Icegate debacle would lead him to be cold-shouldered to death on national TV by 2/3rds of the Alaskan Senate 🙂 –Paul


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