Ten Fun Facts: FDR's Record Setting Number of Vice Presidents



President Roosevelt's three vice presidents - John Nance Garner, Henry Wallace and Harry S. Truman


Each week I set out to research and document ten "fun facts" on a topic loosely based on the two books I've reviewed that week.  "Loosely" being the operative word. 

This week I reviewed First In Line, Kate Andersen Brower's readable and informative book about US Vice Presidents from Nixon to Pence, and Jon Meacham's Franklin and Winston, his account of the friendship that grew between Roosevelt and Churchill during the conduct of World War II.

The role and responsibility of the vice president has grown over time, with many of those in Brower's book giving credit to Carter and Mondale for setting the shape of the modern VP's role and responsibilities. Prior to Mondale, most VP's had no particular portfolio of responsibilities and their primary role was merely to be available should the President die or become incapacitated. 

In keeping with the focus of Meacham's book, there is very little mention at all in the pages of Franklin and Winston about Roosevelt's Vice Presidents. However, just as Roosevelt set the record as the longest serving US President, he also holds the record as the President with the most Vice Presidents. Seven US Presidents have had two Vice Presidents but only FDR had three. 

Here then are this week's ten fun facts on FDR's record setting number of Vice Presidents:


A Record Setting Number of Vice Presidents

A bit about Roosevelt's records before we dive into this week's list -

Even though George Washington set the tradition by leaving office after two presidential terms, there was legally no term limit to the presidency until the passage of the 22nd Amendment in 1951. Unless the Constitution is further amended to change this limit, Franklin Roosevelt will continue to hold the record as America's longest serving president, and the only president to have been elected four times.

On the other hand, the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967 means that it is not impossible that FDR's record number of VPs could be matched or exceeded. The 25th directs the President to nominate a replacement should the office of Vice President ever become vacant. (Prior to that time should a vacancy occur the office would remain vacant until the next election.) So, under the 25th it would be possible for a two term President to have a Vice Presidential vacancy occur in his first term, name a replacement for the remainder of the first term, and then select a third person to run alongside them for a second term. And then experience another vacancy during a  second term to end up with four VPs. 

While such a set of circumstances is theoretically possible, the likelihood seems pretty low, and I'd wager that Roosevelt's record number of VPs will stand. 

With that, here we go - 
  1. Vice President #1 - John Nance Garner - Garner was a Texan. Born in 1868 he was older than Roosevelt by over 13 years. He himself had run against Roosevelt as a candidate for President. Though he had the backing of the Texas and California delegates, he had trailed both Roosevelt and Al Smith going into the 1932 convention in Chicago. On the fourth ballet the presidential nomination went to Roosevelt, and the convention then unanimously named Garner the VP nominee. Elected with Roosevelt, Garner became the 32nd Vice President.
  2. Garner Brought Experience - Garner was the Speaker of the House when nominated to the VP slot, where he had represented Texas since 1902. His long legislative experience became instrumental in helping to steer New Deal legislation through Congress, particularly during FDR's famous "first one hundred days". He was enthusiastically renominated in 1936.
  3. Garner and Roosevelt Part Ways - During FDR's second term, political differences between Garner and the President became pronounced. Garner viewed much of FDR's New Deal legislation as "temporary measures" and he was more fiscally conservative than FDR, hoping the president would cut programs and aim for balancing the budget in the second term. Things came to a head though over Roosevelt's US Supreme Court "court packing" attempts, which Garner did not agree with at all. Though Roosevelt hinted he might run for a third term, Garner himself put his hat in the ring and the two ended up running against each other. Roosevelt, of course, won the round.
  4. Garner's Famous Quote - The oft-repeated phrase that the Vice Presidency "isn't worth a bucket of spit" is attributed to Garner, who is said to have uttered it upon acceptance of his party's nomination. However, if he actually said it, it's at odds with his usefulness and legislative influence as VP.
  5. Vice President #2 - Henry Wallace - Going in to the 1940 convention, Roosevelt was of a mind to "revolutionize" the office of the VP by investing it with administrative and policy responsibilities. He thus looked for someone who could handle a larger role and settled on his Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace. As Ag Secretary Wallace had presided over the New Deal shift in policy that curtailed agricultural surpluses and sought to reduce rural hunger. 
  6. Wallace Hand Picked - Roosevelt had considered more than one choice for his VP but he settled on Wallace and was able to convince the 1940 convention to select him. Prior to this the presidential nominee played only a partial role in the selection of the vice presidential nominee. But Roosevelt's influence helped solidify the practice of the person at the top of the ticket selecting the vice presidential nominee, and that is the common practice today.
  7. Wallace the "Mystic" - Unlike Garner, Wallace was a bust when it came to working with Congress. He was a "farmer-intellectual", who was shy and socially inept. He was also considered very spiritual and somewhat derisively referred to as a "mystic". All of this, but mostly his social liberalism, led Democratic Party leaders to convince Roosevelt to abandon him in 1944.
  8. Vice President #3 - Harry S Truman - The "backroom politics" that led to Harry Truman becoming the VP candidate at the 1944 Democratic convention involved conspiratorial maneuvering and secrecy. While Roosevelt publicly supported Wallace, behind the scenes he worked with party leaders to find a substitute, and was convinced by them to select Truman. All of those involved in this maneuvering, including the president, realized that Roosevelt's health was declining and that the choice of a Vice President was therefore very important. (Roosevelt had even told confidants that he was considering resigning half way through the fourth term, as he knew his health was not good and wanted some time for a peaceful retirement. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to make good on that consideration.)
  9. Wallace Swore In Truman - On January 20, 1945 Henry Wallace swore in Harry Truman as Vice President. This marked the last time a sitting Vice President swore in his successor. The modern practice is for the VP to select a family member or friend to administer the oath.
  10. Truman in the Dark - Truman succeeded Roosevelt as the 33rd President of the US on April 12, 1945 following Roosevelt's death of cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, GA earlier that day. He had been Vice President for only 82 days. During that time he rarely interacted with Roosevelt. He had received no briefing on the Manhattan Project, only learning of it's existence and the potential for the atomic bomb after being sworn into office. Of becoming president he is quoted as saying “I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
So there you have it. Do you have any thoughts on this week's fun facts? Leave a comment below.

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