Last week, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate. For those who remember, Harris raked Biden over the coals on racial issues in the primary debates, specifically his opposition to the practice of busing as a means of desegregation. When it comes to politics, its hard to know who gets along and who doesn’t based on public words and actions alone…we tend to find this out later through historical accounts. I don’t know if Biden and Harris get along personally behind the scenes, but if public appearances before the nomination tell the story, it wouldn’t seem to be the case. If the ticket is elected in November and my thoughts on this matter are correct, it also wouldn’t be the first time that presidents and their vice presidents haven’t gotten along. There are three particularly notable cases I present here.
Case 1: Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun
At the end of his time in office, Andrew Jackson had two famous regrets: that he didn’t shoot Henry Clay and that he didn’t hang Calhoun. What caused the level of enmity between Jackson and Calhoun to be so high were on matters both personal and political, and it begins with the Petticoat Affair.
Matters Get Personal: The Petticoat Affair
Andrew Jackson was always quite sensitive about rhetorical attacks on women and felt that his own wife’s death was brought on by the stress of learning of such attacks by people from the Adams campaign, namely that they were in a bigamous marriage and that Jackson had “stolen” Rachel from her husband. Thus, when gossip and accusations surrounded Secretary of War John Eaton and his wife, Peggy, that he had stolen her from her now late husband and that this had resulted in his suicide (which was false, he had died of pneumonia abroad), Jackson was furious. Peggy had formerly worked in a tavern and was more outspoken and flirtatious in her talk than society women of the time were expected to be, and had only married Eaton nine months after her husband’s passing, shorter than was commonly expected for mourning. Jackson was friends with the couple and had encouraged Eaton to marry her, and now the wives of other cabinet officers, led by Second Lady Floride Calhoun, were ostracizing the Eatons and not inviting them to social events. Even Jackson’s surrogate First Lady sided with Calhoun, which resulted in her being replaced by his daughter-in-law in serving the function of the First Lady. Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, who played it smart by siding with the Eatons, did Jackson a favor by resigning first to give him a pretext for reorganizing his cabinet, and he thus asked for the resignations of all cabinet members opposed to the Eatons. The entire cabinet save for Postmaster General William T. Barry resigned. Matters were made even worse between Jackson and Calhoun when it was revealed that as Secretary of War Calhoun had supported censuring Jackson for his invasion of Florida in 1818. Calhoun asked Eaton to bring up to Jackson the subject of publishing the correspondence between him and Jackson to clear the air on the matter. Eaton didn’t act, and Calhoun, under the belief that he had Jackson’s approval to publish the correspondence between him and Jackson during the Seminole War, did so in the Telegraph, which added fuel to the fire of Jackson’s fury.
Eaton was appointed Governor of the Florida Territory and then later as Minister to Spain while Van Buren was rejected for Ambassador to Britain by the tie-breaking vote of Calhoun, but this ultimately resulted instead in Van Buren replacing Calhoun after his resignation on December 28, 1832.
Matters Get Political: The Nullification Crisis
Jackson would not have expressed his regret for not hanging Calhoun over the Petticoat Affair, but it was the threat of secession that got him threatening executions. Jackson was the last president to have fought in any capacity in the Revolutionary War and given how hard he had fought and what he had suffered he would not tolerate talk of secession.
In 1832, Andrew Jackson signed into law a bill largely written by John Quincy Adams, now a Congressman, to moderately reduce tariffs from the 1828 Tariff of Abominations that he had signed into law as president. Southern states were still displeased with the state of tariffs rates, and none more so than South Carolina, which was suffering economic hardship at the time. South Carolina thus nullified both the Tariff of Abominations and the 1832 tariff. Calhoun, who was from the state, sided with it. Jackson resorted to signing a force bill into law that allowed him to use the navy to enforce the tariff. As a senator, Calhoun opposed it. When talk of secession reached his ears, he threatened to hang anyone who tried it. Ultimately, Jackson agreed to sign a compromise tariff proposed by the grand master of compromises, Henry Clay, the following year that resulted in South Carolina rescinding its nullification of the tariff while nullifying the force bill as a symbolic gesture.
Calhoun would, after resigning the Vice Presidency, use his influence to push a radical view of state’s rights in defense of slavery, which led to the War of the Rebellion that he predicted shortly before his death in 1850.
Case 2: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Nance Garner
FDR, Kansas Gov. Harry Woodring, and John Nance Garner
Franklin D. Roosevelt had a grand total of three vice presidents, and although he and John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner got along fine in his first term in office and he was critical for the enactment of the First 100 Days legislation, the relationship began to turn for the worse when Roosevelt and Garner started having some significant disagreements. Garner had throughout his Congressional career been more or less a progressive, but he had his limits, and FDR began crossing those with his second New Deal.
The relationship between Roosevelt and Garner broke down when they disagreed on approaches to labor strikes and the court-packing plan. Garner was no longer in the progressive camp and his influence helped similar developments among other Southern Democrats. He even helped the opponents of the court-packing plan during the debates. In 1940, both men seemed to agree that they would be parting ways, and Garner challenged FDR for reelection in the Democratic primary, but his bid got little steam. He remarked on the vice presidency that it “isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss”, which the press reported at the time as “warm spit” according to former Texas Congressman O.C. Fisher in his 1978 biography of Garner (Holley). Garner was ultimately replaced with reliable New Dealer Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace and never returned to Washington. He was, however, frequently consulted as an elder statesman at his residence in Uvalde, Texas, and John F. Kennedy even gave him a call on his 95th birthday…November 22nd, 1963. “Cactus Jack” died in 1967.
Case 3: John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson
This is the most recent case of the president and vice president famously not getting along, and it was more due to personality than politics. Kennedy and Johnson in many ways were ideologically on the same page, and the Great Society itself was a continuation and expansion of the New Frontier. John F. Kennedy’s friends and associates were Ivy League school people from New England, while Johnson stuck out like a sore thumb as a rural Southerner who could be quite crass and crude. Johnson thought of Kennedy as a political lightweight who hadn’t done much as a senator and knew that Kennedy was a sicker man than he appeared to the public. Robert Caro states that Johnson said of Kennedy, “Did you ever see his ankles? They’re only this big around, and he’s sickly, yellow, yellow, not a man’s man” (Putnam).
Kennedy didn’t care for Johnson either, although unlike his brother and other members of his cabinet, he didn’t show it. He felt he had to pick him in 1960 to win the state of Texas, a political calculation which seems justified given that the Kennedy-Johnson ticket won by only two points in the state. Some of Johnson’s most miserable years in politics were as vice president, as he no longer, even though his title was President of the Senate, carried authority there as senators by and large wanted his successor, Mike Mansfield of Montana, to maintain his own authority as Majority Leader. His worst enemy in the president’s cabinet was Attorney General Bobby Kennedy…the two men despised each other from the moment they met. In 1963 Kennedy allegedly decided to dump Johnson in 1964 and instead pick either Governor Terry Sanford of North Carolina or Senator George Smathers of Florida, the latter who was a moderate and his best friend in the Senate. Kennedy’s justification would be the scandal surrounding his right-hand man, Bobby Baker, who eventually went to prison for his corruption. Of course, history tells a different story.
Andrew Jackson – Key Events. Miller Center.
Holley, J. (2014, July 26). “Cactus Jack” Garner was as prickly as his nickname. Houston Chronicle.
Putnam, T. (2012, May 16). Interview of Robert Caro: LBJ: From Senate Majority Leader to President, 1958-1964. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Remini, R.V. (1981). Andrew Jackson and the course of American Freedom, 1822-1832. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.