by Clyde Wilson
by Clyde Wilson
Our foremost newsmagazine, TIME, and our foremost news network, CNN, have gathered their resources to present to the world a learned disquisition on "America's Worst Vice Presidents." Professor Thomas DiLorenzo has already revealed the idiocy of TIME's history in regard to John C. Calhoun, picked as the third worst VP. ("Time's Comic Book History," LewRockwell.com, August 26.) He shows that writer Tiffany Sharples is utterly clueless about the context of the times and the history of abolitionism and nullification.
But this venture in historical enlightenment is even worse than that. Why in the world should VPs be rated at all? By what criteria does one identify a "good" or a "bad" Vice-President? Our fearless historians have not even considered this question. For instance, Elbridge Gerry is announced to be the second worst VP, not for anything he did as VP, which was nothing, but because his name got attached, somewhat unfairly, to "gerrymandering." In fact, Gerry was an admirable Anti-federalist and Jeffersonian, one of the few Massachusetts leaders to defy the nasty centralist establishment of that State. Of course, those perennial Presidential ratings are equally stupid. Andrew Jackson was a great man but not a great President. One can imagine a great President who was not a great person. And greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, only more so.
John C. Calhoun was a great Vice-President if there ever was such a thing. He broke tie votes to defeat tariff provisions and "internal improvements" boondoggles. He absolutely refused to be dominated by either of the Presidents of his time, and he resigned when he had better things to do.
It gets worser and worser. The whole ridiculous undertaking is totally anachronistic in that it fails to apprehend that the office of Vice-President has changed in its significance over time.
The conception of 2000 is foolishly applied to a very different world and political system of 1800 (or 1900). In the Constitution the Vice-President has only the duty to preside over the Senate, allowed to vote only to break a tie, and to fill in if the President dies. For a long time VPs did nothing much and were not thought much about. The first time a President died in office, many people considered that John Tyler was not President but merely an "Acting President."
Prior to the 20th century only one Vice-President ever became President except by death of a President. Secretaries of State were thought of as more Presidential material than VPs. The VP was not regarded as an "Assistant President." That became the case only in the 1950s, when, because of the atomic age and two Eisenhower heart attacks, attention began to be focused on the importance of a Vice-President, and Nixon was able to parlay that attention into a Presidential nomination. And only in very recent years has any VP achieved the power of Dick Cheney or has the candidate been handpicked by a Presidential nominee even before the convention.
So it is really quite stupid to evaluate 19th-century VPs by 21st-century notions.
Poor Tiffany repeats the grade school boiler-plate that John C. Calhoun was Vice-President "under" J.Q. Adams and Jackson. Actually, Calhoun was "under" nobody. In 1824 he was elected Vice-President with a large majority, twice as many electoral votes as Adams, a minority candidate who only became President because of a "corrupt bargain" when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives.
And Ms. Tiffany tells us that Calhoun fell out with Adams's successor Jackson because Calhoun "seemed to forget the cardinal rule of the second-most powerful job in the land — keep your boss happy — and his relationship with Jackson hit the rocks over Calhoun's decision to ostracize a Washington woman accused of adultery." Every word of this passage is either a falsehood or a complete anachronism. Jackson was not Calhoun's boss, though Calhoun as Secretary of War had once been General Jackson's boss. Calhoun did not have the "second most powerful job in the land." Calhoun made no decision to ostracize the adulterous woman, Peggy Eaton. Such action was a matter for ladies and the decision to ostracize (which was quite justified) had already been made by the ladies of Washington, including Jackson's own niece and hostess, before Calhoun, or Mrs. Calhoun, even got to town. (Don't get me started on the historians who continue to present as history a century-and-a half-old political demagoguery.)
TIME's absurdities would scarcely even be worth notice, except for this. Ms. Tiffany probably learned all this in her history classes at Sarah Lawrence or wherever. Every day hundreds of thousands of college students are taught such ignorant and malicious lies and such a childish present-centered idea of history. Every week "scholarly" books are published that reflect the same quality of thought and knowledge. Their authors often appear on CNN to discuss their works.
Aaron Burr is picked as the worst VP. I disagree strenuously. It ought to be Cheney. After all, when Burr shot somebody, he had a good reason.
August 28, 2008
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