Happy Birthday to John Adams, America's first veep. Adams had a brilliant mind and was quick to let everyone know it. Pompous, arrogant, abrasive, he wasn't what they call now a people person. Adams led a month long debate on the proper title of the President of the United States. One name he pushed was “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.”
It is Theodore Roosevelt's birthday today. He was only vice president for a short time before ascending to the Oval Office thanks to an anarchist in Buffalo, making him the youngest president to date. He was a man of great ambition and unbelievable energy. He read several books a day, often in foreign languages. He was the governor of New York and a bona fide cowboy. He once wanted a pet so he tamed a badger. Happy Birthday, TR.
But who I really want to talk about is Richard Mentor Johnson, America’s ninth vice president. Today is his 234th birthday. If you ever wanted to get a sense of just how weird the slavery debate was prior to the Civil War, look no further than Johnson.
While out on the frontier during the War of 1812, Johnson first made a name for himself by allegedly shooting Shawnee chief Tecumseh. At the time, Johnson was already a representative for the state of Kentucky to the House of Representatives. Being a bona-fide war hero, however, put him in the political limelight.
By all accounts, Johnson didn’t really care much for convention. He rarely combed his hair. He once described his upbringing as being “born in a cane brake and cradled in a sap trough.” English author Harriet Martineau, who sat opposite him in a White House function, described him thusly: “If he should become President, he will be as a strange-looking a potentate as ever ruled. His countenance is wild, though with much cleverness in it, his hair wanders all abroad, and he wears no cravat. But there is no telling how he might look if he dressed like other people.” The doorkeeper of the U.S. Senate was more blunt, calling him "the most vulgar man of all vulgar men.”
Yet this was the age of Andrew Jackson. Being rough around the edges was considered to be a political asset. Before he became Martin Van Buren’s running mate in 1836, he angled to become Jackson’s. In short, Johnson, for all his eccentricities, seemed to have a bright political future.
Except for one thing. He was in a common-in-law marriage with his mulatto slave Julie Chinn. Johnson had inherited Chinn from his father and soon fell in love with her. Chinn ran Johnson’s plantation as the lady of the house during Johnson’s long absences in Washington. He even had two (reportedly gorgeous) daughters with Chinn -- Imogene and Aledine. Johnson made sure that both of his children were properly educated and that they both ended up marrying white men.
But don’t mistake Johnson for being some forward-thinking love revolutionary. When Chinn died of cholera in 1833, Johnson took up with another slave, Chinn’s niece. The only problem was that she was already married to another slave and refused his affection. So he pulled ultimate asshole power play - he sold her off. Then he took up with her sister.
Johnson’s complicated personal life, not surprisingly, scandalized some in Washington. Amos Kendall, a close personal associate with Andrew Jackson, described Johnson’s companion as "a young Delilah of about the complexion of Shakespeare’s swarthy Othello." She was "said to be his third wife; his second, which he sold for her infidelity, having been the sister of the present lady."
Nonetheless, as a war hero and a Westerner, Johnson was considered to be a good counterbalance to Van Buren’s East coast fussiness. During the election of 1836, he campaigned with Van Buren to the jingle, “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.” On election night, Van Buren got enough electoral votes to win. Johnson didn’t. Southern electors clearly didn’t approve of Johnson’s private life. So for the first time in US history, a vice president was appointed by the U.S. Senate.
Just imagine how American history would have been different if Van Buren died in office. The wild man from Kentucky might have be president and, for all intents and purposes, a black slave might have been first lady. Of course, that didn't happen and in 1840 both Van Buren and Johnson were voted out of office.
Years later, Johnson ended up the butt of a joke during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858. “I will add to this that I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men,” said Abraham Lincoln. “I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness – and that is the case of Judge Douglas’ old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson.”
Yesterday, I posted my interview with Katherine Harmon Courage, Scientific American editor and author of OCTOPUS! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea. I was delighted that she was willing to answer my absurd cephalopod/veep related questions. So I was even more stoked to learn that she wanted to interview me about Veeptopus. The interview, entitled WHEN CEPHALOPODS AND VICE PRESIDENTS COLLIDE: AN INTERVIEW WITH VEEPTOPUS CREATOR JONATHAN CROW, went up on her site this morning. I talk about my youthful dalliance with the Meese Beast. Give it a read.
Happy Cephalopod Awareness Day. That day that we are supposed to spare a moment to our eight to twelve-legged underwater brethren.
Now I’m a history nerd. Going into this project, I didn’t really know anything about octopuses. They have eight legs and they taste pretty good sautéed in butter, garlic and white wine – that was about the extent of my knowledge. So when I started this whole project, I didn’t give the octopuses much thought. They were basically tentacley punch lines.
But something happens to you when you draw an animal over a hundred times -- as I did with the octopus. You get curious. So I was tickled pink that Katherine Harmon Courage -- a contributing editor to Scientific American and author of the book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creatures of the Sea was willing to fill in some gaps in my ignorance and answer a few of my increasingly silly questions about the world’s smartest invertebrates. Since my interview, by the way, I read her book. It's informative and a lot of fun to read. Go buy multiple copies. And while you're at it, be sure to check out the Veeptopus store on Etsy.
Q: What is the allure of octopuses? People, I'm discovering, are really into them, much more than VPs. In traditional art and literature, did the octopus have specific meanings?
KHC: Yes, people are obsessed with the octopus. And I think for good reason. They're just so bizarre. They have evolved to have these eight flexible arms with hundreds of suckers. Most of their nerves are in their arms, but they can solve mazes and even seem to want to communicate with us humans. As one scholar put it, if you're looking to study alien intelligence, you really don't have to look much further than the octopus. Also, they can kill sharks.
But you wanted to know about traditional meanings, too. A lot of cultures had different associations for the octopus that we still know about today. In Hawaiian mythology, the octopus is the only survivor of an earlier iteration of the earth. There is also a legend from the Gilbert Islands that the octopus god is responsible for pushing up the islands from the sea. Of course there are plenty more modern stories about evil giant octopuses or kraken smashing boats or eating sailors. But I also got to visit the town of Tellaro in my research and learn about the local myth there, in which a giant octopus actually saved the town by warning villagers about an impending invasion. Our ancient Greek friend Aristotle, however, called the octopus "a stupid creature." So it looks like opinions were quite varied.
And I don't know if you're giving vice presidents enough credit. I often find them to be, if not creepy, at least a little bit mysterious.
Q: Have you in your research ever come across any connection with cephalopods and leaders of any stripe coming into contact with each other?
KHC: I'm eagerly awaiting photos of Putin battling a giant octopus. But I haven't learned of any. There's always a chance Van Buren had a brush with a nautilus, I suppose. If you want to broaden that to leading actors, I did come across a story about Mark Wahlberg's son having a too-close encounter with an octopus (in which Wahlberg threatens to kill the "calamari" that has latched onto his son's arm.
Q: One thing I tried to do with Veeptopus is come up with facts and stories about vice presidents to make them seem more human and interesting. Along the way, I learned some really surprising facts (Charles Dawes, VP to Coolidge, won a Nobel Peace Prize and he wrote a number one pop hit. Who knew?). Did you come across facts about your subject that shocked and surprised you? Any favorites?
KHC: All of them. I knew very little about the octopus going into writing this book (except that they could use tools). I haven't heard of any getting awarded Nobel Peace Prizes (or doing more for the music industry than inspiring a pop song--which perhaps the Nobel committee will someday consider). But I was amazed to find out that they can change color, texture and brightness, that they can taste with their suckers, that they can regrow whole arms, that the males sometimes donate an arm to females in the name of love, and that they are incredibly smart but entirely antisocial (to the point of being cannibalistic). Maybe it's the same for vice presidents, but I found the more I learned about the octopus, the more fascinating it became.
Q: You have a favorite cephalopod?
KHC: The octopus, of course! Although I think the cuttlefish often gets overlooked.
Q: Would an octopus hat be just icky and uncomfortable or would it be potentially lethal?
KHC: That would have to depend on the octopus. A chill deep-sea octopus might not be so bad on the head. But a big ol' giant Pacific octopus could be a pretty unwieldy headpiece. I also don't think I would want a feisty mimic octopus (unless it was pretending to be a hat). But I would stay far away from a tiny blue ringed octopus--even if just worn as a fascinator. They might look flashy, but they have a deadly venomous bite. You could also ask Fiona Apple.
Q: Who is your favorite vice president?
KHC: Favorite VP? It is difficult to choose based not on impressiveness of facial hair styling or height of shirt collars--or accomplishments after leaving the office of VP (hello there, Teddy Roosevelt). After a very small amount of research, I do appreciate Thomas Marshall's sense of humor (even if Woodrow Wilson did not). But I suppose I will cast my vote for Garrett Hobart. Not only is he one of those names lost to popular history--and the owner of a terrific mustache--but he also, it seems, helped to shape the role of the vice president as we know it today, asserting himself as a true presidential advisor, or as he was known, the "assistant president." If it weren't for him, perhaps vice presidents would never have seemed important enough to even receive octopus hats. And that would be a tragedy.
Q: Who would you rather face off against in a dark alley -- Dick Cheney or a Dick Cheney-sized octopus?
KHC: Is the Dick Cheney-sized octopus armed with a hunting rifle?
Today is Henry A. Wallace's birthday. He was FDR's second vice president and, until the previous VP, John Nance Garner, a committed New Dealer. In perhaps his most famous speak, he stated that, “Men and women can never be really free until they have plenty to eat, and time and ability to read and think and talk things over.” It's hard to imagine a mainstream politician of any stripe saying something like that these days. Wallace proved to be too left-leaning for the more conservative members of his party. FDR dropped him from the ticket in the 1944 in favor of Harry S Truman, who became president only a couple months after getting sworn in.
Today is Chester A. Arthur's 185th birthday. He’s of those rare vice presidents who ascended to the Oval Office yet still remains largely obscure.
Arthur came to office in the middle of a national tragedy. While walking through Union Station, the newly inaugurated President James Garfield, America’s first and only completely ambidextrous president, was gunned down by grade-A loony Charles Giteau. During the trial, Giteau argued that he just shot the president; the doctors actually killed him. And while this didn’t prove to be a compelling argument for the jury – Giteau was hanged – he probably had a point. President Reagan suffered from similar wounds one hundred years later at the hands of a love-struck John Hinckley Jr., but unlike Garfield, Reagan was back at work a couple weeks later. When Garfield’s doctor Dr. Willard Bliss – who was suspicious of Joseph Lister’s newfangled theories about germs – tended to the bleeding commander-in-chief, he jammed his horse manure-flecked fingers into the presidential wound, hoping to dig out the bullet. This is probably what killed him. Garfield lingered for three months before dying of blood poisoning, among other things.
At the time, the Republican Party was split between two factors. The Stalwarts, led by New York City kingpin Roscoe Conkling, who really, really liked handing out patronage jobs, and the unfortunately named Half-Breeds, who were not into patronage jobs. Arthur was a Stalwart. Garfield was not.
Giteau, who was dubbed “Charles Getout” at the Oneida free love commune before he was thrown out, came to Washington to look for a patronage job. When he was rebuffed, he figured he might have a better chance with a Stalwart in office. As he shot Garfield, he reportedly shouted, “I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President!”
Arthur’s crowning achievement as president was signing the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which (in theory) awarded government jobs according to ability not political affiliation. After Garfield’s assassination, Civil Service reform became, not surprisingly, a pressing issue on both sides of the aisle.
Arthur presided at a time when the political battles of the day seem distant and hard to fathom. Perhaps that’s why he is barely remembered today. But when Arthur died in 1886, none other than Mark Twain praised his term. “[I]t would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration.”
President William Taft has officially had it up to here with all you haters and he's sick of this shit.
Yes. It's President Taft on a badger.
So apparently, Richard M. Nixon has a surprisingly active twitter account. I decided to forward him my portrait of him. This was his response.
For the record, my drug of choice is the same as Nixon's -- whiskey.
That's right. After posting one vice president every weekday, I finally reached Biden last week. And this past weekend, I got all the drawings up on the Veeptopus Etsy site. So if you're dying to decorate your abode with prints of a cephalopod-bedecked Walter Mondale, now is your chance.
47. Joe Biden
President: Barak Obama, 2009-2017
Joe Biden grew up with a pronounced stutter. The famously talkative veep was only able to fully overcome it when he was in law school.
46. Dick Cheney
President: George W. Bush, 2001-2009
Shot 78 year-old man in the face. The man, Texas lawyer Harry Whittington, later apologized for inconveniencing the Vice President.
45. Al Gore
President: Bill Clinton, 1993-2001
Al Gore won a Grammy, an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize. He also won the popular vote in the 2000 Presidential Election, but he didn’t actually win the presidency. Long story.
I am really excited to learn this morning that Veeptopus has been named as one of the Five Things You Had to See Online This Week by Studio 360. You can read the article here.
But what I really want to talk about is pirates. Today September 19, has been dubbed by some august and serious-mind body International Talk Like a Pirate Day. So arrrrgh! And there was at least one vice president out there who had first hand experience with pirates - John C. Breckinridge.
Breckinridge is America’s youngest ever vice president under James Buchanan, who largely ignored him. When Lincoln was elected, Breckinridge returned to being a senator for Kentucky until 1861 when he jumped ship for the Confederacy. The U.S. government was not happy about his decision. The U.S. Senate cast him out by a vote of 36-0 and charged him with treason. Breckinridge was made a Brigadier General for the South, and after distinguishing himself in battles like Shiloh and Chattanooga, he was eventually appointed the Secretary of War. So when General Lee’s army surrendered in 1865, he knew he had to get out of town or face his treason charges.
Breckinridge fled through the malarial, alligator-infested swamps of Florida, hi-jacked a sailing ship (which is a pretty piratey thing to do) and made for Cuba. Along the way, he not only fought off an honest-to-God pirate attack, but he also survived two tropical storms and came close to starving before eventually making it to shore. From there he traveled to England. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Breckinridge and all other Confederates.
You can check out a print of Breckinridge and many others over at the Veeptopus Etsy Store.
44. Dan Quayle
President: George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993
Dan Quayle is perhaps best remembered for picking a fight with Murphy Brown, a ficitious character, and for inadvertently teaching America that the word “potato” is not spelled with an “e.”
43. George H.W. Bush
President: Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989
During his 1988 presidential campaign, George H. W. Bush revealed that he had a closer relationship with his boss that previously suspected. “For seven and a half years I've worked alongside President Reagan,” he told reporters. “We've had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We've had some sex...uh...setbacks.”
42. Walter F. Mondale
President: Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981
During his 1984 presidential campaign, Walter Mondale promised to tell the truth. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” He was right. Reagan did go on to raise taxes. Mondale lost the election by a landslide.