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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pence is running against his old boss. The last VP to try that bombed.

Then-Vice President Mike Pence waves to the crowd during a Michigan campaign rally with then-President Donald Trump in November 2020.    (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post)
By Ronald G. Shafer Washington Post

The vice president of the United States was running against the president he was serving under, and his backers didn’t mince words. They accused the president of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

The president’s backers fired back, warning that if the vice president won the election, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”

That vice president, Thomas Jefferson, had once been friends with President John Adams before their 1800 campaign. But the two Founding Fathers had a nasty falling-out - like former vice president Mike Pence did with his now-opponent for the 2024 Republican nomination, former president Donald Trump.

Pence, whose super PAC called Trump “an apologist for thugs and dictators” in a recent ad, is the third veep to run against his former boss and the first since a disastrous challenge in 1940.

Jefferson had become vice president because he had finished second to Adams in 1796, in America’s first contested presidential election. The Sage of Monticello differed with Adams’s policies, especially on the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts that made it illegal to criticize the government. In 1800, neither man campaigned personally but spread their views instead through partisan newspapers and pamphlets.

Jeffersonians charged that Federalist Adams was “a monarchist” who had become cozy with the British. Newspapers referred to the portly president as “His Rotundity.” Long before Twitter, Jefferson backers spread a conspiracy theory that Adams planned to create a family dynasty by having one of his sons marry one of King George III’s daughters. The secret plot, according to the story, was thwarted when George Washington himself, dressed in his Revolutionary War uniform, “had drawn his sword and threatened to run the president through,” Ralph A. Brown wrote in “The Presidency of John Adams.”

Jefferson paid journalist James Callender to attack Adams in print. Callender, who was out for revenge after being sentenced to prison for violating the Sedition Acts, wrote that “the reign of Mr. Adams has, hitherto, been one of continued tempest of malignant passions.” He wrote a false story that Adams wanted to invade France in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Jefferson’s party also obtained and leaked to the press a private letter by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton saying Adams had “great and intrinsic defects in his character.”

Federalist newspapers attacked Jefferson in response, accusing him of dodging military service during the Revolutionary War. They called him a “howling atheist” who had become a libertine while serving as U.S. ambassador to France. Yale College president and theologian Timothy Dwight warned that Jefferson would make “our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.”

The 16 states ended voting in December 1800, just as John and Abagail Adams were moving into the newly constructed President’s House in Washington, D.C. Jefferson edged Adams in the electoral college, 73 votes to 65. But there was a hitch. New Yorker Aaron Burr, presumed to be Jefferson’s running mate, received the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson, and some Jefferson opponents said Burr should be president. Under the Constitution, the decision was up to the Federalist-controlled U.S. House, which in February 1801 officially elected Jefferson after 36 ballots.

Adams peacefully turned the government over to Jefferson but resented his vice president, becoming the first of five defeated one-term presidents to skip the inauguration of their successor. After two terms in office, though, Jefferson became pen pals with Adams - until both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.

History repeated a century later. In December 1939, not expecting Franklin D. Roosevelt to run for an unprecedented third term, Vice President John Nance Garner read a short statement from the front porch of his home in Uvalde, Tex., declaring, “I will accept the nomination for president” in 1940. Garner, 71, declined to answer any questions and headed off on a 10-day hunting trip.

“Cactus Jack” Garner ultimately became famous for saying, in the sanitized version, “The vice presidency is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” And in the previous two years, he had broken with Roosevelt on various policies, including his attempt to pack the Supreme Court. Garner also represented a conservative bloc of Southern Democrats who opposed Roosevelt’s large-spending “New Deal” programs.

“The rebel yell echoed through the crisp air of this hill country town tonight as a tribute to ‘Citizen John Garner,’” the Associated Press reported after his announcement. “There was speculation about the effect Garner’s announcement will have on his relation to the President with whom he always has been on a friendly personal terms… . Few believe that the relations would be outwardly disturbed.” Roosevelt, from his estate in Hyde Park, N.Y., “had no comment.”

Privately, it was a different story, and the two men’s personal terms didn’t seem so friendly. Speaking of the hard-drinking Garner, Roosevelt joked to his Cabinet, “I see that the vice president has thrown his bottle - I mean his hat - into the ring,” former Labor secretary Harold Ickes wrote.

Suspense about Roosevelt’s own plans mounted right up to the 1940 Democratic convention in Chicago. There, on the night of July 16, Sen. Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky read a statement from Roosevelt that the president had no “desire or purpose” to be re-nominated … unless delegates wanted him. The impact was no surprise.

“No sooner had Barkley finished speaking,” the AP reported, than the crowd erupted, shouting, “We want Roosevelt” amid “whistling, yelling and stamping.” The convention overwhelmingly nominated Roosevelt, with 946 votes to Garner’s 61.

Garner, who opposed a third term for any president, was furious, but kept quiet. Roosevelt picked liberal Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace as his new running mate and, with war in Europe on the horizon, won in a landslide.

After the election, Garner went back to his ranch in Texas. There, he intended to “go over his fishing tackle, oil up his gun and settle down to live to 93 at a leisurely pace,” the AP reported. He lived to 98 instead.

In 1944, Roosevelt won yet another term, after replacing Wallace with Sen. Harry S. Truman of Missouri. This time, Roosevelt’s vice president would get his promotion without having to run: Three months after his fourth inauguration, Roosevelt died.