In 1873, Mark Twain wrote The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. He accused the nation of hiding its problems behind a thin veneer of gold. The Gilded Age refers to the period between Reconstruction (1865-1877) and the Progressive Era (1896-1920). In general, industrial America expanded dramatically as a dramatic influx of immigrants ventured to its shores. Meanwhile, the law lagged behind the demographic, economic, and technological changes. The rich became filthy rich while the poor became filthy. Laissez Faire was the order of the day for government. The office of the Vice Presidency of the United States continued as it had for the previous century. In sum, they accomplished absolutely nothing. In fact, the office remained vacant for nearly eight full years between 1881 and 1889. In 1881, Chester Arthur ascended to the presidency following James Garfield’s assassination. Four years later, Thomas Hendricks died in his first year in office. The following are the Gilded Age vice presidents between 1877 and 1897.
William Wheeler (1877-1881)
As with most of his predecessors, William Wheeler proved a non-entity in office. He was known for his personal honesty and was one of the few vice presidents on friendly terms with his president. President Rutherford Hayes often invited the recent widower to the White House for social occasions. Wheeler stepped down after serving one term.
Chester Arthur (1881)
Unlike Wheeler, Chester Arthur did not serve a full term as vice president. An assassin ended President James Garfield’s life and presidency leading to Arthur’s ascendency. Prior to the murder, Arthur tried in vain to influence patronage positions, but discovered he held little sway with Garfield. Despite Garfield’s reservations about Arthur’s commitment to reform, President Arthur shocked the Stalwart wing of the Republican Party with his independence and reformist agenda.
Thomas Henricks (1885)
Like Arthur, Thomas Hendricks did not finish a full term as vice president. For some reason, the Democrats decided to nominate Hendricks for the vice presidency. Between 1841 and 1885, four presidents died in office and Hendricks suffered health issues for years. As a result, his selection as Grover Cleveland’s running mate remains questionable at best. He died eight months into office.
Levi Morton (1889-1893)
Unlike Hendricks and Arthur, Vice President Levi Morton served a full term as vice president. Like several predecessors, Morton did not work well with his president. The last straw dropped when Morton refused to support administration efforts to pass a voting rights bill for African Americans in the South. The bill failed and President Benjamin Harrison blamed his vice president. In 1892, Harrison dropped Morton from the ticket for his failed re-election bid.
Adlai E. Stevenson (1893-1897)
Grover Cleveland returned from his 1888 defeat to regain the White House. This time, his vice president, Adlai E. Stevenson, survived the full four years. Unlike Morton, Stevenson supported his president’s policies and even dropped his inflationary positions to do so. Meanwhile, President Cleveland had secret cancer surgery and almost died. Stevenson never knew how close he came to the presidency. Cleveland stepped down after serving his second non-consecutive term. Stevenson was a potential candidate for the presidency in 1896 and 1900. In 1896, he lost the nomination to William Jennings Bryan. Four years later, he ran with Bryan in the Democrats electoral defeat.