October 30, 1912—The death of Vice-President James Sherman while in office wasn’t in itself unusual—he was the seventh holding that sorry position to do so—but the circumstances were: only days before one of the most topsy-turvy elections in American history, with the Republican Party split between a conservative wing that backed Sherman and his boss, President William Howard Taft, and a liberal faction that, as the Progressive Party, nominated Taft’s predecessor and former friend, Theodore Roosevelt.
Sherman’s passing left Taft once again in the midst of an intraparty split. Unable to get the party old guard to go along with his preference, Governor Herbert S. Hadley of Missouri, he simply decided not to name anyone at all—meaning, in effect, that he had a deceased running mate.
In the following January, the GOP--like the President, considering it all a formality anyway—designated as the recipient of Sherman’s electoral votes Nicholas Murray Butler. The latter did not only want to be President of Columbia University, as he had been for the past decade, but President of the entire United States. But not only was he unsuccessful in seeking the GOP nomination in 1920 and 1928, but his last-minute replacement of Sherman did Taft no good, either, as the incumbent won only eight votes, finishing not only behind the winner, Woodrow Wilson, but, to add insult to indignity, T.R. himself.
You could, I suppose, think of Sherman as Dick Cheney with a smile: a man with a disposition genial enough to win him the nickname “Sunny Jim,” but also a conservative darling who consistently tried to steer his boss in a more retrograde direction.
His initial selection as Veep in 1908 was, in a sense, a harbinger of the tensions that would splinter the party four years later. The conservative and liberal wings had been squabbling at the GOP convention in Chicago. Several candidates vied for the party’s nomination, and though the delegates eventually went along with T.R.’s hand-picked successor, Taft, the interests of unity compelled the selection of Sherman, a Congressman from New York and member of the Old Guard, as Vice-President.
Taft and Sherman did not get off on the right foot. When the incoming President suggested that he would use Sherman as a go-between to reactionary Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon, Sherman barked: “You will have to act on your own account. I am to be Vice President and acting as a messenger boy is not part of the duties as Vice President.”
Other Vice Presidents have found themselves dangerously isolated for saying less than that, but Taft—initially distrusted by the Old Guard—found Sherman an increasingly congenial figure. In presiding over the Senate (which was one of his duties as V-P), Sherman displayed utmost fairness, good humor and mastery of parliamentary procedure. In private, he encouraged the President to strike at opponents—including the progressives that Sherman had long opposed at virtually every turn. (When Taft demurred about using his appointive power against liberals livid over passage of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, Sherman growled: “"It is your only club. You have other weapons, but the appointing power is your only club.")
Sherman’s strong support for Taft’s firing of a T.R. favorite, U.S. chief forester Gifford Pinchot, and his nomination as chairman of the New York state convention in 1910 increased Roosevelt’s dismay with his protégé. (The ex-President’s prestige was such that he was able to derail Sherman’s assumption of the chairmanship.) Moreover, the conservatives' threat to nominate Sherman instead of Taft for the Presidency in 1912 helped to keep the incumbent in line.
Because of Bright's Disease, which had afflicted him since 1906, Sherman had grown increasingly uncomfortable because of the Senate’s inability to appoint a president pro tempore who could spell him in his duties. His medical condition became more virulent as Taft sought reelection in his knockdown fight with Roosevelt for the Republican nomination. The conservative wing, left with a shell of a party after the progressives bolted for T.R., renominated Sherman as V-P, but that was just an indication of how despairing they had become about their future prospects.
Sherman was mourned by his longtime Congressional allies. But he had done neither his President nor his party any favors in opposing progressive legislation and candidates. Little-known today, he remains one of the reasons why the GOP has, in the century since his death, engaged in bitter faceoffs between its right and moderate wings.
(Photo of Vice-President James Sherman at a 1912 baseball game is from the Prints and Photographs division of the Library of Congress.)