When it comes to the Vice Presidents I really only know those who went on to be President. However the county I live in was named after the 17th so I know a bit about him, but mostly because he was involved in a major railroad scandal that in a way built my little town. So here is a brief history of an important figure in my personal life.
Schuyler Colfax was born in New York City on March 23rd 1823. His grandfather had served as Washington’s personal guard during the Revolutionary War. His father was a bank teller but died a few months before Schuyler was born. He attended a private school but due to financial problems he was forced to leave and go to work at his stepfather’s store. In 1836 the family moved to New Carlisle Indiana where his stepfather was elected the County Auditor, Colfax was appointed as his assistant and held the position for the next eight years. During this time he became interested in journalism and started writing for several papers including New York Tribune, where he developed a friendship with famed reporter Horace Greeley.
Colfax entered into the political scene when he began working for the Whig controlled paper, the South Bend Free Press. In 1848 he was chosen as the delegate to the Whig convention and in 1852 he ran for Congress but lost. In 1854 the Whig party was beginning to splinter so Colfax ran as the candidate for the People’s Party of Indiana, he was elected to the House of Representatives and in 1863 he was elected the Speaker of the House, he served in the position until the end of his term in 1869. In 1855 the Know Nothing’s tried to recruit Colfax but he didn’t like their secrecy and loyalty oaths, instead he joined with the newly formed Republican Party.
During the Civil War Colfax was a strong Unionist, pushing for the creation of more militia and even tried to convince General Fremont to invade Kentucky; however there weren’t enough troops and Fremont had been ordered by Lincoln to remain as a member of the support staff after he had been accused of insubordination. Colfax also worked hard to promote the passing of the 13th Amendment and even though the Speaker of the House is supposed to remain neutral he voted for the bill. On April 16, 1865 Colfax met with Lincoln over the reconstruction policies; Colfax was opposed to allowing former Confederates holding elected offices. After the meeting Lincoln asked Colfax if he wanted to go to the theater since Ulysses Grant had other plans and couldn’t attend. Colfax had a previous engagement so he passed, that night Lincoln was shot by Booth and died the next day.
Following the Lincoln assassination Colfax joined with a group known as the Radical Republicans. They pushed for punishment of the South during Reconstruction and were responsible for the break up of the National Union Party (Democrats and Republicans that united during the Civil War), insisting anyone who didn’t agree with the parties polices could return to the Democratic Party. Colfax also oversaw the impeachment hearings of President Johnson and supported the formal charge and a trial in the Senate.
In 1868 the reconstituted Republican Party chose Ulysses Grant as their candidate on the first ballot. After winning the Civil War and with the voting rights being extended to the free slaves Grant was almost guaranteed the Presidency so Colfax was selected as the Vice President because he was popular with the Republicans, not because they were trying to gain the votes of a region. Although it was a contentious election Grant won a clear majority.
Like most of his predecessors Colfax had little impact on the office of the Vice President. After multiple White House scandals Grant considered not running for President in 1872 so Colfax put up his name as a candidate. However Grant changed his mind which was followed by the New York Sun running a story naming Colfax as one of the government officials involved in the Credit Mobilier Scandal. Before the Civil War broke out the Union railroad was attempting to build a line across the U.S. and had bribed a number of officials and members of congress with stocks in order to pass favorable legislation and preferable land grant property for their tracks. Although he denied any involvement there was a record of Colfax accepting a check from the Union railroad. By the time the investigation was over Colfax’s term as Vice President had ended and since he was leaving politics there was no further action, but being named in the scandal had ended his presidential bid, Grant won reelection with a new Vice President.
After he left office Colfax was dogged by the corruption charges however he made a living as a travelling lecturer, especially on the topic of Abraham Lincoln. He was then hired as the vice president of the Indiana Reaper and Iron Company. In 1882 he was approached to once again run for office but turned down the offer. On January 13th, 1885 Colfax had to walk to the train station in Omaha, about a mile, during a blizzard. By the time he reached the station he suffered a heart attack and died. He was buried in South Bend Indiana.
So ended the life of the 17th Vice President. Mostly he has been one of the forgotten members of office but if you ever visit Denver and travel down Colfax Avenue try to think about its namesake Schuyler Colfax.
And remember, if you vote for me as an independent Vice President candidate I promise to not get caught up in a railroad stock scandal. They will have to earn the right to build a cross country train track the old fashion way, bribing member of the Senate transportation committee.