Wednesday, October 24, 2007

October 24, 1855:

James S. Sherman's Birthday

Yesterday's vice president, Adlai Stevenson, survived his term of office. Today's veep, James Schoolcraft "Sunny Jim" Sherman, was not so lucky. Born on October 24, 1855, he died on October 30, 1912, while 27th Vice President of the United States under William Howard Taft.

Sherman had been a successful New York businessman and Congressman. Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, writing in Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (1997), explains how Sherman got the vice presidential nod at the Republican National Convention in 1908: "Taft won the nomination and would have preferred a progressive running mate, someone of the stature of Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge or Iowa Senator Jonathan Dolliver. But House members, led by Speaker Cannon, pressed for the nomination of James Sherman. On the surface, it seemed as though Sherman won the nomination by default, after the more progressive possibilities withdrew their names from consideration. But years later, in his memoirs, Senator Chauncey Depew revealed a more Machiavellian version of what had happened. The New York delegation had lobbied hard to convince Taft's managers that New York would be a critical state in the election, and that a New Yorker would most strengthen the ticket headed by a 'westerner' like Taft of Ohio....

"House Democratic minority leader Champ Clark agreed that Sherman stood prominently in the House, but no more so than a half dozen other Republicans. In Clark's estimation, Sherman was 'an industrious, level-headed, capable member, and a capital presiding officer,' but in truth he received the nomination as a means of placating the GOP's conservative wing, which viewed Taft suspiciously as a progressive. 'The Stand-patters selected Sherman partly because he wanted it, partly because they could trust him, and partly because he was perhaps the most acceptable of all the Old Guard chieftains in the House to President Roosevelt,' Clark assessed. The vice-presidential nomination was clinched when Speaker Cannon stepped onto the platform, hiked up his sleeves, and offered an impassioned endorsement of Sherman. With the Old Guard's stamp of approval, 'the two wings flapped together.' "

Sherman already suffered from Bright's disease, a serious kidney ailment, by the time he became vice president, and in 1912 -- after being nominated by the party for another term with Taft -- it caught up with him. He died just before the election, and the Republican National Committee replaced him on the ticket with Columbia University president Nicholas Butler, but not until January 1913, and solely for the purpose of receiving the paltry eight electoral votes the Republicans got that year.

Hatfield continues: "James Schoolcraft Sherman quickly disappeared from public memory. He remained the least-remembered twentieth-century vice president until 1974, when he made an unexpected reappearance in E.L. Doctorow's best-selling novel Ragtime. At a climactic moment in the book, Sarah, a black domestic, tried to intercede on behalf of her husband, when Vice President Sherman attends a campaign rally in New Rochelle, New York:

'When the Vice-President's car, a Packard, rolled up to the curb and the man himself stepped out, a cheer went up. Sunny Jim Sherman was a New York State politician with many friends in Westchester. He was a round balding man and in such ill health that he would not survive the campaign. Sarah broke through the line and ran toward him calling, in her confusion, President! President! Her arm was extended and her black hand reached toward him. He shrank from the contact. Perhaps in the dark windy evening of impending storm it seemed to Sherman's guards that Sarah's black hand was a weapon. A militiaman stepped forward and, with the deadly officiousness of armed men who protect the famous, brought the butt of his Springfield against Sarah's chest as hard as he could. She fell. A Secret Service man jumped on top of her. The Vice-President disappeared into the hotel.'

"That scene, which led to Sarah's death in the novel, was entirely fictitious. Sherman simply served as the novelist's metaphor of an unhealthy and unresponsive political system. Although perhaps better than total obscurity, it was not the way "Sunny Jim" would have wanted to be remembered."

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