Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Vice Presidential Blogging: Schuyler Colfax

That's a pretty good beard.
America's Most Seventeenth Vice President, one Schuyler Colfax, Jr., was born in New York City in 1823. In old-timey disease tragedy news, Colfax, Sr. died of tuberculosis before Baby Skysky was born to his wife Hannah. Apparently Colfax came from distinguished stock as his grandfather was a bodyguard of some kind to GWash during the Revolutionary War. Growing up, Schuyler lived with his mother and grandmother, who ran a boarding house. He ended his formal education at age ten to start working, just like today's Republicans advise to avoid getting all childhood-obese. When Schuyler was thirteen,which is officially the worst age anybody can be,* Hannah remarried and the family moved to Indiana. Young Schuyler was interested in politics and as a teenager wrote articles, advocated for the Whig Party, and became friends with Horace Greeley--who contrary to popular belief, was a famous abolitionist and newspaperman, not a professional Benjamin Franklin impersonator.

Greeley could've been raking it in.
Anyway, Colfax became editor of the South Bend, IN Free Press at age nineteen, and bought the paper within a few years, renaming it the St. Joseph Valley Register. Fancy that! He married childhood friend Evelyn Clark in 1844. They had no children when she died in 1863. He dived into actual politicking in 1848, as a Whig Party convention delegate. He also participated in the 1849 Indiana State Constitutional Convention. He ran for Congress for the first time in 1850 and lost. But! He picked himself up and was elected to the House in 1854 as an Anti-Nebraska candidate (he was against the Kansas-Nebraska Act). In that downtime, Colfax become one of the founders of the Rebekah Degree (basically the lady branch of the Odd Fellows). You know who was a Daughter of Rebekah? Eleanor Roosevelt! Our lesbianest First Lady (until Hillary Clinton, amirite?)! As an anti-slavery politician, Colfax found his way to the Republican Party after the Whigs collapsed, serving several more terms in Congress. He served as the Speaker of the House 1863-69, though I'm pretty sure you didn't have to be an Orange-American to achieve that position back then. As Speaker, Colfax announced the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery. Huzzah!

Colfax got recruited to run as Ulysses S. Grant's veep in 1868. Two weeks after the election, he was remarried to one Ella Wade (some Senator-or-rather's niece), with whom he had his son Schuyler Colfax, III, because who could let a legacy name like that die out? As far as I know, he did nothing of note as VP. Unfortunately (fortunately?), during his time in the House, Colfax and pretty much every other Congressman took money from those shady grafters at the Union Pacific Railroad. He was implicated in the Crédit Mobilier Scandal in 1872, and was replaced by Henry Wilson** as VP on Grant's reelection ticket in 1872. What is the deal with the Crédit Mobilier scandal, you might ask? Well, so you don't have to read the whole Wikipedia article, I will summarize (probably pretty inaccurately):

So, like, in the mid-1860s, the U.S. government thought it might be a good idea to set up a transcontinental railroad and chartered the Union Pacific Railroad to make it happen. High-ranking Union Pacific officials were skeptical that they could ever make money off of running a railroad, so they hatched a nefarious plan: they secretly set up "Crédit Mobilier of America," a supposedly independent construction company they were contracting to do the actual railroad-building work. However, it was basically a sham company set up to line the pockets of railroad tycoon types. How it worked was through a system of indirect billing and blatant fraud: "Crédit Mobilier" would invoice Union Pacific for construction costs, who would in turn invoice the federal government the same amount plus "overhead" costs. But since Crédit Mobilier was Union Pacific, there were no overhead costs, and the extra government cash went to the secret shareholders AKA Union Pacific's executive fat cats. Congress got tangled up because Congressman Oakes Ames was set up as head of Crédit Mobilier in 1867. He used his political influence to sell his fellow Congressmen Crédit Mobilier stocks at discount rates, in addition to blatant gifts and bribes to keep Congress from auditing the whole shady business. Whether Colfax or most of his colleagues were really aware of the larger scam is unclear, but this is just your hourly reminder that corporate sponsorship of Congress is not exactly news.

I believe that's Colfax front and center and Uncle Sam wants all these congressdudes to commit hari-kari for ripping off the government. Or something. (Source)
But anyway, Grant dumped Colfax. After he left political life, Colfax was a successful lecturer. Gotta replenish the 'ol coffers! In a tragically hilarious turn of events, he was basically killed by the Minnesota winter. He's buried in South Bend, IN and numerous towns across the U.S. of A. are named for him. His grandparents' home in Wayne, NJ, the Schuyler-Colfax House, originally erected in 1695, is a museum currently owned by the Wayne Township. So that's a thing. Also, Bill Raymond plays Colfax in the recent movie Lincoln, which I saw and had opinions about here.

*Until they are nineteen and in college and think they are some hot shit, that is.
**Though Wilson also took money in the scandal, I guess? Somehow James A. Garfield, also implicated in the scandal, wormed his way out of it well enough to be elected president in 1880.


  1. I'm doing some writing about Twin Cities street names, and I discovered your blog while researching Schuyler Colfax. If you want to find out more about him, the article on the U.S. Senate site is pretty good, and goes into why he came out of Crédit Mobilier smelling worse than some of the others:

    I'm curious - why the interest in our most 17th VP?

  2. I was looking at a list of vice presidents and his was one of the silliest names. We have a Colfax Street? I need to go stand on it and pour one out for the guy pathetic enough to be dumped by U.S. Grant.

  3. Colfax is the "C" in the first Minneapolis street alphabet, running north-south 3 blocks west of Lyndale. Colfax had died in Mankato just a few months before the street was named. That memory was fresh, and the financial scandals were old news, so I guess all was forgiven.