Since, as Carol notes below, this is now a holiday that we open up to all and sundry amongst former White House inhabitants (because America could never fully realize its potential without a holiday that roped in Franklin Pierce), why not be even more inclusive and take some time to remember those who fell just short of the highest office in the land?
Did you know there’s actually a museum of failed presidential nominees in Norton, Kansas? My guess is that it exists primarily to convince kids stuck on cross-country road trips that, yes, their father really is the most boring man on the planet. Also, I suspect that it’s one-stop shopping for Samuel Tilden schwag.
Here are a few of the more interesting also-rans:
Aaron Burr: If he lived in the modern era, he’d be catnip for TMZ. An indicted murderer who may have had designs on his own breakaway empire. Also notable for his posthumous contributions to public awareness of the importance of calcium.
Henry Clay: We remember him now as one of the legislative titans of the 19th century (as well as one of the great orators in American history). He had three separate stints as Speaker of the House and one as Secretary of State (under John Quincy Adams), but he never managed to make it to the White House despite attempts in 1824, 1832, and 1844.
Piece of Trivia #1 — According to Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People, Clay had a tendency to dance on tables when he got wound up.
Piece of Trivia #2 — The track record for Speakers of the House attempting to move down Pennsylvania Avenue is not great. Only James K. Polk pulled it off.
John C. Fremont: The first Republican presidential nominee and one of the great explorers of the West (he was the first American to see Lake Tahoe). He did everything he could to stir up war with Mexico over California and ended up being a significant military figure in the resulting war. During the Civil War, Lincoln had to remove him from his command in the west after he unilaterally abolished slavery in Missouri (which Lincoln calculated would cost him the slave states still in the Union).
George McClellan – He went from fecklessly commanding the Army of the Potomac for Lincoln (read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals for a maddening look at his ineptitude) to running against Lincoln in 1864. Moreover, he was still technically a member of the military during the campaign, not resigning his commission until Election Day. Towards the end of his life, he served as the Governor of New Jersey.
Horace Greeley – The newspaperman most famous for the phrase “Go west, young man” (which probably wasn’t his) ran against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. It’s probably a good thing that he lost, as he dropped dead a few weeks after the election. He was an eccentric with an interest in phrenology and a tendency to wear a full-length coat and carry a bright umbrella no matter the weather.
William Jennings Bryan – Give the man points for persistence. He was the Democratic nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908. He lost all three times and ended up serving as Secretary of State for the first few years of the Wilson Administration. He was also part of a little court case in Tennessee you may have heard about.
Alton Parker – Maybe one of the most obscure nominees in American history. Parker was the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals (the equivalent of the state supreme court) and basically a lamb to slaughter against Teddy Roosevelt in 1904.
Charles Evans Hughes – While there’s a long history of Supreme Court justices harboring presidential ambitions — and while William Howard Taft ended up on the Court (as Chief Justice, no less) post-presidency — only Hughes moved straight from the bench of the nation’s highest court to a presidential nomination, challenging Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Having already served as Governor of New York prior to being at SCOTUS, he went on to become Secretary of State under Warren Harding, continuing through the early days of the Coolidge Administration.
Adlai E. Stevenson – Undone by his image as the ultimate out of touch aristocrat (which, granted, led to moments of high eloquence), Stevenson lost to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. His most enduring legacy, however, may be his tough line with the Soviets while serving as the Kennedy Administration’s U.N. Ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis:
How about you? Any failed presidential candidates pique your interest?