Almost President – Charles Fairbanks

Charles W. Fairbanks

Charles Warren Fairbanks served as Vice President from 1905-1909 during the administration of Teddy Roosevelt. With better luck, he would have been President of the United States.

Charles Fairbanks was born in 1852 in a one-room log cabin in Unionville Center, Ohio. He moved to Indianapolis in the 1870s. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1872, and was admitted to the bar in 1874. He established his legal practice in Indianapolis the same year. He quickly became a prominent railroad attorney, using his position to become a major stockholder in various railroads.

In 1896, Fairbanks was the temporary chairman and keynote speaker at the Republican Convention. The following year, Fairbanks was elected to the United States Senate, where he served until he became Vice President in 1905. As a senator, Fairbanks was an influential spokesman for the McKinley Administration in the Senate.

In 1900, McKinley was running for re-election. Republican Party leader Mark Hanna tried to get Fairbanks to accept the Vice Presidential nomination. Hanna was opposed to Teddy Roosevelt being on the ticket because that would put “that damned cowboy” a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Hanna and Fairbanks were close both personally and politically. Having Presidential ambitions of his own, Fairbanks turned down the offer, considering the Vice Presidency beneath him. He intended to run for President in 1904, when McKinley retired. Had he accepted the offer to run on the ticket in 1900, he would have become President when McKinley was assassinated.

In 1904, Fairbanks not only accepted the Vice Presidential nomination, he worked hard to get it. Things had changed, and Roosevelt’s popularity disrupted Fairbanks’ plans. During the 1904 campaign, Fairbanks traveled over 25,000 miles, while Roosevelt followed the tradition of not campaigning and remaining above the fray. Fairbanks hoped that party leaders would nominate him in 1908 when Roosevelt stepped down.

The conservative Fairbanks was about as opposite of the reform-minded Roosevelt as was possible. As Vice President, Fairbanks opposed Roosevelt’s progressive policies and even worked against them with conservatives in Congress. He also formed an alliance with the conservative Speaker of the House, “Uncle Joe” Cannon. They determined to work to keep Roosevelt’s progressive measures from passing through Congress. Fairbanks vowed to be “on the alert to rule any dangerous speakers out of order on the slightest context” and to send “all progressive [that is, Roosevelt] measures to committee so that they never come to vote.”

But Teddy Roosevelt was one of the most popular Presidents in history, and Fairbanks was never much more than annoying to him. Roosevelt, at first, ignored his Vice President. Teddy made fun of Fairbanks in private, and eventually in public. Teddy would discuss potential Presidential successors in front of Fairbanks. Teddy once ordered a noisy and distracting crystal chandelier removed from his office because it disturbed him. He ordered it to be installed in the office of the Vice President to keep him awake.

In 1908, Roosevelt kept his promise not to run for a third term. (He had served most of McKinley’s term in addition to the one he was elected to on his own.) Needless to say, Teddy did not support Fairbanks to take his place. Using his popularity, as had Jefferson and Jackson, Teddy named his successor and got the convention to nominate him. He chose William Howard Taft, his Secretary of War, over Fairbanks.

Fairbanks had his chance to get even. Four years later, Teddy Roosevelt decided he wanted to be President again, and ran against President Taft for the nomination. Before the convention, Roosevelt forces challenged a large number of Taft delegates for their seats at the convention. The disputed seats were settled by the credentials committee, which was chaired by former Vice President Fairbanks. Roosevelt lost almost every challenge, and with it the nomination. Roosevelt then ran on a third party ticket, (the Progressive Party, or so-called Bull Moose, ticket), but lost the general election to Woodrow Wilson.

In 1916, Fairbanks was again nominated to run for Vice President, this time with Charles Evans Hughes. Although both Hughes and Fairbanks went to bed election night thinking they had won the election, returns late that night gave the election to President Wilson and Vice President Marshall. Fairbanks waited for two weeks before sending the traditional congratulatory telegram to Marshall. It was Fairbanks last run for political office, and he died in 1918 at the age of sixty-six.