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March 4, 1869


In his day, he was widely considered a cunning and duplicitous vice president. Today, he is virtually unknown.

In the third quarter of the 19th century, Indiana Republican Schuyler Colfax loomed large on the American political stage. He entered public life in 1854 by winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. By 1863, he had risen to that body's speakership. One observer described Colfax as presiding "in rather a slap-dash-knock-‘em-down-auctioneer style greatly in variance with the decorous dignity of his predecessors." Despite this, colleagues considered him the best House Speaker since Henry Clay. But some harbored doubts about this man, nicknamed "Smiler." President Lincoln counted him a friend but also an untrustworthy intriguer, "aspiring beyond his capacity."

In 1868, Schuyler Colfax won his party's vice-presidential nomination on a ticket with Ulysses Grant. The teetotaling House Speaker nicely balanced the hard-drinking general. After their inauguration, Colfax found his duties as president of the Senate less demanding than those of the speakership. One Indiana newspaper observed that "the Vice Presidency is an elegant office whose occupant must [make] it his principal business to try to discover what is the use of there being such an office at all." He consulted regularly with Grant, but one Democratic newspaper sneered that the vice president carried "more wind than weight." Colfax lost a bid for a second vice-presidential term in 1872 to Massachusetts senator Henry Wilson—a favorite of the Washington press corps because of his willingness to leak details of the Senate's frequent closed-door executive sessions.

The final months of Colfax's term coincided with the eruption of the largest scandal in 19th-century American political history. Seeking inflated federal funding for construction of its transcontinental rail line, the Union Pacific Company had secretly lobbied influential senators and representatives with generous gifts of company stock. When the list of those members inevitably surfaced, it included eight senators and the vice president. Colfax adamantly denied involvement in the Credit Mobilier affair, but with each denial came irrefutable evidence of his guilt. Only the expiration of his term saved the disgraced vice president from impeachment.

"Smiler" Colfax eventually joined the lecture circuit, where he earned huge sums for talks on his wartime relationship with President Lincoln. On a sub-zero winter's day in 1885, traveling to a speaking engagement, he suffered a fatal heart attack in a Minnesota train station. Unrecognized by those around him, the 62-year-old former Speaker and vice president was identified only by the papers in his pocket.