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Schuyler Colfax (1869–1873) - Vice President

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Schuyler Colfax was born on March 23, 1823, in New York City, months after his father had died. His mother raised him by herself until 1834 when she remarried. The family then moved to Indiana. Colfax had little formal education, having left school as a young boy to help support the family. He became interested in politics at an early age and read newspapers voraciously. He was a supporter of the Whig Party, abolitionism, and the temperance movement. In 1844, he married Evelyn Clark. The couple had no children, and she died in 1863.

In 1845, Colfax and a friend scraped together enough money to buy a local newspaper. After losing his first election in 1851, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1854. The next election, he ran as a Republican. Colfax served in the House of Representatives until he resigned to become vice president in 1869, and he was elected Speaker of the House in 1863. Speaker Colfax was an effective leader who successfully united the different factions of the Republican Party. During the Civil War, he recruited military regiments in Indiana and worked to marshal support for President Abraham Lincoln and his policies. In fact, Colfax met with Lincoln to discuss Reconstruction just hours before the President was assassinated. After Andrew Johnson became President, Colfax was a member of the Radical Republicans who opposed the President's moderate policies for reintegrating the South into the Union. He also supported Congress's efforts to impeach Johnson although the Senate did not have enough votes to convict the President. As the election of 1868 approached, Colfax made it clear that he wanted to be the vice presidential candidate for the Republicans to run with General Ulysses S. Grant who was the presidential candidate. The pair easily won the election. Colfax was considered a fine vice president and an effective leader of the Senate but as was typical, he did not have much involvement in the Grant administration. In 1870, he announced his retirement but changed his mind by early 1872. It was too late by that time, however, and the Republicans had picked Senator Henry Wilson to run with Grant in the 1872 election. Vice President Colfax did not escape the scandals that engulfed the Grant administration. During the lame-duck session of Congress in 1872, he became caught up in the Credit Mobilier Scandal. It involved railroad companies overcharging millions of dollars for government contracts and the company's directors bribing various government officials with company shares. In January 1873, Colfax appeared before a House committee to defend himself against charges that he had accepted shares in 1868. Although he was never convicted of any wrongdoing, he was not cleared either, and his reputation suffered. After stepping down as vice president in 1873, Colfax retired and returned to Indiana. He had remarried in 1868, and two years later he became a father for the first time. Leaving public life, he began a lucrative career as a public speaker. He died on January 13, 1885.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Joan Waugh

Professor Waugh is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her writings include:

U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

Wars within a War: Controversy and Conflict over the American Civil War (editor with Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (editor with Alice Fahs, University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Unsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell (Harvard University Press, 1998)