Unprecedented Presidents: A History of Firsts

Nov 5, 2015 | Elections - Presidential (2016), History

Published: The Good Men Project (November 5, 2015)

The past century has proved to be a golden age for unprecedented presidents and vice presidents. Before the election of 1928 (more on that in a moment), every candidate for America’s two highest offices fit into a very narrow demographic profile: Protestant, male, of northern and/or western European descent. By contrast, the 2016 presidential election offers the prospect of a first female president (Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina), first Hispanic president (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio), or first Jewish president (Bernie Sanders).

In tribute to this development, the following list includes all of the presidents and vice presidents who broke religious and racial barriers by virtue of their electoral achievements. They include:

First Quaker President: Herbert Hoover (Republican) – 1928

While Quakers had faced persecution for their religious beliefs since the founding of their church in the 17th century, this animosity reached a fever pitch in the period during and after World War I. Because Quakers were exempt from draft laws due to their status as conscientious objectors (i.e., individuals whose religious or ideological convictions prohibit them from participating in war), they often received considerable criticism and prejudice from the pro-war wing. Nevertheless, Hoover overcame these biases and easily won both the Republican presidential nomination and subsequent general election during the waning days of the Jazz Age. This feat is made somewhat more remarkable by the background of his running mate.

First Native American Vice President: Charles Curtis (Republican) – 1928

Eighty years before America had an African-American president, it had a vice president who was an enrolled member of the Kaw Tribe. Charles Curtis served as a congressman and senator from Kansas before Hoover tapped him as his running mate in the 1928 presidential election. Although his vice presidency was unremarkable, Curtis’ most important legacy is also one generally regarded as harmful to Native Americans. The Act for the Protection of the People of the Indian Territory and for Other Purposes, despite its ostensible purpose, actually overturned existing treaty laws and effectively gave more power and land to the federal government. As the primary author and mover for the bill, Senator Curtis deserves much of the blame for its passage.

First Catholic President: John Kennedy (Democrat) – 1960

It is well known that JFK was America’s first Catholic president, but it’s worth noting that he wasn’t the first Catholic to be a major party’s presidential nominee. That distinction belongs to Hoover’s opponent in the 1928 election, Gov. Alfred Smith of New York, who faced rampant open bigotry during his campaign. Kennedy himself received considerable questioning about his religious background, and it’s hard to say how much of it denied him votes that would have otherwise been his. Either way, he wound up defeating Republican candidate Richard Nixon (who happened to be a Quaker) in one of the closest presidential elections ever, only 0.17% separating Kennedy’s share of the popular vote from Nixon’s.

First Greek-American Vice President: Spiro Agnew (Republican) – 1968

It’s easy to forget that many groups which are widely considered “white” today weren’t always regarded that way (a topic I’ve discussed in greater detail before). This is certainly the case with Greek Americans, who during the early twentieth century were victimized along with other new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Indeed, Agnew’s original last name was Anagnostopoulos, having been shortened by his father to “Agnew” so that they might better assimilate into their new country. Unfortunately for bearers of his new name, Agnew’s main legacy is to be one of two vice presidents to resign from office – and the only one to do so in disgrace (John Calhoun had resigned due to ideological differences with his president, Andrew Jackson). Had he stayed in office, he would have faced criminal charges for extortion, tax fraud, bribery, and conspiracy from his years as Governor of Maryland.

First African American President: Barack Obama (Democrat) – 2008

So much has been written about Obama’s legacy as America’s first black president that I don’t have much new to add. Perhaps it is worth mentioning, though, that America has had Obama in the White House for roughly the same period of time as Hoover and Kennedy combined. While there wasn’t much anti-Quaker sentiment directed against Hoover during his four years (the opprobrium generally being directed toward blaming him for the Great Depression), Kennedy faced quite a bit of anti-Catholicism despite having won a presidential election. My guess is that, when future historians look back on Obama’s presidency, they will see much the same thing in the racism directed against him, particularly in the conspiracy theories regarding his alleged Muslim background or not being a native-born citizen.

First Catholic Vice President: Joseph Biden (Democrat) – 2008

This one doesn’t warrant much commentary, aside from remarking how odd it is that America had a Catholic president nearly half a century before it had a Catholic vice president.

As the Democratic and Republican parties prepare for their respective primaries, it is interesting to reflect on the larger historical implications of their choices. The goal is not for America to elect presidents who break down barriers of discrimination for that reason alone, but rather to make our political process so inclusive that quality candidates (who happen to be from minority backgrounds) naturally start winning elections. If the 2016 candidate field is any indication, we may indeed be farther along than ever toward making that happen.