George Dallas is the only vice president Pennsylvania has produced | Local News
Many potential presidents have called Pennsylvania home, from Philander Knox and Milton Shapp to William Scranton and Rick Santorum.
But James Buchanan, long considered by scholars to be the worst, or near worst, president in the country’s history, is the only Pennsylvanian to make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The state is not doing much better with the vice-presidents.
Only one Pennsylvanian was a heartbeat away from the presidency. In March 1845, George Mifflin Dallas of Philadelphia was sworn in as Vice President James Polk. He came to work with an excellent pedigree and amazing résumé: the son of Alexander Dallas, the sixth Secretary of the Treasury, Dallas, raised in privileged circumstances and served in a number of appointed positions including Philadelphia Mayor, District Attorney, Pennsylvania Attorney General and Envoy to Russia. He was also a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania when they were selected by legislators rather than voters.
Dallas wanted to be president.
Instead of being called back on Presidents Day and letting legions of historians ponder its legacy, in the 19th century Dallas joined the ranks of the little-remembered men who stumbled into the vice presidency and went no further, like Hannibal Hamlin, William Wheeler, Schuyler Colfax and Elbridge Gerry.
“I don’t think he would have been in the top 10 presidents,” said John Belohlavek, a professor of history at the University of South Florida, whose biography of Dallas was published by Penn State University Press in 1977. Even so, Belohlavek believes Dallas would have been a better president than Franklin Pierce, a Democrat who became president in 1852 and, like Buchanan, is a basement dweller when historians rate presidents.
“He was a man of moderate temper,” added Belohlavek. “He was a loyal party man.”
Dallas was born in Philadelphia in 1792, just 16 years after the city had signed the Declaration of Independence. His family was firmly entangled in the city’s nobility – they divided their time between a mansion in the city and a house in the country. Dallas attended prep schools and then went to the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University. Even when the Democratic Party adopted Andrew Jackson-style populism in the mid-19th century, Dallas remained a cultured upper-crust man who wrote poetry and wore fine clothing all his life.
After graduating from college, Dallas married, fathered eight children, and began a professional life that was both accomplished and unsettled. In conjunction with the highest levels of power in Pennsylvania and the federal government, Dallas jumped from one post to another for years. He wanted to fight in the war of 1812, but his father said no. Instead, he became the personal secretary of diplomat Albert Gallatin and spent time in the UK and Russia.
He next served as an attorney for the Second Bank of the United States. At the age of 36, Dallas was named mayor of Philadelphia but got bored with the job and left after six months. In 1831 he was appointed to another post, this time as one of the US Senators in Pennsylvania. He declined to apply for re-election at the end of his term, also because his wife did not want to move to Washington DC
“He was a bit of the silk stocking guy,” said Joel Goldstein, a law professor emeritus at St. Louis University who has written extensively on American vice presidents. “He could be like George HW Bush. He was mainly called to positions. But he was ambitious and held many government positions. “
Dallas returned to Russia to be the United States Envoy in 1837 and was back in the United States practicing as a lawyer when the 1844 presidential campaign began. When Polk, a former Tennessee governor, emerged as a Democratic candidate, congress delegates wanted New York Governor Silas Wright to settle the ticket, but Wright refused. They next turned to Dallas, believing he could get Pennsylvania into the Polk column in the general election. Polk and Dallas won Pennsylvania and the White House in November 1844, defeating Whig Party standard-bearer Henry Clay and his runner-up Theodore Frelinghuysen on the electoral college by a comfortable margin, but only by 1.4% in the referendum.
Dallas and Polk “came from completely different backgrounds,” said Scott Warren, director of President James K. Polk’s Historic Site in Pineville, NC
“I think it was more of a professional type of relationship,” Warren said, adding that he didn’t find any mention in Polk’s papers that the two of them dined or socialized.
With Polk promising to serve only one term, Dallas hoped to become the Democratic candidate in 1848, but his aspirations were derailed by his stance on two major political issues – territorial expansion and trade. He supported the goals of the Polish government to expand US territory and lower tariffs. However, both positions were deeply unpopular with the Pennsylvania Democrats, and support from the Dallas homeland collapsed. Instead, in 1848, the Democrats nominated Lewis Cass, a US Senator from Michigan. Cass was defeated by Zachary Taylor, the final victorious Whig Party’s presidential candidate.
Dallas disappeared into private life and died of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve in 1864 at the age of 72. Dallas County in Texas is named for him, as are counties in Iowa, Arkansas, and Missouri. Dallastown, a borough in York County, is also named in his honor.
Belohlavek admits that life in Dallas is unlikely to become a musical like Hamilton, and there may not be many other biographers willing to take a second look at America’s 11th Vice President. Why? “Dallas just isn’t very controversial.”
“He’s just too good,” said Belohlavek. “You can’t look for a flawed character for him.”
Still, Belohlavek believes Dallas could be worth reassessing.
“I think he deserves the attention,” he said.