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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 789

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This is the grave of George Dallas.

Born in 1792 in Philadelphia, Dallas grew up in the financial elite class in what was at that time the nation’s banking capital. His father Robert Dallas was Secretary of Treasury under James Madison. The family money not surprisingly came from slavery. His father was a Jamaican planter who put his plantation in a trust and move to Philadelphia. George went to the fanciest private schools in the area and then to college at the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton. That school was the Ivy for the southern plantation elite, which included Dallas too, at least in terms of both his family’s resources and politics.

After college, Dallas studied law with his father and passed the bar in 1813. He quickly got a job as Albert Gallatin’s secretary on a trip to secure Russian support for the War of 1812 and then was sent to London as part of the negotiations. It was Dallas who delivered the first peace terms from the British when he returned to the U.S. Madison then gave him a sweet gig in the Treasury Department under his father’s supervision. This was pure blue-blooded elite here, with the whole world basically handed to him. He then became the counsel for the Second Bank of the United States, located in Philadelphia.

Dallas’ father died soon after the Madison years and George went into politics full time. He was deputy attorney general for Philadelphia from 1817-20. As the Democratic Party formed, Dallas was part of the faction that wanted a more activist government that supported tariffs. He became the leader of that faction with James Buchanan the leader of the more small government side. Dallas was mayor of Philadelphia for awhile, but hated it so he resigned and became the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1829. He did that for two years and was then sent to the Senate in 1831 when Isaac Barnard resigned due to poor health. But Dallas only finished the term because his wife didn’t want to leave Philly for the pestilent cesspool of Washington. Hard to blame her. Still, as a well connected Democrat, Dallas was named chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs. As a tariff man, he also very strongly supported Andrew Jackson’s harsh response to South Carolina’s nullification attempts that threatened to tear the nation apart.

For the next 15 years, Dallas mostly ran his law practice, except for two years as Pennsylvania’s attorney general and two years as Minister to Russia under Van Buren. Van Buren had offered Dallas the Attorney General slot, but he declined that. A big reason for this and other times he declined positions is that he lived way, way above his means and was constantly in serious debt, a common problem for the elites of this time. He was called by at least one historian, “A silk-stocking Jeffersonian in an age of egalitarianism.” That’s pretty accurate. Like Jefferson himself he burned up whatever money he had and wished for the right people to rule the nation instead of these yokels out there now. Even the Russia position was a runner-up sort of thing. The U.S. wasn’t that important and he didn’t have that much to do in St. Petersburg, which contributed to his resignation in 1839. Van Buren then offered him the AG post again, but he again declined.

In 1844, Dallas worked to get Martin Van Buren the Democratic nomination over his despised rival James Buchanan. Well, that didn’t work. Texas annexation had made anything but a full-throated defense of stealing Mexican land to extend slavery unacceptable to southern Democrats. Van Buren had spoken out against it and it doomed him. But people didn’t like Buchanan either. James K. Polk, a little-known acolyte of Andrew Jackson was the choice. That meant the ticket needed to be balanced with one of Van Buren’s men. The convention chose Silas Wright, one of Van Buren’s boys in Albany. But Wright refused. So without actually mentioning it to Dallas, who was not even at the convention, he was chosen instead. Someone woke him up in the middle of the night and said, hey you are the VP nominee. He was somewhat indifferent to this. But he did it anyway.

Now, we all know that the VP is worth a bucket of warm piss, to quote John Nance Garner much later in American history. It was so in the mid-19th century for sure. But Dallas threw himself into supporting Polk’s positions, even when he didn’t agree with them. This included when Polk named Buchanan Secretary of State, infuriating Dallas. He became an arch-expanionist himself, one of those who decided that once the U.S. had conquered Mexico, we might as well take the whole damn thing for ourselves. The main reason that didn’t happen is that Americans didn’t know what to do with Mexicans who didn’t fit into the black-white racial paradigm of the nation. They couldn’t be slaves but they sure weren’t white. This issue is a big reason why New Mexico didn’t become a state until 1912, even though it easily had the population to do so, much more than most western states. It wasn’t a white population, so how could it be part of the U.S.

Moreover, because Congress was so divided and increasingly partisan with the nation split over the Mexican War, there were lots of tie votes and Dallas had to cast his ballot to decide them. Even though it destroyed his political reputation back in Philadelphia, he did Polk’s bidding and voted for anti-tariff positions that were a betrayal of his friends back home and his own traditional politics. Moreover, although he was part of the Democratic Party considered more moderate than that of the doughface Buchanan on slavery, Dallas moved more toward the popular sovereignty positions increasingly touted by Stephen Douglas and other Democrats to break up the Missouri Compromise and open more territory to slavery. So there was a lot of disgust with Dallas in Pennsylvania by the time his term ended in 1849. Part of all this was also naked political ambition. Having been VP, he wanted the big job so he threw himself into it. But the odious Lewis Cass got the nomination in 1848 and lost to Zachary Taylor.

After he was VP, he went back home and his law practice. But in 1856, Franklin Pierce paid him off by naming him ambassador to Britain. By this time, Dallas and Buchanan had put aside their lifelong rivalry enough that the latter kept him in London for his presidency as well. Possibly keeping him across the pond was good for Buchanan. He remained there until 1861, when Charles Francis Adams replaced him. Dallas was a Unionist Democrat and denounced secession. He lived his last years back in Philadelphia, dying there in 1864, at the age of 72.

George Dallas is buried in St. Peter’s Churchyard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks!!! If you would like this series to visit other vice-presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Richard Mentor Johnson is in Frankfort, Kentucky and William King is in Selma, Alabama. And no, I did not remember that King was Pierce’s VP and I’m not sure I have ever actually heard the name before. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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