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The first US Vice President of Jamaican descent was not Kamala Harris

George Dallas takes that honour

By Ricky Browne

Kamala Harris made history on January 20th by becoming the first woman to be Vice President of the United States. She also made history by becoming the first Vice President of mixed black and Indian descent. But she did not make history as the first person of Jamaican descent to become Vice President.

That distinction actually falls to George Dallas, who, like Harris, was a Democrat. Dallas, Texas, was named in his honour, having worked to bring Texas into the Union, as was a small town in Oregon.

A bust of George M Dallas from the Senate Collection

George Miffin Dallas, born on July 10, 1792, was the 11th Vice President of the United States from 1845 to 1849, serving under President James K Polk.

Looking at social media, the reaction of some people in India to the first person of Indian descent becoming US Vice President, was significantly larger than the more subdued reaction in Jamaica to the second person of Jamaican descent taking on the same role.

Vice President Kamala Harris is sworn in during the inauguration on January 20, 2021.

Like Kamala Harris, Dallas had a Jamaican-born father, who, like Harris’s father, was also a well-known economist. He was Alexander J Dallas, who was once the Secretary of the Treasury under US President James Madison.

Jamaican-born Alexander Dallas, father to George

Alexander Dallas was born in Kingston, Jamaica and had an estate at Dallas Castle, in the Dallas Mountains outside of Kingston. Alexander mortgaged his estate in 1764 and left Jamaica with his wife for the United States, where George was his second-born son.

Jamaican-born Donald Harris poses with his daughter Kamala

George Dallas attended the College of New Jersey (now called Princeton University) and graduated with highest honours in 1810.

Harris graduated from Howard University in 1986, with a degree in Political Science and Economics. The Washington-based university started in 1867, and is considered one of the premier historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States.

And also like Harris, Dallas’s mother was not American. She was an English woman – Arabella Maria Smith Dallas — from the county of Devon.

George Dallas as a young man

Dallas had quite a distinguished political career before becoming Vice President. Like Harris, he spent much of his young adulthood in Washington. On leaving university he worked on peace negotiations between the US and the United Kingdom over the 1812 War and lived in Russia for six months. On his return to Washington, he got a job with his dad in the treasury department, and then moved on to become the lawyer for the Second Bank of the United States.

George Dallas

Dallas also served as the mayor of Philadelphia and then the US attorney for the eastern district of Pennsylvania in 1829 – a post his father had held before his death in 1817.

Like Harris, Dallas was in the Senate, becoming a senator for Pennsylvania in 1831, but he didn’t last long, because his wife didn’t want to live in Washington and he returned to practising law.

George Dallas — the first Vice President of Jamaican descent

In 1837 he became something like an ambassador to Russia, and was appointed as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister of Plenipotentiary. He was in the role for two years and when he returned he declined the offer of becoming Attorney General to resume his legal practice.

At the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in 1844 Silas Wright was nominated to join James Polk on the Democratic ticket. But Wright declined. Delegates then chose Dallas to replace him. Dallas was unable to decline, because he wasn’t there. He was back home in Philadelphia. When informed at his home at three o’clock in the morning, he reluctantly accepted the nomination.

A political poster for the Polk/Dallas ticket

Dallas served for one term as Vice President and as the leader in the Senate. He had hoped to run for President as Polk had said he was only going to serve one term – much like how Biden is expected to serve only one term now. But Dallas lost popularity over his reluctance to remove a tariff, and over his introduction and promotion of the idea of Popular Sovereignty – which was in support of new territories being able to decide whether or not they would allow slavery. At this point, slavery had been abolished in the British Empire, including his ancestral home of Jamaica, where his father’s 900-acre estate had once held more than 90 slaves. It appears that Dallas was against slavery, and this was resented by the Southern states.

But it was really the support of a tariff when he had basically run on a ‘no new taxes’ ticket, that did him in — just as it would George Bush senior more than 100 years later, when he too reneged on his no new taxes promise. Many people will remember his “Read my lips… no new taxes” promise that haunted him when he ran for a second term.

After that Dallas became ambassador to Great Britain from 1856 to 1861 and died in Philadelphia in 1864 at the age of 72.

A view of Dallas, Tx, named after George Dallas

Dallas should have had a good shot at becoming President, as it was common up to that point for Vice Presidents to take on that position. He was tall and good looking and well dressed. But he didn’t have the common touch, and seemed to avoid having to contest for political position.

Also, contemporaries were not overly impressed with his intelligence or his energy and drive. Nor did it help that some of his positions were fairly extreme, such as wanting to take over all of Mexico, to annex Texas (which did in fact happen), to battle Britain over the border with Oregon and even to take over the island of Cuba.

By the end of his term it was clear he could not get the nomination, and in fact the next President came from the opposition Whig party, Zachary Taylor, who had been a hero in the Mexican War.

US Vice President Kamala Harris takes the oath

Just as there could have been lessons for George Bush, there may be lessons here for Kamala Harris as she considers her own political future and strives to become the USA’s first woman president. There is many a slip betwixt cup and lip, and there is no guarantee that she will get the Democratic party’s nomination for President, should Joe Biden not run for a second term at the age of 81 in 2024.

Harris may want to pay particular attention to how Dallas performed in the Senate, as she, like him, may have the deciding vote on many contentious issues. She may want to look to how the public will view her vote record instead of how her own party looks at it, if she wants to assure herself of wide support.

She will have to keep her eye on the prize, and keep another eye on the players around her, if she hopes to get to that position.

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