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What Is a Vice-President And Why?


John Adams, the first vice-president of the United States (17891797), once exclaimed, My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.

A century later, there seemed to be little change. The 28th vice-president of the United States, Thomas R. Marshall (19131921) once stated, There were two brothers: one ran away to sea, the other was elected Vice-President. And nothing was ever heard from either of them again.

The vice-presidency of the United States is probably the least respected and understood of all constitutionally mandated positions within government. After all, in the political dynamic, the vice-president (VP) appears almost irrelevant. And yet, fourteen VPs eventually became president, some through assuming a vacated office and others through election.

The VP’s role has changed significantly from the first office-holder John Adams (17891797) through to the current one, Joseph Biden. The historical course of the vice-presidency is an often-overlooked element in America’s political evolution.

Origins of the vice-presidency

The Articles of Confederation made no provision for a VP. And it has been said that the framers of the U.S. Constitution created the office as an afterthought in the wake of lengthy debate on how to contain the power of a president. When a vice-presidency was finally considered, it was for the clear purpose of providing succession for an incapacitated president. Thus, one of the criteria for a VP is that he be eligible for the presidency. VP Lyndon Johnson (19611963) likened his office to a perpetual death watch, stating, Every time I came into John Kennedy’s presence, I felt like a goddamn raven hovering over his shoulder. The VP may be assigned additional duties, such as acting as the president’s surrogate in state visits, but he does so as an agent of the president and only upon request.

The VP is also the titular head of the Senate, but he can cast no vote unless the body is divided and a tie breaker is required. Some of the framers of the Constitution deemed this function to be significant. As the first VP, Adams cast 29 tie breakers, but this role has dramatically diminished with time. In short, the role of the VP in the Senate has become insignificant. (There are exceptions, such as Dick Cheney’s deciding vote on the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.)

Since passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, the VP also presides over the Electoral College when it convenes to count votes. The Twelfth Amendment constituted a marked shift in the constitutional purpose of the vice-presidency and the office’s relationship to the Electoral College. As an indirectly elected office, the VP is and always has been determined by a vote of the Electoral College.

This college consists of authorized electors who are appointed by each state for the purpose of formally voting the president and the VP into office. Although the electors can vote for anyone who is eligible, they virtually always follow the demonstrated preference of state voters. In other words, when a voter casts a ballot for a presidential candidate, he is actually instructing the electors from that state to cast their votes for his candidate. Whichever candidate wins the state’s popular vote is deemed to have won the votes of the state’s authorized electors.

Originally, each member of the Electoral College cast two votes for two different presidential candidates. Whomever collectively received the most votes (as long as that was more than half of all votes cast) became president; the one who came in second became VP. The purpose of this arrangement was to reign in the power and prejudice of the individual states.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution reads, in part, The Electors shall vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. The framers feared that electors would be loyal to their native state and would choose a favorite son rather than the best national candidate. This was especially true in 1789 when the nation was fresh and state allegiances strong.

But if electors were forced to vote for a second, out-of-state candidate, they would vote for whomever they considered the best man for the nation. Then, when all ballots were counted, the bias of states would negate each other and the best president would emerge.

Under this arrangement, George Washington became the first president with Adams as VP. Then Adams became president with Thomas Jefferson as VP (1797-1801).

The 1800 election, however, presented an impasse. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the presidency. When the issue arrived for resolution at the House of Representatives, neither man could muster a majority. After 35 ballots and avid campaigning by Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was finally proclaimed president; Burr became a bitter VP. (Hamilton’s aggressive endorsement of Jefferson is said to have been a contributing factor to his 1804 duel with Burr, which led to Hamilton’s death.)

The 1800 election revealed another flaw. The animosity between Jefferson and Burr led some to wonder whether a defeated electoral opponent made the best VP. Or did the scenario invite a coup d’etat? After all, the VP was next in line for president.

In December 1803, in anticipation of the next election, the Twelfth Amendment was introduced in Congress and ratified on June 15, 1804. There were two basic changes in procedure: each member of the Electoral College now cast a separate vote for president and VP; and a majority of electoral votes were required for a candidate to occupy office.

The Amendment also ensured against deadlock in the case of a tie vote for president. If the House of Representatives could not decide the issue prior to the first day of a president’s term, then the VP would assume that office. From 1804 to this day, elections have functioned under the Twelfth Amendment.

Two controversies

Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution states the main purpose of the VP: In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.

But would the VP be an acting president, or would he officially assume the office and title? The latter question hinged on the meaning of the word same in the preceding passage. Did same refer to the duties of the office or to the office itself? Did a VP become an acting president or the president?

In 1841, President William Henry Harrison died one month after taking office, and John Tyler became the first VP to exercise succession. Tyler insisted he was not an acting president but the president. Many disagreed, including John Quincy Adams and other members of Congress. Harrison’s cabinet maintained that any decisions Tyler made required their approval. Critics called Tyler His Accidency.

In the end, Tyler triumphed. Congress officially accepted his presidency, and the oath of office was administered. From then on, the oath has been the point at which a VP becomes president. Succession became dictated by what is called the Tyler Precedent; that is, future VPs would succeed to the office of president and not to that of acting president with limited power.

Nevertheless, the shadow of illegitimacy spread over a presidency so acquired, and the first four VPs who succeeded their way into the presidency did not win their party’s renomination for a second term. Over a century later, in 1967, the legitimacy of president-by-succession was definitively resolved with the adoption of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Section 1 of the Amendment reads, In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President (emphasis added).

But in the 1880s, another succession difficulty had also arisen. In 1881, President James A. Garfield was assassinated. When Chester A. Arthur assumed the presidency, the importance of the office of VP was reinforced.

And then in 1885, VP Thomas A. Hendricks died in office; who would replace him? According to the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, the line of succession to the presidency went from the VP to the president pro tempore of the Senate and then to the speaker of the House of Representatives. At the time of Hendricks’s death, however, there was no president pro tempore in office, and, because the new House had not convened, there was no speaker. No one was left in the line of succession.

Soon after, the Succession Act of 1886 was passed. The president pro tempore and speaker were replaced in the line of succession by the president’s Cabinet officers; the Secretary of State was first.

In 1947, with no VP serving during most of the presidential term, a new Succession Act was signed into law, reinserting the speaker and president pro tempore as first and second after the VP, thus reversing the order of the 1792 Act. The reason was that none of the Cabinet members were elected officials, so it was deemed inappropriate for them to top the list of succession to the presidency or vice-presidency. This line of succession remains in effect today.


Perhaps the most important function of the contemporary VP is to garner support for the president during elections. For example, a Northern presidential candidate might choose a Southerner as a running-mate in order to glean Southern votes. After an election, however, the VP is consigned to the role of president-in-waiting unless the sitting president elevates that office by having him act as an agent.

The last several decades have seen several activist VPs, including Dick Cheney (20012009) and Al Gore (19932001). It has also seen VPs who are almost invisible, like Biden today.

The office is haunted by the words of John Nance Garner, who served as VP (19331941) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Garner is said to have declared that the vice-presidency as an office was not worth a bucket of warm spit. No wonder so many people decline the honor of running.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).