The Vice Presidency, A Peculiar Institution

The office of the Vice President of the United States, until the mid-twentieth century, could be summed as perfectly respectable with a dose of public ridicule.

Vice Presidential Impressions

According to the Constitution, the Vice President’s only proscribed duty is to preside over the Senate, and vote only in the event of a tie.

john-adams

John Adams, the first Vice President of the United States

John Adams, the very first in that office, summed up his new position quickly and tartly, as “the most insignificant office ever created by the mind of man.”  Mr. Adams was a bona fide political heavyweight of the Revolutionary War era, well qualified for the top office, which he would later fill.

A century and a half later, John Nance Garner, Vice President for eight years under Franklin D. Roosevelt, would describe the office more colorfully:  “Not worth a bucket of warm spit.”  Later in the 1930s, George and Ira Gershwin wrote a musical called “Of Thee I Sing” – which portrayed a fictional Vice President Throttlebottom as a complete buffoon.  It won a Pulitzer Prize.

john nance garner

John Nance Garner of Texas, was one of our more colorful Vice Presidents. He served for eight years under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Early Veeps

Our Founders strongly opposed political parties.  The plan was that the winner of the election would be President, the runner-up would be Vice President. Thomas Jefferson, our Second Vice President (and third President) was also a political heavyweight.  He thought so highly of the second-place office, that he seldom came to Philadelphia (then the capital), preferring to remain at his plantation and play politics.

But by 1800, there was already a crisis: Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received an equal number of votes.  Burr had originally indicated that the Vice Presidency was his goal, but he was a slippery sort, and few people trusted him.  Burr changed his mind, challenged Jefferson, and threw the election into the House of Representatives.  They opted for Jefferson, and Burr went on to become involved in some murky empire building efforts out west – and killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, giving the office of Vice President a bad name.

Thereafter, the Vice Presidency was demoted, as it were, to being a geo-political sop to balance a party ticket.  It would be considered a respectable position, worth a $5,000 per year salary – but it would require no heavy lifting.

South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, another heavyweight in the second generation of statesmen, had the unique distinction of serving under two different Presidents: John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.  Neither one of them liked him, and Jackson is quoted as claiming his big regret in life was “not hanging Calhoun.”

The Vice Presidential Doldrums

It is absolutely amazing that for a century and a half, the Vice Presidency was held in such low esteem. It is all the more bizarre, since every twenty years or so (by an odd coincidence of fate) a Vice President would ascend to the Presidency.

john-tyler

John Tyler was the first Vice President to assume the Presidency following the death of a President.

The first to do so was John Tyler in 1841, when William Henry Harrison died just a month after assuming the top office.  Tyler was unpopular, but is credited with asserting himself as the President – rather than “Acting President” – including all the responsibilities and privileges assigned by the Constitution.

Less than a decade later, President Zachary Taylor died and another Vice President, Millard Fillmore became President.  Even then the office remained insignificant, to be occupied by names long lost to history’s dustbin.

In 1852, long-time Alabama Senator William King was elected Vice President to balance a ticket headed by Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire.  King, well past sixty, was ill at the time.  He was elected, but died before he could be sworn in.  Pierce went on to serve for four full years without a Vice President.  No one seemed to miss it or suggest a special election be held.

Fateful Accidents of the Presidency

The assumption of Tyler and Fillmore had little real consequence for the country.  They were both reasonably capable men who were diligent in fulfilling their duties to the best of their abilities.

Hannibal Hamlin, however, was Vice President under Abraham Lincoln during his first term.  Due to the vagaries of war, politics and sectional strife, the former Senator from Maine was scrapped for Tennessee Unionist Andrew Johnson.  One could only wonder the what-ifs of that situation.

In a similar incident of fate, Garrett Hobart of New Jersey served as Vice President during the first term of William McKinley.   The two men had become fast friends, and Hobart would surely have been asked to be on the ticket again – but he died.  For his second term, McKinley had a young New York politician-turned-war-hero-turned-politician named Theodore Roosevelt as his VP – and the rest is history.

The Vice President and the 1950s

It was not until Dwight Eisenhower was President that the second-in-command took on a more substantial role.  During his first term, Ike had a heart attack, requiring a serious curtailment of his activities.  VP Richard Nixon would assume major responsibilities.

Yet while new respect was found for the office, it would not be until the mid-1960’s, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that a mechanism would be put into place to provide an immediate Vice President.

Today, the Vice President of the United States is always assigned serious and important duties, and is immediately sworn in as “acting” president in the event that the chief executive has even the most minor situations that could render him “unavailable” even for a few hours.

Sources:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Vice-Presidents-That-History-Forgot-160281765.html

http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Vice_President.ht

Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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6 Responses to The Vice Presidency, A Peculiar Institution

  1. nancy Anderson says:

    THIS WOULD MAKE A GOOD TOPIC FOR A FUTURE CHRISTOPHER WREN ClASS.

  2. Roberta Sandler says:

    Ms. Foster knows her subject. Very informative.

  3. Sharon says:

    Interesting topic. I agree with Nancy.

  4. Michael says:

    Calhoun was actually the second VP to be elected with two different presidents. The first was George Clinton, picked by Jefferson, and then Madison. He died in office, and Madison became the only president to have two VPs die on his watch.

  5. Susan Ozmore says:

    This reminds me of how unhappy LBJ was as VP after being so powerful in the Senate. But again, fate intervened and the rest is history. Interesting post!

  6. Bill Fenwick says:

    John Nance Garner was even more colorful in his description of the vice-presidency; he actually said that it was “not worth a bucket of warm piss”, and generations of historians have been cleaning up that quote.

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