In 1804, the office of Vice President devolved into one of geopolitical accommodation.
After the tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in the Presidential election of 1800, Aaron Burr became Vice President, according to the premise that the presidential runner-up would be VP. A Constitutional Amendment was created shortly thereafter, mandating that voting for the office of VP would be separate from that of the President.
Meanwhile, Burr proved to be a difficult and divisive Vice President, and the office would be devalued precipitously. There were instances when months and even years passed with no Vice President, a situation by the way, that would continue up till the time of Lyndon Johnson!
While the office of President was an important one, the office of VP became honorable, ceremonial, but a generally empty position. The only ameliorating factor seemed to be balancing the geography of the country, i.e. a North-South or East-West Presidential-Vice Presidential ticket. Or vice-versa.
The Rise of the Whigs
There is no mention of parties in the Constitution; our Founders were vehemently against them, believing them to be detrimental to the country’s well being.
But of course that is an impossibility. There will always be opposing opinions and politics. Parties began forming even before President George Washington retired. By the country’s 30th birthday, the old Federalist Party was on its last legs, and everyone was a Democratic-Republican. Problem was, many of the core Federalist issues, i.e. a strong national government, was being opposed by those favoring more power to the individual states. In a country growing in area and population, those differences and needs were readily apparent.
By the time of Andrew Jackson’s Presidency (1828-36), there was strong opposition to a) his various policies, and b) the divisive Jackson himself. The opposition was not cohesive, however; it was factional, and thus weak. Calling themselves the National Republicans (vs. the Democratic Republicans), Henry Clay, their standard bearer in 1832, Jackson’s most formidable opponent, was trounced.
In 1836, they adopted a new name: the Whigs. They were still a motley assortment of factions, and wound up running four regional candidates. Their rationale: they were sure to lose, and this way maybe they could find a future front runner to nominate. They did: William Henry Harrison.
“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”
In 1840, it appeared that other than Henry Clay (as divisive as Jackson), the best candidate for the Whigs was William Henry Harrison. Long in the tooth at 68, his best days were far behind him, and even at that, his claim to fame as General in the War of 1812 was limited to Indian skirmishing at Tippecanoe Creek – out West. More flamboyant than consequential. But he was in reasonably good health, came from a well-established family, and had no powerful enemies. He was born in Virginia, but lived for decades in the Ohio Territory.
In a coalition effort to balance the ticket, Whig politicians chose a lifelong Democrat, Senator John Tyler of Virginia, whose conversion was primarily due to his disdain for Jacksonian politics and his willingness to call himself a Whig. The two men sat by as their supporters ran a hullabaloo campaign with a great slogan – and they won.
No one ever dreamed that a month later now-President William Henry Harrison would die. But he did, and VP Tyler assumed the office. He got on very poorly with his Whig supporters, reverted to his long-time Democratic principles, and since the Democrats no longer trusted him, became “a man without a party.” His 30-days-short-of-a-four-year term was fraught with difficulties, political and otherwise, and few friends or accomplishments. He was not even nominated for a term of his own. PS – There was no VP for nearly four years.
Abraham Lincoln, a long time Whig, converted to the Republican Party by 1856 and supported its first national candidate, John Charles Fremont. He lost, but his substantial showing boded well for subsequent victory. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was its candidate, and he won. As a geopolitical accommodation, the Republicans selected Maine Senator Hannibal Hamlin as Vice President. He was pleasant, but had very little to do. The office had been an empty suit for a half-century.
By 1864, the Civil War was on, and Lincoln’s reelection was far from certain. As a political maneuver, the Republicans didn’t even field a candidate. They merely changed their name to the Union Party, hoping to draw from disaffected Democrats as well as from disaffected Republicans.
Maine was a “safe” Union state. It was also small and relatively unimportant. Hannibal Hamlin was expendable. Lincoln needed someone with more political chops. He personally chose Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a lifelong Democrat like Tyler, and an irascible-tempered man who was the only Southern Senator who did NOT resign his seat when his state seceded. Johnson was implacably a Union man, and did yeoman service in Tennessee as its Military Governor. By 1864, Tennessee was mostly in Union hands, and Lincoln needed its votes. Abraham Lincoln the Republican, and Andrew Johnson the Democrat, joined political forces and ran on the semi-coalition Union ticket. They won.
Lincoln had aged and was definitely tired at his second inaugural in 1865, but he was only 56, and in generally good health. No one could have predicted that six weeks later, he would die from an assassin’s bullet. But he did.
VP Andrew Johnson now assumed the office. He got on very poorly with his Republican supporters, reverted mostly to his long-time Democratic principles and irascible temperament, and became “a man without a party.” His six-weeks-short-of-a-four-year term was fraught with difficulties, political and otherwise, and few accomplishments. He was impeached, barely escaped conviction, and was not nominated for a second term – by anybody. PS – the office of VP remained empty for nearly four years.
The Moral (if there is one): American coalitions have won elections, but the vagaries of history show that they have not been able to sustain them.
Craypol, Edward P. – John Tyler: The Accidental President – UNC Press, 2006
Shafer, Ron G. – The Carnival Campaign: How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” Changed Presidential Elections Forever –The Chicago Press, 2017
Waugh, John C. – Re-electing Lincoln (1864) – Crown Publishing, 1997