Vice President, U.S.

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VICE PRESIDENT, U.S. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the vice presidents of the United States started out as strong and independent national executives. The U.S. Constitution of 1787 created the office largely as a realistic backup in the very likely event of a president's death or disability. While it was true that, apart from serving as a backup, the vice president had no other official function than to preside over the Senate and break its tie votes, he was initially elected independently—in a separate election—by the electoral college. Just how significant that could be, quickly became clear. The first two vice presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were subsequently elected president. Each election forced a political crisis, and the Constitution had to be amended to water down the independence of the office (the Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804).

When Vice President John Adams ran to succeed George Washington as president in 1796, he won a close election in the electoral college. His running mate on the Federalist Party ticket, Thomas Pinckney, who should have become vice president based on number of popular votes he received, did not become vice president because he could not officially run as a subordinate part of that ticket. Instead, Thomas Jefferson, who received second highest number of votes, became vice president. There were thus four official candidates for president in the eyes of the Constitution, whatever the political parties and the voters thought. So in 1797, despite what the popular vote mandated, the Democratic-Republican presidential candidate, Thomas Jefferson, the political opponent of Adams, won more electoral votes than Pinckney and became vice president.

A different configuration of the same flaw in the Constitution was exposed in the election of 1800. Jefferson's Democratic-Republican running mate, Aaron Burr, running as a legal equal in the electoral college, tied Jefferson in the college's presidential vote. It was left to the losing Federalists to broker Jefferson's election in the House of Representatives, a travesty of the democratic process, in 1801.

This second straight display of vice presidential political muscle finally caused Congress and the states to rectify the weakness of the Constitution's provision governing the office; the nation officially recognized the reality of party tickets in presidential elections and passed an amendment overtly pairing presidential and vice presidential candidates on one ballot in the electoral college. No vice president would become president via election until the twentieth century. After 1801 the office of vice president held little political power for a hundred years.

In the course of the nineteenth century, the vice presidents who assumed the presidency on the death of the incumbent were generally regarded as caretakers of the office, not real presidents. Indeed, the first of these, John Tyler, who became president on the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841, was widely called "His Accidency" by his many political opponents. Millard Fillmore in 1850, Andrew Johnson in 1865, and Chester Alan Arthur in 1881 fared little better.

The travails of John Calhoun as vice president amply illustrate the minefield a sitting vice president had to negotiate in trying to improve his lot. A political power in his own right, Calhoun decided in 1824 to accept a vice presidential election in the electoral college when he became the only declared candidate for the office among the presidential candidates being considered in the confused and largely partyless presidential election of that year. Calhoun decided to bide his time and use his considerable political clout in the South to support John Quincy Adams for president over Andrew Jackson, the top vote getter in both the popular vote and the electoral college. Calhoun became vice president in 1825, chafed under the weaknesses of the office for four years, yet threw in his lot with an older and seemingly fragile Andrew Jackson in 1828. Calhoun agreed to run again for vice president, and he won, but fumed over Jackson's popular and political success and staying power. Jackson's nationalist agenda infuriated the southern vice president, in an office without authority. In a graphic example of the depths to which the office had sunk, Calhoun resigned it in 1832 to take a South Carolina seat in the U.S. Senate. He never again came close to the presidency he so deeply craved. Nor did any other vice president in the nineteenth century win the presidency in his own right. (Two other vice presidents would resign their offices: Ulysses Grant's running mate, Schuyler Colfax, in 1873, and Richard Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, exactly a century later, both departed the office facing indictments on convincing evidence of corruption.)

The twentieth century's vice presidents fared much better. Beginning in 1901 and through the 1960s, four who succeeded to the presidency on the death of the incumbent gained the presidency in the succeeding election. The first of these, Theodore Roosevelt, was a sometime historian who knew about his vice presidential predecessors' fates. He moved vigorously, upon becoming president in 1901 following the death of William McKinley, to solidify his grip on the office and on the Republican Party as well. Only forty-three and a hero of the Spanish-American War, he broke with McKinley's conservative reverence for corporate business and adopted a populist stance in the areas of antitrust legislation, conservation of resources, foreign policy, and at least limited recognition of organized labor. In 1904 he became the first vice president since Thomas Jefferson to be elected in his own right.

Few ever again raised the question of the succeeding vice president as caretaker for a fallen president. Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Warren Harding in 1923, though neither as aggressive nor as charismatic as Teddy Roosevelt, had no trouble gaining election in his own right in 1924. Harry Truman some twenty years later faced a much higher hurdle; no vice president succeeded to the presidential office with less esteem than he did. He succeeded Franklin Roosevelt, an iconic preserver of capitalism in the Great Depression of the 1930s and a towering leader in World War II. Truman had been a U.S. senator of middling importance until 1944, tainted by his ties to the corrupt Pendergast machine in his native Missouri. But the indefatigable Truman acted decisively to end the war by using the atomic bomb against Japan, a perilous move; controversy and iconoclasm became the hallmarks of his tenure as president. He took on a conservative Republican Congress as a champion of organized labor and anticommunism. Running hard in 1948 as a populist, he was elected in his own right in the presidential election upset of the century.

When Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, he emulated Truman's model. Like Truman, Johnson had displayed little evidence in his long senatorial career that he would emerge as a populist reformer. Chosen for the ticket by a reluctant Kennedy because he needed John-son's clout in the South, Johnson never was in the presidential loop. But after the assassination and succession, which was closely recorded on television and placed all Americans in the events, Johnson moved quickly to reassure the American people and proclaim his support for both JFK's liberal domestic agenda and his confrontational anticommunist foreign policy. It was surprising because Johnson had always, as a power in the Senate, been constrained by his southern constituency. Leaving that behind him now, he championed the "Great Society," an amalgam of civil rights, pro-labor, and antipoverty reform. Like his successful predecessors in the twentieth century, Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Johnson made populist reform his ticket to a full presidential term. Unlike his two predecessors, though, he pursued a foreign policy that foundered and eventually did him in. As aggressive as Teddy Roosevelt and Truman in his worldview, Johnson embraced an anticommunist activism that led him deeper into the national and international morass of Vietnam and undermined a considerable and still impressive domestic reformist political record.

Gerald Ford was the fifth and final notable vice president of the twentieth century. Not elected as a running mate on Richard Nixon's presidential ticket, he succeeded to the presidency in 1974 after Nixon's nomination for his vice presidency was approved by Congress in 1973 under the terms of the 1951 Presidential Succession Act. His rise to vice president, and then president, was part of a complicated maneuver necessitated by the growing possibility of Nixon's impeachment and removal from office over the Watergate scandal as well as the unacceptability of Vice President Agnew's succeeding to the presidency, laboring as he was under the taint of corruption. Ford, too, in the manner of Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson, became a vigorous president from 1974 to 1977, restoring both the dignity and the authority of the office after the Nixon debacle. But he was undone by his hasty—if healing—presidential pardon of Richard Nixon.

The office of vice president was rejuvenated in the twentieth century, returned to its eighteenth century vigor and meaningfulness. By the 1980s, partly as a result of history's lessons of the need for a vice president of stature, presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have afforded their vice presidents increasing access to the Oval Office, more visibility, and increasing responsibility in their own right, as the Constitution of 1787 had intended.


Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Ferrell, Robert. Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Pessen, Edward. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Carl E.Prince

See alsoElectoral College ; President, U.S.