The American vice-presidency has historically occupied an ambiguous position. Although protocol ranks it the nation's second office, the duties assigned it have not been commensurate with that status. Pundits have frequently ridiculed the office and reformers have generously proposed modifying it. Yet for an institution that has engendered so much criticism the vice-presidency has undergone remarkably little constitutional change.
The office was conceived in the final days of the constitutional convention of 1787 for reasons that remain obscure. Some delegates suggested the need for an officer to preside over the senate and resolve tie votes. Others viewed the vice-presidency as a way to handle unexpected presidential vacancies. Finally, some saw the office as an expedient to ensure the election of a national President. They feared that presidential electors would invariably support their own state's favorite son, thereby frustrating efforts to select a chief executive. By creating a second office and by giving electors a second vote subject to the proviso that one of the votes must go to a person from a state other than the elector's these constitutional architects believed they would overcome provincial tendencies and provide the new nation with a consensus leader. The candidate with the most votes (provided that they constituted a majority) would be President, the runner-up Vice-President.
The system provided not only a national President but also vice-presidents of rare ability—john adams, thomas jefferson, and aaron burr. In 1800, however, the electoral votes for Jefferson and Burr deadlocked, although the Republican party had clearly intended Jefferson to be President. The constitutional crisis required thirty-six ballots of the House of Representatives before Jefferson prevailed. The initial system accordingly fell into disfavor, and in 1804 the states ratified the twelfth amendment which provided for separate election of President and Vice-President. Many legislators feared that the vice-presidency would attract only inferior candidates and accordingly proposed its abolition.
Although the office survived, the high caliber of its occupants did not. Most Vice-Presidents during the remainder of the nineteenth century were nonentities who brought few credentials to the office, did little while in it, and disappeared from public attention once their term ended. Presidents had little influence on the selection of their running mates. Party leaders typically chose the second candidate from a different wing of the party in order to balance the ticket. Presidents and Vice-Presidents frequently feuded over policy and personal differences. The Vice-President presided over the Senate, but did little else. As woodrow wilson wrote, "The chief embarrassment in discussing his office is, that in explaining how little there is to be said about it one has evidently said all there is to say."
The nineteenth century did, however, provide four occasions for Vice-Presidents to succeed to the presidency on the death of the incumbent. john tyler, millard fillmore, andrew johnson, and chester a. arthur all became President when their predecessors died in office. None, however, won a term of his own.
The ambiguous constitutional status of the office was one source of its problem. The office was a hybrid between the legislative and executive branches; its occupant was selected with the President, and yet his only constitutional duty resided in the legislative branch. Neither the Senate not the President was disposed to give great power to an officer which neither had selected and neither could remove. Some Presidents have viewed the vice-presidency as a legislative office and argued that the principle of separation of powers precludes delegation of duties. Some Vice-Presidents have advanced this reasoning (or rationalization) to resist executive assignments. Moreover, since the presidency itself was relatively inactive for much of the nineteenth century, the President typically had little need to delegate duties to a Vice-President, especially one not politically or personally compatible.
During the twentieth century, the vice-presidency achieved greater importance. The rise in status of the office occurred primarily because of political change rather than constitutional reform. The presidency became the main beneficiary of increased activity of the federal government, especially from the New Deal onward. The President became the distributor of increased patronage, and therefore other political actors responded more willingly to his influence. Accordingly, presidential candidates, rather than party leaders, began to assume a larger role in selecting the running mate. Presidents thus had a chance to select compatible Vice-Presidents and an incentive to provide them with some assignments. Moreover, increased demands on the presidency provided opportunities for vice-presidential activity. Presidents have tended to use their Vice-Presidents as foreign envoys, commission chairmen, party leaders, public spokesmen, legislative liaison, and advisers. Ratification in 1967 of the twenty-fifth amendment, which in part provided a means for filling unexpected vice-presidential vacancies, recognized the new significance of the office. With a few notable exceptions, twentieth-century Vice-Presidents have been men of some accomplishment. Many have been presidential candidates prior to accepting the second position: virtually all subsequently were considered for their party's presidential nomination or received it. Since 1900, five Vice-Presidents—theodore roosevelt, calvin coolidge, harry s. truman, lyndon b. johnson, and gerald ford—have succeeded to the presidency upon death or resignation of the incumbent. Each one except Ford subsequently won his own term—and Ford lost but narrowly. Presidents jimmy carter and ronald reagan have done much to enhance the office by granting Vice-Presidents Walter F. Mondale and george bush, respectively, broad access to, and influence in, decision making.
The vice-presidency's enlarged significance this century has not silenced its critics. Some prominent students of American government recommend abolishing the office: they would generally handle an unexpected presidential vacancy by designating an interim President and holding special elections. Others would retain the vice-presidency but would attempt to augment its powers either by requiring that the Vice-President hold a leading cabinet position or have a vote or significant powers in the Senate. Finally, a third group of reformers seeks to change the process of nominating or electing Vice-Presidents. Proposals range from having presidential and vice-presidential candidates run together during primaries to holding separate elections for President and Vice-President. Although these proposals stimulate interesting debates, the prospects of significant formal changes in the vice-presidency are slim. Constitutional change rarely, if ever, comes easily. Proposed reforms of the vice-presidency would tend to create as many problems as they would solve. Growth in the office will probably depend largely on further changes in American politics and on the relation between future Presidents and Vice-Presidents.
Joel K. Goldsmith
Feerick, John 1965 From Failing Hands. New York: Fordham University Press.
Goldstein, Joel K. 1982 The Modern American Vice Presidency: Transformation of a Political Institution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Williams, Irving G. 1956 The Rise of the Vice Presidency. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press.