At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the delegates worked hard to create a document that would govern their new country.
At the end of the convention, they had a session titled “Leftover Business.” It was here in the “leftover business” section of the constitutional convention where the Vice Presidency was born.
Some say it has been leftover business ever since.
Learn more about the Vice President of the United States, its history, and the men and women who have held the job on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention first arrived, pretty much no one was thinking about creating a position of vice president.
The thing on everyone’s mind was the role of the president. There were many debates about what role the president should have and how they should be selected.
Determining the duties and powers of the president was done first, and afterward, they tackled the problem of how to select the president.
As mentioned in the introduction, this was done in the last session dubbed “leftover business.”
The initial idea was to simply allow congress to select the president. This would be more akin to how a Prime Minister is selected, but it would be different. The President wouldn’t necessarily be a member of congress, and it would be for a fixed term.
However, the idea of congress electing the president was scrapped because it was felt that there would be too much vote trading. Members of Congress would tie their votes for president to those who would promise them things in return.
So, they went to Plan B. Instead of having congress select the president; they would just create a mirror of congress to elect the president. This mirror body would be the same size as congress and have the same representation by the states, but the individuals would not, and could not, be members of congress.
However, they soon saw another problem. They thought that every state would just vote for someone from their own state for president.
So, they figured if everyone was going to waste a vote for someone from their own state, they gave everyone a second vote which had to be for someone from a different state.
They assumed that this second vote would be the real vote to determine who was president.
To guard against electors wasting their second vote, they created the office of Vice-President to make the vote meaningful.
The person receiving the most votes would be the president, and the runner-up would be the vice president.
There was a great deal of thought put into the powers and duties of the president. For the vice-president, however, not so much.
In the end, the vice-president was simply made the President of the Senate. This was the only official duty given to the vice-president in the original constitution. Even then, as President of the Senate, they could only vote on a bill to break a tie.
The first two vice-presidents were chosen in this manner. John Adams was runner-up to Geroge Washington, and he spent most of his time presiding over the senate.
This was fine as both Washington and Adams were members of the same Federalist party.
However, the next vice-president was Thomas Jefferson. He ran against Adams, and they were very bitter rivals with very different views on how the country should be run.
Adams now was stuck with a vice-president who was not a member of his party. Jefferson was a member of the Democratic-Republican party and didn’t support many of Adam’s policies.
This came to a head in 1800 when each party selected a person for both President and Vice-President.
The idea was that the electors would cast both of their votes for the candidates from their party.
Unfortunately, this worked a bit too well. Both Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, received the same number of electoral votes.
This made the election go to the House of Representatives, where Burr refused to step aside. So, the presidential candidate was running against his running mate.
Eventually, Jefferson won, and Aaron Burr turned out to be one of the worst vice presidents in history. Not only did he kill Alexander Hamilton while in office, but he was actually brought up on treason charges after he was out of office.
Everyone quickly realized that this system was dumb. Their assumption that everyone would vote for someone from the same state was wrong. Both the elections of 1796 and 1800 were results that didn’t please anyone.
So, the 12th amendment was passed, which changed the system for electing the vice president.
Now, instead of the runner-up becoming vice-president, each elector would get one vote for president and one vote for vice president.
This solved the immediate problem, but it didn’t change the fact that the vice-president really didn’t do anything. The position was widely thought of as a joke.
However, there was, of course, one important duty that the vice president had. Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the constitution stipulates:
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…
Now, if you read it closely, it does not say that the vice-president becomes president upon the president vacating the office. It says that the vice-president shall receive the powers and duties of the office.
This might sound like a minor distinction, but it became a big deal in 1841 when President William Henry Harrison died only 31 days after his inauguration.
For the first time in American history, a sitting president had died in office, and for the first time, a vice-president had to step up. That person was John Tyler.
Harrison’s cabinet met within an hour of his death and determined that Tyler would continue to hold the office of vice-president and would serve the duties of the acting president. He would be “the vice president, acting as president.”
Tyler, on the other hand, assumed that he was now actually the president and went and took the oath of office from a local district court judge.
He then wrote the cabinet and said the following:
“I beg your pardon, gentlemen…I am sure I am very glad to have in my Cabinet such able statesmen as you have proved yourselves to be, and I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice, but I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall or shall not do. I, as president, will be responsible for my administration. I hope to have your cooperation in carrying out its measures. So long as you see fit to do this I shall be glad to have you with me. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted.”
He was eventually accepted as president, but many people still referred to him as “His Accidency.” I should note that Tyler also became treasonous as after the Civil War broke out, he served in the Confederate Congress.
This precedent of the vice president not only taking over the duties of the president but the office and title itself became important. On eight separate occasions, including Tyler, the vice-president has ascended to the presidency on the death of the president.
The other times it occurred were:
Millard Fillmore, following the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850
Andrew Johnson, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865
Chester Alan Arthur, following the assassination of James Garfield in 1881
Theodore Roosevelt, following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901
Calvin Coolidge, following the death of Warren G. Harding in 1923
Harry Truman, following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945
Lyndon B. Johnson, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963
In each of these cases, once the vice president ascended to the presidency, there was no vice-president for the remainder of their term. The office was simply vacant.
There have been 49 vice presidents as of the time of recording, so the odds of becoming president via death or resignation is about 18%.
Likewise, seven vice presidents died in office.
George Clinton (served under James Madison)
Elbridge Gerry (served under James Madison)
William Rufus De Vane King (served under Franklin Pierce)
Henry Wilson (served under U.S. Grant)
Thomas Hendricks (served under Grover Cleveland)
Garret Hobart (served under William McKinley)
James Sherman (served under William Howard Taft)
Two vice presidents resigned from office: John C. Calhoun and Spiro Agnew.
The office of Vice President has been vacant for over 37 years in total throughout US history.
After the death of President Kennedy, it was decided that the issue of presidential succession and vice-presidential vacancy had to be addressed.
This led to the passage of the 25th amendment in 1967. The 25th amendment explicitly says that the vice president becomes president, clearing up the issue which existed since John Tyler. It also provided a process for filling a vacancy in the vice presidency, as well as for temporary presidential incapacitation.
The first real test of the 25th amendment took place in the early 1970s.
Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 due to a financial scandal. With the office vacant, Richard Nixon nominated Representative Gerald Ford as Vice-President, which the Senate then approved.
He took the oath of office on December 6, 1973.
However, just nine months later, on August 9, Nixon himself resigned, elevating Ford to the office of president. He became the first and only person ever to hold the office of president without having been elected.
He then appointed Nelson Rockafeller as vice president, so you had two unelected officials holding the two highest offices.
The next test of the 25th amendment occurred when section 3 was exercised. Section 3 specifies that the president may temporarily transfer the powers of the president if they are to be incapacitated.
This happened for the first time in 1985 when Ronald Reagan had to undergo colon cancer surgery. For eight hours on July 13, 1985, Geroge H. W. Bush was the acting president.
Section three has been invoked on three other occasions.
June 29, 2002, and July 21, 2007, when George W. Bush ceded power Dick Cheney for under 90 minutes when undergoing a colonoscopy.
Most recently, it occurred on November 19, 2021, when Joe Biden ceded power to Kamala Harris for under 90 minutes when he also underwent a colonoscopy.
Section 4 involved the involuntary transfer of power, and so far, it has never been invoked. This became a big controversy in 1981 after the assassination attempt on President Reagan.
Many members of Congress felt that Section 4 should have been evoked because the president was in surgery; however, it was never done. Likewise, a Section 3 transfer of power was prepared for Reagan to sign, but he never did.
Presidential succession aside, the issue of the value of the office has remained since the position was created.
Today, the vice president will seldom show up to the senate chamber outside of special events and to break a tie vote. The number of tie votes which are broken can vary greatly depending on the vice president.
Both Dan Quayle and Joe Biden never had to break a tie vote. Kamala Harris did it 17 times in a little over a year. At this rate, she will break the record of 31 tie-breaking votes set by John C. Calhoun.
Today, the vice president is often sent as a high-ranking representative to state funerals, and they are usually given some assignments like overseeing the space program.
No fewer than seven times in the first 100 years of the country, constitutional amendments were proposed that would eliminate the position of vice president.
Vice presidents themselves felt the futility of the office. John Adams, the first vice president, wrote to his wife Abagail, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man … or his imagination contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and met the common fate.”
Daniel Webster declined the offer to be vice-president by saying, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.”
Harry Truman said that the vice presidency was as “useful as a cow’s fifth teat.”
But perhaps the job was best described by the 33rd vice president, John Nance Gardner, who said that the vice presidency “wasn’t worth a warm bucket of spit.”
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
I wanted to remind everyone that if you want to give feedback on an episode, give me episode suggestions, or just ask some questions, you can join me on my Discord server.
I’m usually around on and off throughout the day, and you can find a link to join in the show notes. It has slowly been getting more active over time.
So stop over, say hi, and meet some other curious people.