America’s first Vice President, John Adams, described the office as “the most insignificant office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived”. When Daniel Webster was offered the nomination of Vice President, he said “I do not intend to be buried until I am dead”. Perhaps the most succinct assessment of the office was given by Texan John Nance Garner, a former and powerful Speaker of The House of Representatives and Vice President under FDR for two full terms, who claimed that the office wasn’t “worth a bucket of piss”.
In many ways, the office of Vice President of The United States can be seen as the most singular indication of the noble goals and yet practical failure of The United States Constitution, and its fate was sealed before the 19th Century even began. While there might have once been a chance for the Vice Presidency to have been an office of viable contribution to the functioning of The United States’ government, there are five key moments in early American history which, I believe, combined to relegate the office itself to impotence and insignificance only moderated by either the good will of any particular President or by the vacation of the office of President and subsequent elevation of a Vice President to that office. The first of these moments was the creation of the office itself (1787). The idea was that it would be held by a major statesman, the candidate for President who came in second and who would, for the greater good of his nation, join the administration of the victor. Yet within this idea was still recognition of the reality of opposition and the understanding that you would not want to give the primary challenger of the President any real power with which to work against the Chief Executive. Thus was an office created in which the primary requirement was, apparently, to have a pulse.
While, primarily because of their revolutionary credentials, Washington’s Vice President, John Adams succeeded him as President, and then Adams’ Vice President, Thomas Jefferson succeeded him, the office of Vice President has not been seen as a natural stepping stone to the Presidency. After Jefferson, and after the adoption of the 12th Amendment to The Constitution (which provided for the direct election of the Vice President) the only Vice Presidents who have been elected to be President WITHOUT FIRST having already assumed the office through the death or resignation of the previous holder of that office have been Martin Van Buren (1836), Richard Nixon (1968), and George H. W. Bush (1988). Furthermore, of those three men, Richard Nixon was not the current Vice President when he was elected, having lost to John Kennedy in 1960. Thus, the two men after Jefferson who were elected to the office of President while holders of the office of Vice President served only two terms between them for a total of eight years, and the three men combined for 4 terms and less than 14 years out of the whole of the history of The United States. By contrast, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and James Buchanan (the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 15th Presidents) all served as Secretary of State and served as President for eight terms and a total of 32 years, while several others served as Ambassadors or envoys to other sovereign nations. So, we can see that diplomatic credentials have been seen as better qualifying a candidate to be President than serving as Vice President has been.
The second moment in history’s conspiracy to insure the insignificance of the office of Vice President was George Washington’s view that the office was a part of the Legislative branch of the government rather than part of the Executive branch (1789). As a result, Washington not only did not include Adams in his cabinet meetings or consult him very frequently on matters within the Executive Branch. He believed, in fact, that he was not ALLOWED to do so as part of The Constitution’s requirements for separation of powers. It is impossible to minimize the influence Washington had on establishing the precedents and operational functions of The United States government as established by The Constitution. If any man in history had it in his power to make from nothing a relevant constitutional office of the Vice Presidency, it was Washington; but he did not do so. As aware as the Revolutionary generation was that they were making history, they seemed to have had no awareness of the importance of the precedents which they were establishing every day as part of a continuity of history which would last for centuries.
In many ways, they were making it up as they went along and the openness of the Experiment they had initiated would have permitted them to follow almost any vision that they could have put into practice.
The third moment in this sorry tale was the decision of The Senate to forbid the Vice President from being part of the debates and deliberations of their body (1789). We can never know how much of this decision was inspired by the personal rancor and dislike felt by many members of The Senate for the person of John Adams and how much was an inevitable course which would have been followed no matter who had been The Senate’s first presiding officer.
In the end, it makes little difference. While Washington did not consider the Vice President a member of the Executive Branch, The Senate did not consider the officeholder a contributing part of their august body or, therefore, of the Legislative branch of government. While a man with more people skills and a more stable temperament might have been able to make the Senators accept the Vice President as a full member of The Senate, John Adams was not that man. As Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “It is to be sure a punishment to hear other men talk five hours every day and not be at liberty to talk at all myself, especially as more than half I hear appears to me very young, inconsiderate and inexperienced.” If Washington had made the Vice President insignificant as a member of the Executive branch, The Senate itself made him insignificant as a member of the Legislative branch. All of this, of course, reaches new heights of irony in the person of our former Vice President, Dick Cheney, who has used this ‘confusion’ to declare himself the beneficiary of the rights and privileges of both branches while, at the same time, free of the obligations or restraints upon either branch. The burden of the fourth moment in our tragic history of the establishment of the role of the Vice Presidency falls squarely on the shoulders of the second holder of that office, Thomas Jefferson (1797).
Adams, for all of his faults of personality, truly cared for what was best for the nation he served. He did not plan to treat Jefferson, as Vice President, as he had been treated himself (or, as Tom Lehrer put so humorously in his satirical song about Hubert Humphrey and the treatment of Humphrey as Vice President by Lyndon Johnson as President, “I’ll do unto you as they did unto me.”). As Joseph Ellis tells so well in his Pulitzer Prize winning book ‘Founding Brothers’, Adams fully desired to work with Jefferson to create a bipartisan administration which utilized both of their talents and skills (Chapter Five: The Collaborators).
He wanted Jefferson to be a functioning member of his cabinet and an active participant in foreign policy efforts. Jefferson, influenced greatly by the advice of James Madison, chose to be a party man and watch the Adams administration fail without him. Jefferson, at this time, chose the good of his party over the good of his nation. After Adams’ desire to give the office a ‘place at the table’, it wasn’t until Warren G. Harding took office in 1921 that a President again made the choice to include his Vice President in his cabinet meetings, and it wasn’t until Richard Nixon’s service under Dwight Eisenhower that a Vice President was given a substantial and public role by the President but, in all cases, up to and including the present, the role and power of a particular Vice President has been dependent upon their President to give it to them.
If the damage done to the office of Vice President was not already irreversible by the election of 1800, that election itself ensured that it was permanent, and the blame for it can be placed on the personage of Aaron Burr. If one wants to make the case that the Adams’ Vice Presidency was not a standard to judge by because of the newness of the office, or that the Jefferson Vice Presidency cannot be used because he was of an opposition political position to his President, then there is no excuse for the damage done to the office by Burr before he was even inaugurated, damage so great, in fact, that the first substantive change to The US Constitution was made to prevent the circumstances from ever again even being possible through the adoption of the 12th Amendment. For the election of 1800, the supporters of Jefferson and his Republican / Anti-Federalist movement conspired to maneuver the election so that their candidates would end up holding the offices of both the Presidency and the Vice Presidency. While they succeeded in the goal of having all of their electors vote for both Jefferson and Burr, they apparently never considered the ramifications of this actually happening. They believed that somehow, without any need to orchestrate it as well, some random elector would cast his vote for Jefferson but not cast their second vote for Burr. The conspiracy, however, was too well planned and the soldiers followed their marching orders without deviation…and Jefferson and Burr ended up exactly tied in the electoral vote totals.
At this point, a good party man would have fallen into line and worked to finish what had been started, but Burr was an opportunist whose personal desires completely overshadowed any belief he may have had in the greater good. When the election went to The House of Representatives, Burr fought to win the Presidency for himself. He almost managed to pull the feat off as it took 36 ballots in The House before Hamilton intervened and one member chose to abstain. Well, after that, what President would trust the man he was stuck with as Vice President? And so, Burr alienated himself from any role in Jefferson’s first administration and The Constitution was changed…and changed VERY quickly.
The new nation went through only four elections, three administrations and 12 years before the first substantial flaw in the design of the governmental structure of The United States had to be addressed. 46 men have been dumped into the graveyard of The Constitution, including 2 men who each served under two different Presidents (George Clinton under Jefferson and Madison, and John C. Calhoun under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson). Except for the ones who eventually became President themselves or who have served in a person’s own lifetime, how many people can name even one of them? The Vice Presidency is a unique office with a unique role in government. If we want evidence of the lack of experience which burdened the men who created The Constitution, all we need do is look at the Office of The Vice President of The United States. However, if we do look at it, we will have done more than most people ever do.
P.S.– It might also be of interest, for anyone who wants to consideration how truly UNimportant the office of Vice President has been to our nation over the entire course of its history, for me to point out that, while we have never had any real period without a President since Washington first took the oath of office in 1889, between the years 1812 (when the office was vacated upon the death of Vice President George Clinton) and 1974 (when the office was vacated by the elevation of Vice President Gerald Ford to the Office of President) (a period of 162 years), there were 18 different times when we were without a Vice President totaling more than 426 months (35.5 years, an average of 23.666 months per vacancy). This includes two periods when the office was vacant for 47 months (out of a 48 month term of office), but does NOT include any periods when the holder of the office just left Washington and ignored his role in government (as, for example, Richard Mentor Johnson did during Van Buren’s administration).
As an indication of how little impact the absence of a Vice President has meant to the functions of our government, I would simply ask how many of you reading this have ever even wondered just how often the office has even been vacant because there WAS no holder of the office?
As a point of useless trivia from an infomaniac, did you know that the first Vice President to die in office (George Clinton) died about a year before the end of his second term (Clinton had served one term as President Jefferson’s second Vice President and his second term as Vice President was consecutive to his first when he was elected to be Vice President under Jefferson’s successor, President James Madison, for Madison’s first term. For Madison’s second term of office, he ran and served with Vice President Elbridge Gerry, who THEN proceeded to die in office after about a year and a half into his term. As a result, President James Madison served with a different Vice President for each of his two terms in office and neither of them lived to complete their own terms.
Rhys M. Blavier
“Truth, Justice and Honor… but, above all Honor”