A Brief History of the Office of the Vice President of the United States

Tonight, Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence, the vice presidential candidates for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump respectively, will debate at Longwood University. This seems like a good opportunity to discuss the office of the Vice President of the United States. It is an office that is little understood and often ridiculed.

Of the office, John Adams said “But my country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived. And as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others, and meet the common fate.”

Thomas Jefferson, who served as vice president under John Adams, wrote “The second office of the land is honorable and easy, the first is but a splendid misery.”

Adams and Jefferson are among the remarkable individuals who have served in the office of the vice president. The Senate Historical Office succinctly summarizes the individuals who have served in the office

Fourteen of the former vice presidents became president of the United States—more than half of them after a president had died. One defeated the sitting president with whom he served. One murdered a man and became a fugitive. One joined the Confederate army and led an invasion of Washington, D.C. One was the wealthiest banker of his era. Three received the Nobel Peace Prize and one composed a popular melody. One served as a corporal in the Coast Guard while vice president. One had cities in Oregon and Texas named after him. Two resigned from the office. Two were never elected by the people. One was the target of a failed assassination plot. Another was mobbed in his car while on a goodwill mission. Seven died in office—one in his room in the U.S. Capitol and two fatally stricken while on their way to preside over the Senate. And one piano-playing vice president suffered political repercussions from a photograph showing him playing that instrument while a famous movie actress posed seductively on top of it.

The Constitution and the Vice Presidency

Selecting the Vice President

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides –

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice President. (Emphasis Added)

The Election of 1800 and the 12th Amendment

In the contentious election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr ended up receiving the same number of electoral votes. Per the language in Article II, Section 1 (see above), the decision of who would serve as president fell to the House of Representatives. After 35 separate ballots where neither candidate was able to secure a majority, Jefferson was finally able to prevail over Burr. Jefferson became president and Burr served as vice president.

How could this happen? How could candidates running together end up running against each other in the event of a tie? Prior to the passage of the 12th Amendment, the Constitution did not differentiate between presidential and vice presidential candidates. Each elector cast two votes without regard for political affiliation. Whomever received the most votes became president and the runner-up became vice president. Either candidate could win either office, regardless of whether they initially set out to run in one position or the other. The election of 1800 put pressure on Congress to fix this system, and so by 1804 the 12th Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by the requisite number of states. The Amendment reads –

The electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate;–The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;–the person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President. The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States. (Emphasis added)

Duties of the Vice President Under the Constitution

Under Article II, Section I, of the Constitution, the Vice President will act as president when the sitting president is removed from office, or if (s)he dies, resigns or is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office.

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, and the Congress may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation or inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what officer shall then act as President, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.

Under Article I, Section III,

The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.

Furthermore, Article II, Section 1 provides that the President of the Senate (the Vice President) shall receive from the states the tally of electoral ballots cast for president and vice president and open the certificates “in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives,” so that the total votes could be counted. In 2000, this led to a famously awkward moment when then-Vice President Al Gore had to formally certify his opponent in the 2000 presidential race, George W. Bush, as president of the United States.

The decision of the Framers to have the Vice President preside over the Senate was not an uncontroversial one. Joseph Story on his Commentaries on the Constitution explained

§ 733. Some objections have been taken to the appointment of the vice president to preside in the senate. It was suggested in the state conventions, that the officer was not only unnecessary, but dangerous; that it is contrary to the usual course of parliamentary proceedings to have a presiding officer, who is not a member; and that the state, from which he comes, may thus have two votes, instead of one. It has also been coldly remarked by a learned commentator, that “the necessity of providing for the case of a vacancy in the office of president doubtless gave rise to the creation of that officer; and for want of something else for him to do, whilst there is a president in office, he seems to have been placed, with no very great propriety, in the chair of the senate.”

There were additional separation of powers concerns raised during the Constitutional Convention. George Mason of Virginia

thought the office of vice-President an encroachment on the rights of the Senate; and that it mixed too much the Legislative & Executive, which as well as the Judiciary departments, ought to be kept as separate as possible. 

So what of the vice presidency today? Nearly 1/3 of Americans can’t name our current Vice President. All the more reason to study up on the history of the office!

 

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