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The Modern American Vice Presidency
The Transformation of a Political Institution
By Joel K. Goldstein
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1982 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Scope of the Problem
Since its inception, the American vice presidency has been the target of more derision than any other national office. Other major political figures — Presidents, Supreme Court justices, Speakers of the House of Representatives — have not always served with distinction. But the legitimacy of their offices has escaped serious challenge. Yet for most of its history the nation's second position has been seen, not unfairly, as an accessory, both meaningless and menacing.
Time has not denied that view its popularity, only its accuracy. The vice presidency has become an important component of American civic life. This book assesses the contemporary status of the office by focusing on the selection and activities of its occupants from January 1953 to January 1981, and relates the growth of the office to larger developments in the American political system since the New Deal.
That the vice presidency has always received rough treatment is not surprising. To begin with, the office is a rarity. As Richard M. Nixon pointed out, "Far more countries get along without Vice Presidents than have them." The Constitution grants it no significant permanent duties. Nor have functions added by subsequent statutes imposed unduly on the Vice President's free time. The history of the office is rich in Washington folklore but poor in solid accomplishment.
The troubles of the vice presidency date from its creation. The position was an afterthought, not suggested until the closing days of the Constitutional Convention. Its reception was not enthusiastic. "Such an officer as vice-President was not wanted," said delegate Hugh Williamson. Elbridge Gerry, later the fifth Vice President, opposed creating it. He and George Mason feared a weakening of the principle of separation of powers. Alexander Hamilton defended it but admitted that "the appointment of an extraordinary person, as Vice-President, has been objected to as superfluous, if not mischievous."
It is not entirely clear why the framers finally created the post, but three motives are commonly suggested. Most discussion of the office at the Constitutional Convention focused on the need for a president of the Senate. Roger Sherman of Connecticut worried that lacking provisions for a presiding officer, some senator would lose his vote by having to chair the sessions. His state would accordingly be underrepresented. And with an even number of members, Hamilton pointed out, the Senate might not always be capable of "definitive resolution."
Neither argument is compelling. Abstention from voting is neither a prerequisite nor a guarantee of a fair chair, especially when, as is now the case, rulings are made along lines suggested by an appointed parliamentarian and are subject to appeal to the Senate. Nor does deadlock pose an insurmountable dilemma. Provision need only be made to handle tie votes. Further, during the debates Sherman noted that the Vice President "would be without employment" were he not the Senate's presiding officer. This suggests that the duty was assigned to the Vice President to give him something to do rather than to solve problems facing the Senate.
The need for a means to fill presidential vacancies provides a second possible motive. Early plans suggested that the presiding officer of the Senate discharge executive powers in the absence of an elected Chief Executive. Other delegates proposed vesting those functions in the chief justice of the Supreme Court or in a council of state. Yet, oddly, the delegates paid little attention to the question of succession. Their indifference makes it unlikely that they created the office primarily to solve that problem.
A third explanation of the creation of the office sees it as an expedient to faciliate the election of the President. A leading proponent of this position writes:
The Vice Presidency entered the Constitution, in short, not to provide a successor to the President — this could easily have been arranged otherwise — but to ensure the election of a national President. For the United States had as yet little conviction of national identity. Loyalty ran to the states rather than to the country as a whole. If presidential electors voted for one man, local feeling would lead them to vote for the candidate from their own state.
To counter this threat, Williamson proposed that electors be required to vote for three men. Two would be from a different state than the elector, he reasoned. Gouveneur Morris then suggested voting for two men, one of whom could not be from the elector's state. The extra vote, James Madison thought, would correct the tendency for provincial loyalties to guide voting. The second choice of the individual electors "would probably be the first, in fact," he predicted. 10 Acting upon this reasoning, the convention prescribed a single election to choose both the President and the Vice President. The individual with the majority of the votes would become President, the runner-up Vice President.
This is a plausible interpretation of the framers' motives. Indeed, Williamson claimed that the office "was introduced only for the sake of a valuable mode of election which required two to be chosen at the same time." But even this explanation is insufficient. The scheme would have worked as effectively without the vice presidency. The "valuable mode of election" required only a second vote, not a second office.
The vice presidency was created, then, for reasons that are at best obscure and at worst illogical. Yet initially the system seemed likely to fill the second office with persons of high caliber; John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the first two Vice Presidents. But political change impeded its operation. Parties had begun to form in the 1790s; by 1796 they were selecting tickets, designating one candidate for President and another for Vice President. The electors were to support the ticket but at least one was to withhold his vote from the vice-presidential candidate to assure that the de facto presidential nominee became Chief Executive. In 1800 the system backfired. The same number of electors voted for Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Jefferson was clearly the intended standard-bearer. But it was not until the House of Representatives had held thirty-six ballots that he was chosen. Many were appalled that someone never intended for the presidency had almost been elected.
The development of parties was incompatible with the system in other ways. Electors could have assured the victory of their opponent's running mate by giving him their votes. Or a President and Vice President of different parties could be installed, as occurred in 1796. Consequently the system outlined in the Twelfth Amendment was proposed. It provided for separate election of the two officers. Fearing a diminution in the quality of Vice Presidents, some favored abolishing the office. Since "the Vice President will not stand on such high ground in the method proposed as he does in the present mode of a double ballot," Samuel Taggart feared, it was likely that "so great care will not be taken in the selection of a character to fill that office." The Vice President will become a "secondary character," guessed Samuel W. Dana. William Plumer thought "the office of Vice President will be a sinecure [that would] be brought to market and exposed to sale to procure votes for the President." Roger Griswold feared it would be "worse than useless." Attempts to abolish the office failed by a vote of 19 to 12 in the Senate and 85 to 27 in the House of Representatives. Despite these misgivings, Congress approved the Twelfth Amendment and it was ratified on 25 September 1804. The election of subsequent Vice Presidents proved these fears prophetic. No office could continue to claim occupants of the stature of Adams and Jefferson, but the remainder of the nineteenth century witnessed a sharp decline in the caliber of Vice Presidents.
Some prominent men still did accept the second office. John C. Calhoun and Martin Van Buren were among the early Vice Presidents. More often, however, the vice-presidential nomination was awarded as a consolation prize to a defeated faction of a party. The credentials of some nominees were ludicrous. George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, and Rufus King were in advanced years and failing health. Others had scant experience. The prior public service of Chester A. Arthur consisted of seven years as collector of customs for the port of New York. Garret A. Hobart had never held a post higher than state legislator in New Jersey. Six of the twenty-three Vice Presidents in the century were not nominated to seek another term with the Chief Executive. Six others died in office. On four occasions nineteenth-century Vice Presidents succeeded to the nation's top job following the death of the elected Chief Executive. Their administrations were largely undistinguished. None was nominated to seek an independent full term.
The experience of the first century no doubt gave reason to rue the creation of the office. Vice Presidents posed problems for many Chief Executives. Jefferson ignored Adams's entreaties to undertake diplomatic missions, viewing such activity as inconsistent with his leadership of the opposition party. Burr was no more helpful to Jefferson. Clinton refused to attend Madison's inauguration; Andrew Johnson came to that of Abraham Lincoln but in a state of advanced inebriation. Calhoun cast the decisive vote against Jackson's nomination of Van Buren as ambassador to Great Britain, exacerbated tensions in the administration over the Peggy Eaton affair, and split with the President on states' rights. Arthur denounced President James Garfield to a newspaper editor.
Nor did Vice Presidents always meet a high standard of behavior. Burr killed Hamilton in a duel and was later charged with, though acquitted of, treason for allegedly conspiring to "liberate" the Louisiana Territory from the United States. Richard Johnson seemed more interested in presiding over his tavern than over the Senate. John Breckinridge became a Confederate general and later Secretary of War after his term ended. Schuyler Colfax was nearly impeached for improper financial dealings.
The office rose in the early twentieth century but only incrementally. The first Vice President in that epoch, Theodore Roosevelt, was the most imposing figure to hold the post since Calhoun. Others, if not so prominent as Roosevelt, were already men of some stature when they became the nation's second citizen: Charles Dawes, Charles Curtis, John Nance Garner, Alben Barkley. Dawes had served under three Presidents and received the Nobel Peace Prize. Curtis and Barkley had been Senate Majority Leaders; Garner, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The vice presidency was still not unduly challenging. But its occupants were occasionally being called upon to perform chores that transcended the constitutionally prescribed function. Thomas Marshall presided over the cabinet while Woodrow Wilson was in Versailles. "Until this administration the principal job of the Vice President was to preside over the Senate and dress up fancy and attend innumerable functions," wrote Garner. Cabinet meetings became a regular entry on the Vice President's schedule beginning with Garner in 1933 and Roosevelt enlisted his help in lobbying for early New Deal legislation. Garner became the first Vice President to travel abroad. In 1941 Roosevelt appointed his second Vice President, Henry A. Wallace, as chairman of the Economic Defense Board. Eight years later Congress made the Vice President a statutory member of the National Security Council.
By mid-century the vice presidency was not quite the sinecure of early years but it was still, essentially, a "hollow shell." Herbert Hoover acknowledged no contribution Curtis made to his administration in his memoirs. Garner eventually broke with Roosevelt and challenged him for the nomination in 1940. Wallace lost his chairmanship after frequent quarrels with Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones and other cabinet members. Other Roosevelt advisers knew of the existence of the atomic bomb, but Harry S. Truman was not informed of it until he became President. Barkley recalls few vice-presidential duties in his autobiography; he seems to have devoted those years almost entirely to courting his second wife.
The vice presidency has offered quipsters a ready source of material. But scholars have long ignored it. In Congressional Government, first published in 1885, Woodrow Wilson covered the vice presidency in less than one page. For, he observed, "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." Seventy years later, Clinton Rossiter gave but seven of three hundred pages of The American Presidency to the second office "although even this ratio of forty to one is no measure of the vast gap between them [the President and Vice President) in power and prestige."
Such indifference among scholars may once have been appropriate. It no longer is. Compelling arguments justify a detailed consideration of the vice presidency.
First, the possibility of presidential vacancy attaches importance to the procedures for maintaining the continuity of executive authority. The Vice President stands atop the line of successors in the event of the death, resignation, removal, or inability of the President. "I am nothing, but I may be everything," realized Adams, the first Vice President. And history shows that Vice Presidents have become "everything" through succession with unhappy frequency. Nine Vice Presidents have succeeded to the presidency following the death or resignation of the Chief Executive. As Table 1.1 indicates, they have filled in as President for more than twenty-six years. Thus, 21 percent of America's Vice Presidents served as President by succession 14 percent of the time. Incumbency has provided a valuable asset to twentieth-century Presidents by succession. Four of the five have won terms of their own. If these years are added, Vice Presidents have served as Chief Executive more than 22 percent of the time. On other occasions, particularly during the administrations of Garfield, Wilson, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, prolonged presidential illness raised the possibility that the Vice President might have to perform executive duties. The nine instances of presidential succession and three above-mentioned examples of incapacity top a pyramid of "near misses." Presidents are mortals. There is no reason to expect death or incapacity to visit them less often in the future than they have in the past. The likelihood of presidential vacancy makes examination of the office of successor both valid and desirable.
The value of the vice presidency, and sometimes even of candidacy for it, as a political springboard offers a second reason for its study. Occupants of the office in this century have almost invariably been considered presidential timber. Of the seventeen men who held the position from 1901 to 1976, thirteen later sought the presidency or received consideration for the nomination near the time of the convention. The other four might well have, had not circumstances intervened. James S. Sherman died during his campaign for reelection in 1912. Curtis was defeated for reelection and died three years later. Agnew resigned from office and pleaded nolo contendere to criminal charges in 1973. Nelson A. Rockefeller was prevented from seeking the nomination in 1976 by Ford's decision to stand; he died in 1979. The office thus influences future choices for Chief Executive.
The changing duties of the office also recommend review. The functions Vice Presidents discharge vary in each administration. Recent incumbents have performed important governmental and political tasks. The Vice President has opportunities to participate in the decision-making of the executive branch.
Further, the vice presidency deserves study because it offers its occupant a prominent podium and a ready audience. With the exception of the President, presidential candidates, and an occasional cabinet member, senator, congressman or governor, Vice Presidents and vice-presidential candidates receive greater media attention than other public figures. The behavior of those who hold the office and of those who seek it affects the political climate. The rhetoric of Vice Presidents helps define the issues and tenor of political discourse. Their performances may sway electoral outcomes, including those of presidential races.
Excerpted from The Modern American Vice Presidency by Joel K. Goldstein. Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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