Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Strange History of the Office of the Vice President

For more than two centuries, the vice president has held little power, despite the position’s prominence. That may be changing, but the story of the No. 2 job in America is full of historical quirks.

Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris speaking at DNC.
Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. (Shutterstock)
President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of a running mate was front-page news with Kamala Harris becoming the first Black woman and first South Asian to hold the job. Her boss, Joe Biden, also gained stature when he was vice president for President Obama, with an unusually active role that far exceeded what was accomplished by previous vice presidents. In fact, the evolution of the vice presidency, in the Constitution and in practice, is one of the most fascinating, bizarre elements of the U.S. government.

On Dec. 19, 1793, Vice President John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, “my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived.” Most vice presidents in American history have agreed with Adams’ assessment of the No. 2 office in the country. Despite being a heartbeat away from the presidency, the office of the vice president has often been relegated to obsolescence. 

The original Constitution mentioned the vice president three times. Article II, Section 1 specifies that the vice president shall hold a term of four years and the top two candidates will be elected president and vice president. The end of Section 1 states that the vice president takes over the responsibilities of the president should the president be removed from office by death or resignation. Finally, Article II, Section 4 states that the vice president can be removed from office by impeachment.

In 1789, the first federal Congress certified the votes of the first presidential election. George Washington received 69 votes, a unanimous vote from all electors. John Adams was the clear second choice with 34 votes. John Jay came in third with nine votes. But the Constitution was silent about the relationship between the president and the vice president.

President Washington initially solicited Adams’ advice, especially as Washington established a social calendar and customs. But Adams and Washington never had a particularly warm relationship and the president didn’t invite the vice president to join a single Cabinet meeting, establishing a precedent that held for almost two centuries.

The relationship between the president and vice president didn’t improve during the second administration. In 1796, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson competed in the presidential election. Adams won with 71 electoral votes to Jefferson’s 68 electoral votes. Under the terms of Article II, Jefferson’s second-place finish bagged him the vice presidency. As political rivals and opponents, Adams naturally didn’t include Jefferson in his Cabinet meetings either.

This odd arrangement came to a head during the next election. Each party selected two candidates, one for president and one for vice president in theory, but they were all listed on the same ballot. In the election of 1800, President John Adams came in third with 65 votes, but Democratic-Republican candidates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied with 73 apiece. The election then went to the House of Representatives, and Jefferson fully expected Burr to step aside. When Burr eagerly competed for the presidency, the House cast 36 ballots before finally selecting Jefferson as the third president of the United States. Jefferson never trusted Burr again and replaced him after the first term.

Congress quickly realized that it needed a more predictable process for selecting presidential and vice presidential candidates to avoid the awkward electoral tie that had occurred between Burr and Jefferson. In December 1803, Congress passed the 12th Amendment, which specified that electors would cast separate votes for president and vice presidential candidates in elections going forward.

Despite the revisions contained in the 12th Amendment, there was still a pretty sizable hole in the vice presidential selection process. When Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, there was no established process to select Johnson’s replacement, so the vice presidency was left vacant — for three years and 323 days. A new vice president didn’t fill the office until after the election of 1868.  

The position was so inconsequential that Johnson was not the last president to serve without a vice president, nor was the vacancy the longest! On April 4, 1841, John Tyler took over the presidency when William Henry Harrison died unexpectedly in office. The vice president remained open for three years and 334 days, until the election of 1844. President John F. Kennedy’s death and Lyndon B. Johnson’s assumption of the presidency again emphasized the need for a clear process to select a new vice president, as LBJ didn’t have a vice president for one year and 59 days.

The 25th Amendment, passed by Congress in July 1965 and ratified in February 1967, finally addressed this situation by declaring that “Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”

Even after the vice president received more constitutional definition, most presidents have kept their vice presidents at arm’s length. President Franklin D. Roosevelt shared so little information and responsibility with Harry S. Truman that Truman didn’t learn of the existence of the atomic bomb until after Roosevelt died in 1945. In 1960, when reporters asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to list Vice President Richard Nixon’s major contributions, Eisenhower replied, “Well, if you give me a week I might think of one.”

Since the passage of the 12th Amendment, presidents mostly selected candidates that served an Electoral College purpose. Only recently have presidential candidates considered who might make the best governing partner. For example, Ronald Reagan selected Bush for electoral reasons, and while Bush proved to be an effective and persistent lieutenant, the relationship between the first and second families remained frosty. Reagan only offered a tepid endorsement of Bush’s candidacy and then refused to be seen with the president when Bush was running for re-election. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore reportedly worked well together during Clinton’s first term, but the Monica Lewinsky scandal drove a wedge between the two. 

Dick Cheney started a new chapter in vice presidential history by operating with more authority than any vice president before him. Bush selected Cheney as a veteran politician to provide seasoned, but blunt advice. They worked well together because Cheney had no plans to run for president himself and always deferred to the president. At the same time, he had more influence with the president than anyone else and was frequently characterized as the man behind the curtain pulling the strings. In Bush’s second term, however, the relationship changed as Bush increasingly consulted with Condoleezza Rice and fired Donald Rumsfeld (Cheney’s mentor). By the time they left office, they disagreed on more issues than they agreed.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden might be the first president and vice president that were actually friends. Before accepting the position, Biden demanded a more substantive role than the one most vice presidents had enjoyed. Obama promised that he would be the last person in the room and a partner on critical foreign policy and domestic issues. The president kept his word. Biden frequently traveled abroad on behalf of the administration and managed the economic reconstruction efforts in the wake of the 2008 recession. Their warm relationship inspired countless memes and articles about their “bromance” and by the end of Obama’s term, they both referred to each other as family.

All evidence suggests that President-elect Biden’s relationship with Obama served as one of the high-water marks of his decades-long public service career, and he seeks to emulate this relationship with his own vice president selection. He has promised Vice President-elect Harris the same access Obama provided to him — she will be the last person in the room before every big decision. If so, she will inherit a vice presidency that has evolved significantly from the one created by the Constitution in 1787.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
From Our Partners