Note: Despite his avowed decision to run for re-election, two years before the 2024 election many folks—myself included—doubt Joe Biden will actually be the Democratic candidate. Despite a strong start and some real achievements the Coronavirus pandemic, the raging inflation, and the failure of the White House and Congressional Democrats to be able to deliver on key promises have put the incumbent significantly under water in popularity and lagging behind any generic Republican in the polls. His age is catching up to him and he seems increasingly fragile. If he does withdraw or become unable to run again his Vice President Kamala Harris would be a likely choice for the top of the ticket. But she has her negatives, too, including a nagging fear that a Black woman could be elected in a racially polarizing country. If she does run and win, she will join an elite club. We are examining the history of the Vice Presidency. To make it digestible, I have split it into three parts. Today in the first I take the story up to Lincoln and his second Veep and successor Andrew Johnson. Guys with beards through quirky choices and high modern political drama tomorrow. High jinks, treason, political gambles of the two most recent Veeps on Friday.
American Vice Presidents through Mike Pence.
The Vice Presidency was barely an afterthought in the Constitution. It occurred to one of the drafters that while a vacancy in a state government governorship could in most cases quickly be filled by the legislature or Governor’s council allowing the simple machinery of 18th Century government to continue functioning with minimum disruption, the mechanics of electing a new President were cumbersome in the extreme entailing the several state legislatures meeting, selecting electors, and then convening the Electors. Months or more than a year could slip by before all of the moving parts produced a new chief executive. Thus, the creation of the office of the Vice President whose main function was to be a spare part in case of emergency.
Other than that, the Constitution had precious little to say. The Vice President must have the qualifications as the President—be at least 35 years old and native born. His only enumerated function was to be the presiding officer in the Senate with the power to cast a deciding vote in case of a tie. Absolutely no executive branch duties were listed or expected.
Despite the evidence of growing political divisions in the country as evidenced by Federalist and anti-Federalist camps during the rough and tumble campaigns to ratify the new Constitution state by state, none of the document’s authors seemed to have recognized that the rise of competing political parties was inevitable. In their vision the finest and most noble citizens would be nominated by the various states to compete for the Presidency. Since all candidates were expected to adhere to high minded disinterestedness, it made sense for the candidate to win the majority of the Electoral College to assume post of First Magistrate while the second place finisher became Vice President. It occurred to no one that these once rivals could be political opponents. This flaw was quickly exposed.
But not in the election of the first President and Vice President. Everyone knew that the only man of suitable stature for the Presidency was the Hero of the Revolution, General George Washington. He had proved his high-minded disinterest by resigning his commission at war’s end and retiring “Like Cincinnatus to his plow.” He had also rebuffed all efforts to make him either a monarch or dictator and opposed the creation of any new domestic nobility. He was a known supporter of the new Constitution having presided at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia but his clear support for a classic republic re-assured the disappointed anti-Federalists. Washington would be the only man ever elected to the Presidency with a unanimous vote of the Electoral College.John Adams and his much mocked ceremonial sword in a painting by William Winstanley aping Gilbert Stuart.
What of the selection of a Vice President? Here the choice was not unanimous but largely a foregone conclusion. To fulfil the requirements three candidates were formally nominated for President—Washington, John Adams and John Hancock both of Massachusetts. Adams had been the primary architect of the drive for Independence in the Constitutional Convention and the chief sponsor of Washington for Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. He had recently returned from 8 years of diplomatic service abroad including being a member of the negotiating team led by Benjamin Franklin which secured a peace treaty recognizing American Independence. Despite a prickly personality and tart tongue which made him unpopular among some political leaders he was Washington’s unspoken choice. Hancock, Governor of Massachusetts and President of the Second Continental Congress which adopted the Declaration of Independence, was popular at home, but not well known to many in other states. Each elector cast two votes. Washington got all 69. Adams got a disappointing (to him) 34 votes and Hancock trailed with only 4 home state votes. Other electors cast ballots for home state favorite sons or left their second ballot empty.
As Abigail Adams had predicted, John found his new job both boring and beneath his dignity and talents. His attempts to impose rules in the Senate that would have him being referred to by a long and florid honorific and his insistence at wearing a sword as a symbol of his office and authority were widely mocked. When Washington assembled what would be the first Cabinet and thus a functioning executive branch beyond the person of the President, Adams was not invited to participate in the regular deliberations of that body.
During Washington’s two terms political parties began to coalesce around Washington’s pet Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Adams found himself somewhat uncomfortably among the developing Federalist Party despite his distrust of Hamilton’s ambitions because he shared a dread of “mob rule and democracy” represented by Jefferson’s pro-French Revolution Republican Clubs.
When Washington retired at the end of his second term Adams and Jefferson were nominated for the Presidency. Adams won handily, but Jefferson finished second became his Vice President. Enmity between the two former close friends and collaborators and their respective parties grew. Four years later in the political Revolution of 1800 the new Democratic Republican Party crushed the Federalists and Adam’s hopes for a second term.
But that election also revealed a fatal flaw in the Electoral system. The Jeffersonians had figured out how to avoid having John Adams as their leaders’ Vice President—or returning Jefferson to the thankless job should he lose. They invented the ticket nominating Jefferson and rising star former New York Senator Aaron Burr. But in the Electoral College system there was no way to differentiate between the two—both had been effectively nominated for President. In one of the great political SNAFUs of all time, no one thought to arrange to have at least one Elector withhold a vote for Burr which would have elected Jefferson President and put Burr in the Vice Presidential Chair in the Senate.
Erstwhile running mates turned bitter rivals, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson with the vast interior of the country that Burr plotted to seize and create as his own country.
That resulted in a tie vote sending the election into the House of Representatives which was still controlled by rival Federalists. Each state delegation cast one vote. Tied delegations from Vermont and Maryland had to cast blank ballots. Ballot after ballot resulted in a tie between the two. The ambitious Burr evidently tried to strike deals with some Federalists. In New York Federalist Leader Alexander Hamilton, alarmed that his bitter local rival might win, swallowed hard and let it be known that he preferred Jefferson. Finally, after five exhausting days on the 36th ballot Federalist James A. Bayard of Delaware and his allies in Maryland and Vermont all cast blank ballots breaking the tie. In the end Jefferson received the votes of 10 of the 16 state delegations, enough to win.
Jefferson was President but he was stuck with a V.P. who he now thoroughly distrusted. By all accounts Burr presided over the Senate with considerable adroit charm. But then he got in that unfortunate fatal fracas with Hamilton which made him a fugitive in Washington. Worse, he was implicated in an elaborate plot to raise an army and perhaps seize the trans-Appalachian Southwest to create new nation with himself at its head. A furious Jefferson had Burr tried for treason only to have Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall, sitting as a Circuit Court trial judge, let Burr off the hook.
If Jefferson could not nail his Vice President, who smugly returned to his duties in the Senate, he could engineer a fix so that the situation would never arise again. The result was the Twelfth Amendment which was ratified in time for the 1804 election and which called for Electors to make a distinct choice between their votes for President and Vice-president. It also provided that the President and Vice President could not come from the same state.
Jefferson’s choice for the first Vice Presidential running mate under the new system was New York Governor George Clinton, anchoring the Virginia-New York axis at the heart of Democratic-Republican power. Clinton stayed on the ticket in 1804 as James Madison’s running mate.
A side result of abandoning the original Constitutional scheme was an end to the idea that the Vice President was the second most eminent citizen of the United States and the heir apparent to the Presidency. Instead, his selection became more and more based on political considerations and advantages. If Clinton was a respectable choice, some of his successors would be far less credible. Instead, the position of Secretary of State, with its considerable responsibilities and prestige became the most important steppingstone to the Presidency, at least as long as the same Party stayed in power. Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams all rose to the Executive Mansion by that route.
With the demise of the Federalists as a national party and the so-called Era of Good Feelings under Monroe after the War of 1812, the younger Adams was elected as a Democratic-Republican in a bitter three-way race that also ended up in the House and which fellow Democratic-Republican looser Andrew Jackson believed had been stolen from him in a so called “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Henry Clay in which Clay became Secretary of State. That caused a party re-alignment. Supporters of Adams and Clay became briefly known as National Republicans eventually to morph into the Whigs. Jackson and his “old conservatives” created the Democratic Party.
Adam’s Vice President, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina aligned himself with Jackson in the election of 1828 and became the second and last Vice President to serve under two administrations and the only one to serve for different parties. Of course, we all know that the volatile Calhoun would split with Jackson over the tariff and the Nullification Crisis. He resigned the Vice Presidency and became one of the three principal leaders of the shakily held together anti-Jacksonian Whigs along with Clay and former Federalist Daniel Webster.
John C. Calhoun and those intense eyes that scared the bejesus out of everyone served as vice President under John Quincy Adams as a National Republican and Andrew Jackson as a Democrat and became a leader of the Whigs all in defense of the South's "rights and privileges."
For his second term Jackson turned back to New York where he picked the crafty leader of the Albany Regency political machine, Martin Van Buren. Van Buren broke recent tradition and became a key advisor to the President and the man he decided to leave his political legacy. In the election of 1836, Van Buren won with relative light weight Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky to shore up the West against Henry Clay. He became the last man to ascend directly from the Vice Presidency to the Presidency by election until George H. W. Bush.
Unable to unite behind any of their very different main leaders, in 1840 the Whigs decided to turn to an aging war hero and Virginia born aristocrat from Ohio with who they ran in a campaign aping Jackson’s populist appeal. The wealthy William Henry Harrison was falsely depicted as being born in a log cabin and rising from the People while Van Buren, who came from very modest means was painted as a pampered fop. It worked and the use of a war hero was cemented as an alternative path to presidency, especially for parties out of power.When William Henry Harrison kicked the bucket shortly after taking office, John Tyler became the first Vice President to assume Presidency.
When Harrison promptly died his Vice President, essentially a dissident Virginia Democrat, became the first man to become president on the death of the incumbent. The unpopular John Tyler quickly became a man without a party rejected by Congressional Whigs and distrusted as a turncoat by Democrats. He served out a tumultuous term without hope of election in his own right.
Democrat James Knox Polk, the young Tennessean who was Speaker of the House became President in the election of 1844 with Pennsylvania Senator George M. Dallas as his running mate. In terms of accomplishing what he proclaimed as his goals, no President has ever been more successful—he settled the disputed Oregon border without a war with Great Britain, annexed Texas, and oversaw the triumphant Mexican War that added swaths of territory from Texas to California to the country. Satisfied with having fulfilled Manifest Destiny, the exhausted Polk declined to run for a second term and retired to Tennessee where he promptly died.Millard Fillmore became another accidental president when war hero Zachary Taylor died but pursued much more compromise with Southern slave states.
Without having to face a popular incumbent, the Whigs turned back to a war hero, Zachary Taylor who was also a slave owning Louisiana planter. Taylor won but surprised everyone by opposing extension of slavery into the new territories. He also became politically isolated in office. When he died office in 1850 his Vice President, anti-slavery Whig Millard Fillmore of New York, came to office. Despite his personal feelings on slavery, however, Fillmore pursued an unpopular—in the North—policy of compromise and accommodation with the South that included vigorous application of the Fugitive Slave Act. Fillmore was trounced for in a run to win the office on his own and became the last Whig Chief Executive.
In 1852 Democrats ran their own war hero, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, a so-called Northern man of Southern principles. He was rendered nearly incapacitated by the death of his son in a train wreck and drank his way through an ineffective Presidency as the nation became more polarized by slavery and its expansion. His Vice President was Senator Rufus King of Alabama, the long-time roommate in Washington—and some believe lover—of his Secretary of State James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. It was Buchanan who succeeded the hapless Pierce and twiddled his thumbs through the mounting crisis.
The election of 1860 was a mess. Democrats shattered three ways with regional factions nominating Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the architect of Popular Sovereignty on the slavery issues in the Territories, Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky as a Southern Democrat, and John Bell of Tennessee as a Border State compromiser on the Constitutional Union ticket.
The Republicans, heir to the defunct Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats running in their second national election, unexpectedly nominated a gangly Illinois railway lawyer and former one-term Congressman with a reputation as a rustic but glib speaker. Lincoln had shrewdly out maneuvered party powerhouses like William Seward of New York, Samuel Chase of Ohio, and Montgomery Blair of Maryland. Hannibal Hamlin, the relatively nationally unknown Governor of Maine and a former Congressman and Senator, was tapped for the Vice Presidential slot mostly because he did not offend the supporters of any of Lincoln’s rivals at the Republican Convention in Chicago.
Lincoln swept the North and the new states of California and Oregon easily besting the fractured Democratic contenders in the Electoral College. You probably have a pretty good memory of all that happened next.
In 1864 Lincoln’s reelection chances seemed dim. Although he realized that the tide had turned the previous year at Vicksburg and Gettysburg and with the increasingly effective strangle hold of the naval blockade of the Confederacy. But the war, especially in Virginia had settled into a seemingly endless bloody stalemate with grim and mounting casualty lists daily filling the columns of Northern newspapers. Copperheads were gaining traction in Border States and in southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Popular former Army of the Potomac commander George McClellan was running as a peace Democrat on a platform of ending the war with Southern Independence intact.Abraham Lincoln picked Tennessee Democrat to run with him as his second Vice President on a fusion Union ticket.
Lincoln jettisoned Hamlin and announced he would run on a fusion Union ticket. Self-educated former tailor, Senator from Tennessee, Union general and Democrat Andrew Johnson was picked as his running mate. The pick was probably less responsible for Lincoln’s come from behind win in November than a Sherman’s capture of Atlanta; the war-time admission of Kansas, West Virginia, and Nevada as Lincoln friendly states; and the release of tens of thousands of Union troops on furlough so that they could vote in critical states like New York and Ohio.
At the 1865 inauguration where Lincoln delivered one of his most memorable speeches, Johnson embarrassed himself with incoherent and apparently drunken remarks. During his short time in the second office, Johnson was never included in cabinet meetings or consulted in any way by the President. He lived a lonely life in a hotel room, drank heavily, and bemoaned his status. Then, suddenly, John Wilkes Booth made him the first Vice President to come to office after an assassination.
In the White House, as the Executive Mansion was now known, Johnson not only pursued Lincoln’s policy of a generous peace and rapid re-assimilation of the former rebel states into the Union—a policy bitterly opposed by Radical Republicans in Congress—he was reluctant to use occupying troops to stop the night riding terrorism by many Confederate veterans and Southern Democrats against new Freedmen. The Republicans found a flimsy excuse to impeach him in the House of Representatives on a charge of firing a Federal official without first obtaining the consent of Congress and brought him to trial in the Senate. He survived by a single vote. He served out his term but was almost powerless in the aftermath.
No major political party would ever again nominate a member of another party to their national ticket, which has the effect of barring the kind of coalition government or fusion tickets common in European Parliamentary democracies.
Tomorrow—More controversies, successions, quirky personalities on into the 21st Century.