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About the Vice President | Historical Overview

Although the position of vice president did not exist under the Continental Congresses or the Articles of Confederation, the framers of the Constitution drew on precedents from state governments to establish the position in the new federal government. Prior to the Revolution, lieutenant governors presided over the governors' councils of the royal colonies, which also functioned as upper houses of the legislatures. This system was adapted in some states after the Revolution, such as in New York, where the lieutenant governor presided over the state senate.

To some of the framers, assigning the vice president to be president of the Senate violated the concept of separation of powers. Elbridge Gerry, who would later serve as vice president, declared that the framers "might as well put the President himself as head of the legislature." As it turned out, prior to the 20th century vice presidents rarely attended cabinet meetings or otherwise involved themselves in executive branch business.

The degree to which vice presidents were engaged in Senate activity varied throughout the 19th century. John Adams played an active role, lobbying senators to vote against legislation he opposed and frequently lecturing senators on procedural and policy matters. Thomas Jefferson devoted his four-year term to preparing his Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which he hoped would allow him and his successors to preside over the Senate with fairness, intelligence, and consistency. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who served as vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, took an active role in Senate business. A scrupulous guardian of the Senate's written rules, he disliked the deference given to its unwritten customs and practices.

Some vice presidents, such as George M. Dallas, Levi P. Morton, and Garret A. Hobart, studied the Senate's rules and precedents and presided most effectively. Others were less engaged with the daily work of the Senate. Henry Wilson, who served as Ulysses S. Grant’s second vice president, wrote a three-volume history of the opposition to slavery during his tenure, which was cut short when he died in his Capitol office in 1875.

The vice presidency in the 19th century seldom led to the White House. Of the 21 individuals who held that office from 1805 to 1899, only Martin Van Buren was subsequently elected president. Four others succeeded to the presidency when the incumbent died, none of whom later won election.

The vice presidency shifted dramatically in the middle of the 20th century from being mainly a legislative position to a predominately executive branch post. Calvin Coolidge was the first vice president to be invited by the president to attend cabinet meetings. As modern-era presidents increasingly sought to set legislative agendas, their vice presidents received additional executive assignments. Vice presidents represented their presidents' administrations on Capitol Hill, served on the National Security Council, chaired special commissions, acted as high-level representatives of the government to foreign heads of state, and assumed countless other roles at the president's direction. Beginning with Lyndon B. Johnson, each vice president has occupied spacious quarters in the Executive Office Building and assembled staffs of specialists to extend their reach and influence. In 1969 President Richard M. Nixon pledged to give his vice president a significant policy-making role and—for the first time—an office in the White House itself. Walter F. Mondale expanded the vice president's role as presidential adviser, establishing the tradition of weekly lunches with the president. Subsequent vice presidents have continued to be active participants in their administrations and have only presided over the Senate for special occasions—such as the opening session of a Congress when senators-elect are sworn into office—or to break a tie vote.

Election and Succession

The Constitution's framers provided that the vice president would be elected at the same time and for the same term as the president. They created an indirect election through the Electoral College. Under the original system, each member of the Electoral College voted for two persons for president, with the candidate receiving the most electoral votes (and at least a majority) becoming president and the candidate receiving the second highest number of votes becoming vice president.

The framers did not foresee that candidates would run as a “ticket” under the banner of a political party. In 1800 both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, representing the Democratic Republicans, campaigned for president and vice president respectively and received the same number of electoral votes, which sent the contest to the House of Representatives. After 35 unsuccessful ballots, the House finally elected Jefferson president, thus making Aaron Burr the third vice president.

Nearly four years later, to avoid a repeat of the 1800 fiasco, Congress passed and the necessary number of states ratified the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution allowing electors to cast separate ballots for president and for vice president. If no vice-presidential candidate receives an Electoral College majority, the amendment allows the Senate to decide between the two highest vote getters. In 1837 Richard M. Johnson became the first (and to date only) vice president to be elected under the provisions of this amendment.

Notably, the Constitution did not provide for any method of replacing the vice president should he or she resign, die in office, or succeed to the presidency, but it did provide that in the absence of the vice president, the Senate could choose a president pro tempore (pro tempore meaning “for the time being” in Latin) to perform the duties of the chair. Prior to 1967, during the 16 periods when the nation did not have a vice president, the Senate’s president pro tempore effectively served as the “acting vice president,” receiving the vice president’s salary and carrying out all duties of the office, except for breaking tie votes in the Senate. In 1967 the ratification of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment allowed the president to name a new vice president with the approval of both houses of Congress.