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The Senate Elects a Vice President

February 8, 1837


The presidential election of 1800 revealed a need to amend the U.S. Constitution. The original system for electing presidents provided that the candidate receiving a majority of Electoral College votes would become president, while the runner-up would become vice president. The 1800 election resulted in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Under the Constitution, this stalemate sent the election to the House of Representatives, which chose Jefferson. The states soon ratified a twelfth amendment to the Constitution, requiring separate contests for the offices of president and vice president.

To balance the role of the House in breaking presidential ties, the Twelfth Amendment requires the Senate to handle that responsibility for deadlocked vice-presidential contests. The Senate must choose between the two top electoral vote recipients, with at least two-thirds of the Senate’s members voting.

The Senate has exercised this power only once. In the election of 1836, which made Martin Van Buren president, Kentucky’s former Democratic senator Richard M. Johnson fell one electoral vote short of a majority among four vice-presidential candidates.

A controversial figure who openly acknowledged his slave mistress and their daughters, Johnson had served in Congress for 30 years and was a close friend of the outgoing president, Andrew Jackson. His many detractors alleged that he owed his vice-presidential nomination to his dubious claim that during the War of 1812 he killed the Indian chieftain Tecumseh. This claim produced his vice-presidential campaign slogan, ”Rumpsey, Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.”

On February 8, 1837, by a vote of 33 to 16, the Senate elected Johnson vice president. Johnson apologized to the Senate for not having paid more attention to its procedures while a senator and hoped that “the intelligence of the Senate will guard the country from any injury that might result from the imperfections of its presiding officer.”

During his four years in office, Johnson broke 14 tie votes. When not presiding over the Senate, Johnson could regularly be found in Kentucky, operating his tavern.

Johnson’s erratic behavior—believing his slave mistress had been unfaithful, he sold her and married her sister—combined with his chronic financial problems added to President Martin Van Buren’s political difficulties and contributed to the defeat of their ticket in the election of 1840.