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Why John Adams Despised Being Vice President

John Adams
John Adams (right) was the first vice president of the United States. But only because he finished second in the Electoral College voting to George Washington in both the 1788 and 1792 elections. Wikipedia/©HowStuffWorks.com

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America's first vice president was not, it seems, all that high on his new No. 2 gig.

"My country has in its wisdom contrived for me," John Adams told his wife, regarding the role of vice president, "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

The vice presidency has come a long way since Adams reluctantly kicked things off in 1789 under fellow Founding Father (and the nation's first president) George Washington. The office of vice president was originally a sort of consolation prize; whoever finished second in the Electoral College voting (as Adams did to Washington in both 1788 and 1792) got the job. And the job (as Adams suggested to his wife, Abigail) was not very exciting. Adams had next to no responsibilities in the executive branch. His main duty was to oversee the Senate.

Since then, both the way the vice president is selected and the role they play has changed.

"The vice president wasn't created to be powerful, certainly. It wasn't created just to succeed the president. It wasn't created just to preside over the Senate. It was created, really, for electoral purposes because of the quirks of the Electoral College," says Christopher Devine, a professor of political science at the University of Dayton and the co-author of a couple of books on the importance of vice presidential candidates in presidential elections. "But after the decision was made to create a vice presidency, then there were some roles that were created for the vice president that would keep him busy day to day and, in some cases, [were] consequential."

The First Vice President

Adams, who was a Federalist, often felt stymied in the fledgling role of vice president, though he did break a couple dozen ties in Senate votes and set the ground rules for the way things were done in the chamber. Still, he was caught between two branches of government, hesitant to step on toes in either the executive or legislative branches.

Even as president of the Senate, he ran into problems. When he signed some legislative documents as "John Adams, Vice President of the United States," some senators objected, citing a problem with a member of the executive branch holding sway over the work of the legislative branch. So Adams soon began signing documents as "John Adams, Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate."

Despite the constraints of the position, Adams soldiered on through a second term under Washington to eventually realize his main goal, becoming the first of 14 vice presidents to ascend to the No. 1 spot. He was elected president in 1796.

John Adams
John Adams thought the role of the vice president was "insignificant" and "contrived."
Library of Congress

How the Vice President Was Elected

Because of the quirky Electoral College rules, Adams' vice president turned out to be Thomas Jefferson, who was the head of the Democratic-Republican Party — the opposition. The two men, long familiar with each other and friendly earlier in their lives, spent the next four years at odds, with Adams relying more on the counsel of his wife than on the advice of his vice president. And that was generally fine with Adams, considering the vice presidency still held little power.

But those four years, combined with the mess of Adams' re-election campaign, brought the issue of how the country chooses presidents and vice presidents to a head. In 1800, Adams and Jefferson ran against each other again, this time with "running mates:" Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (a Federalist) with Adams and Aaron Burr (Democratic-Republican Party) with Jefferson.

Since electors were required to vote for both president and vice president, Jefferson and Burr received the most electoral votes, but it was a tie. The tied Electoral College threw the decision of who would become president to the House of Representatives, which eventually chose Jefferson. But not after seven contentious days of voting. It took 36 votes by the House of Representatives for Jefferson finally be named third president of the United States and Burr his vice president. Adams was so disgusted with the proceedings that he refused to shake the new president's hand and left town early on inauguration day.

The whole brouhaha prompted the adoption of the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in 1804. From the National Constitution Center:

Electors would in the future continue to cast two votes (and one of them, as before, would have to be for a non-native of the elector's home state), but, crucially, one of the two votes would explicitly be to fill the presidency, while the other designated who should become vice president. Never again could presidential candidates and their running mates face the embarrassing kind of tie vote that forced the House to choose between Jefferson and Burr.

Electors in the Electoral College, remember, are chosen by political parties in each state. In effect, a vote for president is actually a vote for that candidate's electors. In most states and in most cases, when you vote for a president, an elector votes for the presidential candidate from that party and his running mate, the vice president, of the same party ticket. That's all but eliminated the problems that Adams faced with Jefferson as his VP.

The Vice Presidency Today

"The vice presidency has become much more consequential over time. I would say that the vice president actually is a powerful position at this point," Devine says. "We have to make the distinction that vice presidents, by practice, are very powerful these days. There's nothing that has changed about the Constitution in terms of any power of the vice president. But we've had this substantial informal change in powers over time."

Devine, citing the work of one of the country's foremost experts on the vice presidency, St. Louis University law professor Joel K. Goldstein, points to several steps for vice presidents on the road to relevance:

  • Thomas Marshall (1913-1921 under Woodrow Wilson) presided over cabinet meetings while Woodrow Wilson was in Europe during World War I. Marshall was reluctant to do so, though, because he worried about having a foot in both the legislative branch and the executive branch. Marshall was concerned, too, when Wilson fell ill late in his term that a move to assume Wilson's duties would appear as if he were taking over.
  • In 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act, explicitly giving the vice president a role in the executive branch's National Security Council.
  • Spiro Agnew (1969-73 under Richard Nixon) became the first veep to be given a budget line under the executive branch.
  • Jimmy Carter gave his veep, Walter Mondale, unprecedented power during his term in the White House (1977-1981), including access to all intelligence briefings and standing invitations to all Oval Office meetings.

"The insight that Mondale had was that, 'Look, I'm the only person besides [the president] that's getting elected by the nation as a whole,'" Devine says. "So the vice president could serve as really this across-the-board adviser, this general adviser to the president, who wasn't representing the Treasury Department, or the Defense Department, or something like that. The only loyalty he had was to the president."

Since then, vice presidents often are deployed strategically as representatives of the president both domestically and abroad.

Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale
Jimmy Carter gave his vice president, Walter Mondale, unprecedented powers, including access to all intelligence briefings and standing invitations to all Oval Office meetings.
Library of Congress

Veeps in Modern Presidential Elections

Unlike in Adams' day when the role of vice president was little more than runner up, the modern vice president has become so important that it's carefully considered when political candidates run for president. The choice of a running mate is one of the most anticipated decisions a presidential candidate makes.

Whether that can change how people vote, though, is another matter and the subject of Devine's recent work. In their upcoming book "Do Running Mates Matter? The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections," Devine and his co-author, Elizabethtown College political scientist Kyle Kopko, suggest that the choice of a running mate is important, but maybe not in the manner that many people think.

"They certainly matter, I think that's safe to say," Devine says. "The question is really how they matter."

Where most pundits believe that a good choice of vice president helps the ticket electorally — bringing in, say, more votes from women, or from Midwesterners, or from evangelicals, or whatever group that the potential vice president can attract — that's not always the case.

"Where do they matter?" Devine asks. "A running mate can matter in terms of changing how you think about the presidential candidate."

According to their research, Devine and Kopko say it's not about the vice president, specifically, but more about what the choice of veep says about the would-be president. "When John McCain picked someone in Sarah Palin, who raises questions about her level of experience, that causes voters to question McCain's judgment. Or at least makes them more likely to do so," Devine says.

In that 2008 election, McCain's young and relatively inexperienced opponent, first-term Senator Barack Obama, chose a savvy Washington veteran, then-Senator Joseph Biden, as his running mate. Even if many disagreed with Biden's stances as a politician, his experience navigating the ins and outs of Beltway politics was seen as a plus and, therefore, a wise choice by Obama.

"The running mate's effect on how people think about the presidential candidate has a much greater effect on their vote choice than how positively people evaluate the running mate," Devine says.

What started as a consolation prize to the presidency has indeed come a long way. Now, a vice presidential candidate can help his (or her) running mate look good enough to get elected. And once voted into office, a new veep enjoys significant power and influence

It's now role that John Adams would have loved.

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