America’s first vice president, John Adams, called the job “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” The vice presidency has few constitutional duties, and for a number of years VPs didn’t play a central role in presidential administrations. However, since the latter part of the 20th century the position has become one of influence and power in the White House.
The job used to go to the person with the second-most votes.
The drafters of the Constitution set up a system in which presidents were chosen by members of an Electoral College, and each elector got to vote for two people. The candidate with the most electoral votes (as long as it was a majority) became president, while the second-place finisher was awarded the VP title.
In 1796, two men from opposing political parties, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were elected president and vice president, respectively, making governing challenging. The system’s flaws continued to be exposed in 1800, when Jefferson and his party’s preferred choice for veep, Aaron Burr, pulled in the same number of electoral votes, sending the contest to the House of Representatives, which selected Jefferson for president on the 36th ballot.
By the time of the 1804 election, the 12th Amendment had been ratified, replacing the original system with the current one requiring electors to cast a separate vote for president and VP.
The framers of the Constitution didn’t give VPs much to do.
In addition to assuming the presidency if the office becomes vacant, the Constitution gives the vice president two main responsibilities, one of which is to serve as president of the Senate and break tie votes. John Adams cast the highest number of tie-breaking votes, 29. By comparison, Joe Biden cast zero tie-breaking votes during his eight years in office, while Mike Pence so far has broken one tie vote. To date, vice presidents have cast a total of 242 tie-breaking votes, according to the Senate Historical Office. Following a presidential election, the veep’s other constitutional duty is to oversee the formal counting of Electoral College votes before a joint session of Congress.
Until recently, VPs had no official home.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Congress designated a home on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory, in northwest Washington, as the official residence of the vice president. Before that, VPs lived in their own homes. However, the cost of keeping these dwellings safe continued to rise over time, and in 1974 Congress designated the 19th century Queen Anne style-structure at the Observatory as the veep’s abode. The first VP to live there was Walter Mondale, who moved in with his family in 1977. Each vice president since then has called Number One Observatory Circle home.
One VP was sworn in on foreign soil, and died soon after he took the oath.
William King, unlucky vice president No. 13, missed his March 4, 1853, inauguration in Washington because he was in Cuba trying to recover from tuberculosis. After Congress passed special legislation permitting King to take the oath of office on foreign soil, he was sworn in on March 24 in Cuba, making him the first—and to date, only—VP to take the oath of office outside of America. The next month, King left Cuba and sailed to the U.S., arriving at his plantation in Alabama on April 17. He passed away the next day, and his tenure in office remains the shortest of any U.S. vice president.
Two VPs quit.
John Calhoun, America’s 7th VP, served under John Quincy Adams starting in 1825. However, in the 1828 election Calhoun teamed with presidential candidate Andrew Jackson, who defeated Adams. Calhoun was the second of only two VPs ever to serve two different chief executives (the first was George Clinton, who from 1805 to 1812 was VP under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison). After clashing with Jackson, Calhoun was elected to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat in 1832 and quit the vice presidency soon after. He was the only veep to resign until 1973, when Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice president, stepped down after being charged with tax evasion and taking bribes.
Some got dumped.
Abraham Lincoln didn’t meet Hannibal Hamlin, his first-term vice president, until shortly after their election; in that era, VPs typically were selected by political parties. When the president ran for re-election in 1864, Hamlin, a former Republican senator from Maine, was dropped as his running mate in favor of pro-Union Southerner and Democrat Andrew Johnson in an effort to balance the ticket.
Among other chief executives who replaced their veeps is Franklin Roosevelt. FDR’s VP for his first two terms, John Nance Garner (who colorfully described the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”), ran unsuccessfully for the presidential nomination against his boss in 1940. Henry Wallace was FDR’s third-term VP but was ditched for Harry Truman when the president ran for a fourth term.
Some presidents went without a second-in-command.
Prior to the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967, there were no official procedures for filling a vacancy in the vice presidency. If a VP passed away or moved into the Oval Office because the president died, the veep slot would stay empty until the end of the presidential term. Before 1967, eight presidents and seven vice presidents died while in office, adding up to a total of some 37 years that the U.S. was without a VP. (Today if the VP office becomes vacant the president nominates a successor who then must be confirmed by a majority of both houses of Congress.)
For more than a century, no sitting veep broke the Van Buren jinx.
Vice President Martin Van Buren was elected to succeed President Andrew Jackson in 1836 and went on to serve a single term in office. After that no incumbent veep won the White House—or broke the so-called jinx–until George H.W. Bush, in 1988. (In the century between Van Buren and Bush, eight chief executives died in office and one resigned and their VPs ascended to the presidency.) No VP since Bush has been elected president; Al Gore attempted to do so in 2000 but lost to George W. Bush.
Several have been Nobel Prize winners.
Charles Dawes, who served under Calvin Coolidge from 1925 to 1929, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1925 for his work on what became known as the Dawes Plan, a reparations payment plan for Germany following World War I. Al Gore, veep from 1993 to 2001 under Bill Clinton, won the prize for 2007 for his efforts to raise awareness about climate change. Additionally, Theodore Roosevelt, VP from March 1901 until September of that year when he became president following William McKinley’s assassination, was given the 1906 prize for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5).