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Morton: How the office of vice president came to be

On this day (June 24) in 1788, delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, John Dawson, voiced his strong objections to Virginia ratifying the U.S. Constitution, which had been laboriously drafted in the summer of 1787 at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.

Among Dawson’s numerous objections, which he shared with his more famous Anti-federalists convention colleagues (especially the ever-popular Patrick Henry and the studious George Mason), was his concern that creating the vice president office blatantly violated what Dawson claimed – in what was a long, rambling speech – was the time-honored “political fact” that “the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial powers, should be separate and distinct.”

He went on to imply that the office of vice president was not needed, was superfluous, and, therefore, should be eliminated. Despite strong Anti-federalist opposition in the Virginia ratifying convention, Virginia ratified the Constitution on June 25, 1788, by an underwhelming vote of 89-79.

However, opposition to the creation, existence and the usefulness of the office of vice president is still heard. The framers of the U.S. Constitution created the office almost as an afterthought. Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution states that each state shall appoint electors who “shall ... vote by Ballot for two persons. ... The Person having the greatest of Votes shall be the President,” and the person receiving the second-highest number of votes “shall be Vice President.”

In the Constitution, the vice president was explicitly given only three duties: 1. Succeed to the presidency if the president dies, resigns or is impeached and removed from office (nine vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency in this manner – eight through the death of the president, and one through the president’s resignation); 2. Serve as presiding officer of the Senate; 3. Cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate.

Partly because of the nature and structure of the office, many men who have occupied the office of vice president are not well known and, in many instances, did not play significant roles or have political clout during their terms in office.

However, there also were many vice presidents who were prominent and influential. There have been 47 vice presidents to date. By party affiliation, there was one Federalist (John Adams), two Whig (John Tyler and Millard Fillmore), six Democratic-Republican (most notably, Thomas Jefferson), 18 Democratic and 20 Republican. Most vice presidents have been well known and politically experienced figures (at least at the local and state level) in their own right.

In addition to those who eventually succeeded to the presidency, a list of prominent, influential and famous or infamous vice presidents should include Aaron Burr, John C. Calhoun (one of the two vice presidents to have resigned while in office), John Nance Garner, Henry A. Wallace, Alben W. Barkley, Hubert Humphrey, Spiro Agnew (the second veep to have resigned while in office), Nelson Rockefeller, Al Gore and Dick Cheney.

There are six living U.S. vice presidents: Walter Mondale (served under Jimmy Carter), George H.W. Bush (served under Ronald Reagan), Dan Quayle (served under George H.W. Bush), Al Gore (served under Bill Clinton), Dick Cheney (served under George W. Bush) and Joe Biden (serving under Barack Obama).

During most of U.S. history, most vice presidents did not play significant or influential roles. However, since World War II, the office of vice president has assumed the importance it now enjoys. Since 1948, the list of prominent, well known and influential vice presidents includes Alben Barkley, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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