Vice President

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

Vice President

Article II, Section 1, Clause 1

...and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term....

In early September 1787, after the Constitutional Convention had received and debated the draft from the Committee of Detail, the delegates appointed a Committee of Eleven to resolve a number of issues that continued to stymie the convention. Among the committee’s felicitous innovations was the office of vice president, derived from the model of the lieutenant governor in the New York state constitution of 1777. In this brief phrase, later approved by the convention, the Committee of Eleven accomplished two signal results. First, the vice president would be elected at the same time, for the same term, and by the same constituency as the president. The intent was to preserve the independence of the executive should the person who was vice president succeed to the duties of the presidency. Second, by separating this phrase from the previous sentence, the Framers made it clear that the vice president was not vested with any part of the constitutionally mandated executive power. There would be no plural executive.

The primary constitutional role of the vice president was to be available to become president (or acting president) should the office become vacant, or should a contingent election of a president fail in the House of Representatives. This is underscored by the original arrangement whereby presidential electors voted for two candidates; the one with the most votes (provided he carried a majority of the electors) would be president and the individual with the next greatest number of votes would be vice president. (Article II, Section 1, Clause 3.) Even when the Twelfth Amendment modified the method of electing a president and vice president, the purpose of the Framers remained: the person who was to hold the office of president or vice president should be chosen free of legislative control. Of course, should it happen that there was no person so chosen available to fill the presidency, the Constitution provides that Congress may by law provide for an officer to “act as President” until a president is elected. That contingency, however, has never occurred, and its need has been further obviated by the operation of the Twenty-fifth Amendment.

The other constitutional duty of the vice president (see Article I, Section 3, Clause 4), to be president of the Senate, had implications for succession as well. George Mason objected to the mixing of executive and legislative powers; he preferred that an executive council be established, the president of which would serve as vice president of the United States. But the Framers were opposed to an executive council. Further, were the Senate to have elected its own president, that person would almost certainly have been in line for succession. As James Madison stated, the question centered “on the appointment of the vice President [as] president of the Senate instead of making the President of the Senate the vice president, which seemed to be the alternative.”

As it occurred, for 140 years, the primary role of the vice president was legislative though without much influence. John Nance Garner, former Speaker of the House and vice president to Franklin D. Roosevelt, famously described the office (in a bowdlerized quote) as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” The vice president did not begin to have executive responsibilities until the twentieth century. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall chaired some of Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet meetings when the president was absent. President Warren G. Harding had his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, attend all Cabinet meetings, a practice that became institutionalized under Franklin D. Roosevelt, though Garner still felt excluded from any effective voice on policy. Harry Truman, through the National Security Act of 1947, made the vice president an ex officio member of the National Security Council. It was not until the 1950s, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that the vice president, Richard M. Nixon, became a fully functioning executive official, attending 193 cabinet meetings, 217 National Security Council sessions, and chairing important executive committees. In 1961, the offices of the vice president moved from Capitol Hill to executive offices nearer to the White House, and then in 1977 to the West Wing itself, completing the position’s transformation into an integral part of executive governance.

The extent of the executive role of the vice president depends upon his relationship with the president. Similarly, since the middle of the twentieth century, candidates for vice president have been selected by the person running for president, rather than in and by the convention as had previously been the case. Recently, however, New Hampshire has instituted a separate vice-presidential primary.

Nine vice presidents have filled the presidency upon the death or resignation of the President: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald R. Ford (Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, and Lyndon Johnson were subsequently re-elected as president). Five other vice presidents have attained the presidency by election in their own right: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard M. Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. Thus, although a candidate for president often chooses a running mate for electoral reasons, the person elected as vice president has a significant chance to become president.

David F. Forte

Professor, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law

Richard Albert, The Evolving Vice Presidency, 78 TEMP. L. REV. 811 (2005)


Joel K. Goldstein, The New Constitutional Vice Presidency, 30 Wake Forest L. Rev. 505 (1995)



HAROLD C. RELYEA, THE VICE-PRESIDENCY: EVOLUTION OF THE MODERN OFFICE, 1933–2001, Congressional Research Service (2001)

VICE PRESIDENTS: A BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY (L. Edward Purcell ed., 4th ed., 2010)