A Dead End Job: Madison's Vice President
Only one President had two Vice Presidents die during his time in office. James Madison served two terms as President, and both times the man elected as his Vice President died shortly after the beginning of the term.
Before the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, each elector had two votes for President. The person receiving the largest number of electoral votes, as long as it was a majority, became President. The runner-up became Vice President. The idea was to provide a Vice President who was the second best choice for President, in case something happened to the person elected to the top office. In 1800, Aaron Burr, his party’s choice for the second spot, tied with Thomas Jefferson. The result was a long fight in the House of Representatives (which chooses the President if no candidate gets a majority of the electoral vote). Burr saw his chance to win the White House, and turned on his running mate. Jefferson won, but the result of this lesson was the 12th Amendment.
Under the provisions of the 12th Amendment, each elector now has one vote for President. The runner-up wins no office. The electors vote separately for Vice President, the winner being the person winning a majority of the electoral votes in that race. Jefferson was the first President elected after the 12thAmendment, and in choosing his second Vice President, he did not want another powerful, ambitious politician. So he began a tradition of selecting a running mate who was older, experienced, and without a national political base. In short, he wanted a person who could not oppose him.
Jefferson chose for this newly designed Vice Presidency George Clinton of New York. Clinton (no relation to our recent President) had been elected governor of New York seven times, serving from 1777-1795, and had the advantage of being a very popular Democratic-Republican in an important and usually Federalist state. Also important, he was too old and too lacking in national support to be any threat to Jefferson.
By the time Clinton was elected Vice President, he was 65 years old. He was prematurely aged physically and his health was failing. As the presiding officer of the U.S. Senate, he was something of an embarrassment. His memory often failed him; he sometimes announced the passage or defeat of a bill before it had been voted on. One senator wrote “a worse choice than Mr. Clinton could scarcely have been made.” Another wrote of Clinton, “He is old, feeble, and altogether incapable of the duty of presiding in the Senate.”
In 1808, Jefferson retired and the Democratic-Republicans nominated James Madison for President. Clinton had tried for the nomination, but never had a chance of winning. He was again offered the second spot on the ticket. Many in the party assumed he would decline the nomination, but gave it to him because they did not want to lose his support in the vital state of New York. Not only did Clinton accept the nomination, he also got a splinter group of the party to nominate him for President. So while he ran for the Vice Presidency with Madison, he also ran against Madison for President. He lost the race for President (by a landslide) but won the race for Vice President. The fact that Madison ignored his Presidential candidacy did little to improve Clinton’s dislike for the President.
Clinton got his revenge on Madison and the rest of the Democratic-Republicans, whose increasingly pro-federal policies he came to deplore. When the vote to renew the Bank of the United States came before the Senate, it received a tie vote. As President of the Senate, Clinton broke the tie against the bill. His vote killed the Bank of the United States leaving the country unable to properly finance the War of 1812 a short time later. In April 1812, before that war started, Clinton died. He was the first Vice President to die in office.
When Madison ran for re-election, he selected another aging, veteran politician, and another Democratic-Republican from a usually Federalist state. He selected Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts. Like Clinton, Gerry had served in the Revolutionary War and opposed the Constitution during the ratification process. As governor of Massachusetts, Gerry had been credited with the creation of elaborate and irregular voting district boundaries designed to benefit one party or faction over another. The practice bears his name to this day: Gerrymandering. By manipulating the state senate voting districts, Gerry and his fellow Democratic-Republicans arranged that in a few districts the Federalists would win by large majorities, and in a larger number of districts the Democratic-Republicans would win by small majorities. The result was that the Democratic-Republicans gained more seats than they deserved. One of these unusual districts was shaped on the map like a mythical animal. Some said it looked like a salamander, and it soon became known as a gerrymander.
As Vice President, Gerry opposed Madison’s policies almost as much as Clinton had. Actually, Gerry came closer to being President than he realized. During 1813, Madison became seriously ill and, for a short while, his life seemed threatened. But Madison recovered and Gerry died of a stroke in 1814, after a short and inconsequential term as Vice President.
Before the 12th Amendment, the Vice President had been a leading political power. After the 12th Amendment, the presidential nominee wanted someone who could deliver a state or region other than his own (see the earlier article on ticket balancing), an older man at the end of his career who would not be a threat to the President’s leadership position. In short, after the 12th Amendment, the Vice Presidency became a position for elderly mediocre politicians whose main ability was usually availability.
Madison had two such men who opposed him anyway. He outlasted and outlived them both.
The copyright of the article A DEAD END JOB: MADISON'S VICE PRESIDENTS in American Presidents is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish A DEAD END JOB: MADISON'S VICE PRESIDENTS in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
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