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Acting Vice President, Part II

Aug 28, 2005 - © John S. Cooper

In the last article, we learned of the unofficial position of "Acting Vice President" which no longer exists. From the beginnings of our Republic, until the second presidential succession act in 1886, the President Pro Tem of the Senate was next in line for the White House after the Vice President. Until the 25th Amendment in 1967, the vice presidency remained vacant if the vice president died, resigned, or moved up to the presidency. This meant that from 1787 until 1886, whenever we had no vice president, the President Pro Tem fulfilled both of the only two constitutional duties of the vice president: he presided over the Senate and he was next in line for the presidency.

The first time this happened was in 1812, when Vice President Clinton died. The President Pro Tem of the Senate was William Harris Crawford of Georgia. The Senate chose him as President Pro Tem on March 24, 1812. He served as President Pro Tem and "acting vice president" until March 24, 1813 when the newly elected vice president was sworn into office. If President James Madison has died or been killed in office, and this was during the War of 1812, Crawford would have become president.

William Crawford was born in 1772, and was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives where he served from 1803-1807. In 1807, he was elected by the legislature to the U.S. Senate, to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Senator Abraham Baldwin. He served until the term expired on March 23, 1813. President Madison offered him the position of Secretary of War, but he declined. Instead, he accepted the position of U.S. Minister to France and served in that position from 1813-1815.

He was appointed Secretary of War in August 1815, and this time accepted the position. In October 1816, he moved to the post of Secretary of the Treasury. He served as Treasury Secretary under Presidents Madison and Monroe, serving until 1825. In 1824, he ran for President, but his health failed and ended his campaign. Because of his poor health, he declined an offer from President John Quincy Adams to remain in his Treasury post.

He returned home to Georgia, where he was appointed a judge of the northern circuit court, a position he held until his death in 1834.

President Madison's second vice president, Elbridge Gerry, also died in office. The Senate chose Senator John Gaillard of South Carolina President Pro Tem on November 25, 1814, on the death of Vice President Gerry. The position was unusually important because of President James Madison's personal field command of the army during the British assault on Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. He was the only president to take literally the term "commander in chief" by actually commanding the army in person during a battle, as he did when the British invaded Washington, D.C.

John Gaillard was born in 1765. He served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1794-1796, and the South Carolina Senate from 1796-1804. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1804 to fill a vacancy, and re-elected in 1806, 1812, 1818 and 1824. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1804 until his death on February 26, 1826. He was President Pro Tempore of the Senate for 16 of the last 18 years of his life, including the second term of President Madison, when he was also the "acting vice president."

President James Madison's two Vice Presidents were older men at the end of their career, both of whom died early in their vice presidential term. Madison's two "acting presidents" were capable, experienced leaders who were well qualified to be president. One of them even ran for president in 1824. The system seemed to be working.

In the next article, we will examine the next group of "acting vice presidents" in the era before the Civil War.

The copyright of the article Acting Vice President, Part II is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish Acting Vice President, Part II in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

John Cooper

MS/HS Social Studies / Alumni Director

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