Trump is #45 but Pence is #48 – and other strange consequences of the curious office of vice president.
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A map of vice-presidential birthplaces, until 2009.
Initially, the vice presidency was a consolation prize for the runner-up in the Electoral College. For a total of almost 38 years – about one-sixth of U.S. history – the office of vice president has been vacant. As this map shows, Richard Nixon remains the only vice president to date born west of the Rockies.
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Like the presidency of the United States, the vice presidency has its own flag, and its own ceremonial entrance march: ‘Hail Columbia‘.Image: public domain
Here’s a strange fact about America’s top executives that you may not have noticed before: the United States has had more vice presidents than it has had presidents. Trump is POTUS number 45, but Pence is the 48th vice president (VP) of the U.S.
This map, found in the vaults of the Library of Congress, shows the birthplaces of all VPs of the United States up until 2009. A peculiar take on a peculiar institution. And one that invites closer inspection.
This map shows the birthplaces of all but three VPs: #32 (Garner), #36 (Nixon) and #37 (LBJ).Image: Library of Congress – public domain; additional graphics by Ruland KolenTwenty-two VPs – close to half the total – hail from the Northeast. New York has had eight, more than any other state. Massachusetts and Vermont both have had three. This reflects both the demographic weight and the historical importance of the region.The Mid-Atlantic region, from DC on south, has produced six VPs, two each from Virginia and North Carolina. That’s surprisingly little for one of the earliest settled regions of the country. Until you take into account that Virginia has produced eight presidents and that the VP was often chosen to provide geographic balance. In contrast, the Midwest has produced no less than nine veeps. That’s down to just three states, though: Kentucky, which on its own has produced four – the second-most, after New York; Ohio, birthplace to three VPs; and Indiana, home state of two vice presidents (the map dates from 2009, so doesn’t yet include Mike Pence, a native of Columbus, IN).An equal number of VPs springs from the plains states further west, in what looks like an almost deliberately vertical line from South Dakota down to Texas.Then: a whole lot of nothing. Except for a single pinprick in California. That’s Richard Nixon, the first and as yet only VP born west of the Rockies.
The inauguration in 1873 of Henry Wilson, Ulysses Grant’s second vice president. Image: public domain
Vice president is the most useless job in the country, until it becomes the most crucial one: the VP is the ‘spare’ who steps up when the president dies or is otherwise officially incapacitated. For an office so often overlooked or maligned, it has had a curious history, and some interesting office-holders.
The vice presidency was conceived in 1789 essentially as a consolation prize for the person obtaining the second most votes in the Electoral College. This virtually ensured that the president and his VP would be political opponents, as was the case with Thomas Jefferson, VP to John Adams.
To make matters worse, the system short-circuited almost immediately. At the 1800 election, Jefferson and Aaron Burr got the same number of electoral votes. To avoid further iterations of the mess that followed – 36 votes in the House to determine the winner – the 12th Amendment created the current system, with electors casting separate ballots for president and for vice president.
Formally, the VP’s only major role is to preside over the Senate (and, if necessary, to cast a tie-breaking vote). Another vice-presidential duty is to open the certificates of states’ electoral ballots. Four VPs – Adams Sr., Jefferson, Van Buren and Bush Sr. – have thus had the pleasure of announcing their own election as president.
But more importantly, VPs are “just a heartbeat away” from the highest office in the land. Eight VPs have succeeded a president who died in office (and one a president who resigned).
According to the original job description, the VPs themselves would get no successor in case they died, resigned or succeeded the president. And so it has been throughout most of American history. In fact, the vice presidency has been vacant for more than 37 years, about one-sixth of the total time. Approved only in 1967, the 25th Amendment finally allowed that the president appoint a VP to fill a vacancy, subject to approval by the House and Senate. That provision would be used twice in the following decade.
The vice presidency has a rhythm of its own, slightly out of lockstep with the presidency. Two vice presidents have served more than one president. And several presidents have had more than one vice president. Elbridge Gerry already was the fifth VP to James Madison, who was the fourth president. The numbers would later sync up and diverge a few more times. The last president and VP with matching serial numbers (#32) were FDR and his first VP, John Nance Garner.
Confused? Just to get our facts straight, and because who can resist a truckload of trivia, here are all of America’s VPs so far.
John C. Calhoun, 7th VP of the United States – and the only one to have resigned voluntarily. Image: public domain
1. John Adams (°Braintree, MA), VP to George Washington (#1) from 1789 to 1797
John Adams was the very first VP. His nickname was ‘His Rotundity’, for his size and self-importance. Memorable quote: “I am vice president. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” More frankly, he called the vice presidency “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.”
2. Thomas Jefferson (°Shadwell, VA), VP to John Adams (#2) from 1797 to 1801
Jefferson would go on to become president after Adams but didn’t mind playing second fiddle at the time: “The second office of this government is honorable and easy, the first is but a splendid misery.” In a similar vein, he called his vice-presidential duties a “tranquil and unoffending station.”
3. Aaron Burr (°Newark, NJ), VP to Thomas Jefferson (#3) from 1801 to 1805
When it became clear that Jefferson would choose a different VP for his second term, Burr decided to run for governor of New York. In that campaign, Alexander Hamilton, the founder of the New York Evening Post, made statements against Burr for which he demanded satisfaction. In a duel in 1804, Burr killed Hamilton. Murder charges against Burr were eventually dropped.
4. George Clinton (°Little Britain, NY), VP to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (#4) from 1805 to 1812
One of only two VPs to serve under more than one president. Also, the first of seven VPs to die in office. He succumbed to a heart attack in 1812.
5. Elbridge Gerry (°Marblehead, MA), VP to James Madison from 1813 to 1814
When governor or Massachusetts, Gerry gave his name to the practice of gerrymandering – creating weirdly-shaped electoral districts in order to ensure one’s own party’s victory. (The second part of the word derives from ‘salamander’). Gerry was the second VP to die in office.
6. Daniel D. Tompkins (°Fox Meadows, NY), VP to James Monroe (#5) from 1817 to 1825
The ‘D.’ probably stood for nothing; Tompkins only added it to distinguish himself from another Daniel Tompkins at Columbia College. He founded Tompkinsville, on Staten Island. He paid so little attention to the (already minimal) job of VP that Congress docked his pay. Tompkins died of alcoholism 99 days after his term ended – the shortest post-office lifespan of any ex-VP. He also lived the shortest life of any VP, dying just 10 days shy of his 51st birthday. Yet he was the only 19th-century VP to serve two full terms under the same president.
7. John C. Calhoun (°Calhoun Mills, SC), VP to John Quincy Adams (#6) and Andrew Jackson (#7) from 1825 to 1832
The second (and only other) VP to serve under two presidents, Calhoun holds the record for tie-breaking votes in the Senate (31). He was the first vice president to resign, and remains the only one to have done so of his own accord. He did it in order to take up a seat in the South Carolina Senate.
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8. Martin Van Buren (°Kinderhook, NY), VP to Andrew Jackson from 1833 to 1837
Calhoun got Van Buren’s appointment as ambassador to Britain voted down, but this had the opposite effect of the one he desired: It killed his own career instead of Van Buren’s, and Van Buren was chosen to replace him as VP. Van Buren was the only 19th-century VP who managed to get himself elected as president. The four others who succeeded to the presidency did so because of the death of the president.
9. Richard Mentor Johnson (°Bryant Station, KY), VP to Martin Van Buren (#8) from 1837 to 1841
During the War of 1812, he served under William H. Harrison in Upper Canada, where he claimed to have killed Shawnee chief Tecumseh. In 1836, he campaigned for VP with the slogan “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh”. Johnson is the only VP elected under the provisions of the 12th Amendment, which states that if no candidate for VP receives a majority of electoral votes, the Senate shall decide. He was criticised for his relationship with Julia Chinn, a mixed-race slave, whom he nevertheless treated as his wife, also acknowledging the paternity of their two daughters.
10. John Tyler (°Charles City County, VA), VP to William H. Harrison (#9) in 1841
Tyler was the first VP to succeed a president who had died in office – Harrison spent only the last 31 days of his life as president. Tyler’s nickname therefore was ‘His Accidency’. His accession was contested. Some thought he could only become ‘acting’ president, but he set a precedent by claiming the presidency outright (including its five-times-higher salary). Memorable quote: “If the tide of defamation and abuse shall turn, and my administration come to be praised, future vice presidents who may succeed to the presidency may feel some slight encouragement to pursue an independent course.”
11. George M. Dallas (°Philadelphia, PA), VP to James K. Polk (#11) from 1845 to 1849
Quite the expansionist, Dallas advocated for the annexation of all of Mexico and all of the Oregon Territory, plus Cuba. Several cities are named after him – although his connection with the naming of Dallas, Texas is disputed. The M. stands for ‘Mifflin’, by the way.
12. Millard Fillmore (°Locke Township, NY), VP to Zachary Taylor (#12) from 1849 to 1850
Born in a log cabin as the oldest of eight in a family of poor tenant farmers, Fillmore rose to become a successful attorney. As VP, he was ignored by President Taylor. Upon Taylor’s death, he became president – only the second VP to do so. Fillmore managed to pass the 1850 Compromise, which defused the explosive issue of slavery for some time. Memorable quote: “May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not.”