Why did the Founding Fathers create the Vice Presidency?

It appears to me that the office of Vice President serves little or no important purposes in the American political system. Why did the Founder create the position? Has the role played by Vice Presidents changed over time?

The office of the Vice Presidency was clearly an afterthought at the Constitutional Convention. The delegates had spent days and days debating the power of the Presidency and ways to check it. They were altogether fearful of a power chief executive that would in any way resemble in its powers of the King of England. To avoid the concentration of power in one person, they even seriously considered a multi-person executive.

Although the delegates ultimately settled on the Executive Branch being led by a single individual (the President), they remained concerned about the amount of power the President would wield, the method of electing Presidents, the relationship between the President and the other two branches of the government, and the manner of succession in the case of a President's death or incapacitation.

Of these concerns, succession was the least important to the delegates. The delegates debated at length the powers and mode of selection of presidents. Likewise, they spent a considerable amount of time and energy weaving checks and balances between the President, the Legislative and Judiciary into the structure of government they created. In contrast, with little fanfare and without extensive discussion, the office of the Vice Presidency was added to the constitutional system primarily to address the problem of succession.

Other than serving as the President of the Senate (a role which only allows the Vice President to cast votes when the Senate is deadlocked in a tie), the Vice President has no formal constitutional authority. The Vice President's role as the Senate's tiebreaker, while not centrally important to the American constitutional system, was taken seriously by the Framers. Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist No. 68, observed:

The appointment of an extraordinary person, as Vice-President, has been objected to as superfluous, if not mischievous. It has been alleged, that it would have been preferable to have authorized the Senate to elect out of their own body an officer answering that description. But two considerations seem to justify the ideas of the convention in this respect. One is, that to secure at all times the possibility of a definite resolution of the body, it is necessary that the President should have only a casting vote. And to take the senator of any State from his seat as senator, to place him in that of President of the Senate, would be to exchange, in regard to the State from which he came, a constant for a contingent vote. The other consideration is, that as the Vice-President may occasionally become a substitute for the President, in the supreme executive magistracy, all the reasons which recommend the mode of election prescribed for the one, apply with great if not with equal force to the manner of appointing the other.

The men who have served as Vice President have generally been less than enthusiastic about the the position. During his tenure as Vice President, John Adams remarked: "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

Because the primary duty of the Vice President sit to wait in the wings in the even the sitting President dies, some have likened the Vice Presidency to a "perpetual death watch." Lyndon Johnson once said, "Every time I came into John Kennedy's presence, I felt like a raven hovering over his shoulder."

In terms of real political power, Vice Presidents have exercised only the amount of power and authority given to them by the Presidents under whom they have served. The most recent four Vice Presidents, Mondale, Bush, Quayle and Gore, have played fairly significant roles in both domestic and foreign affairs. They did so, however, only because the sitting President wanted them to.

The Vice Presidency has also served as an important "training ground" for future Presidents. One-third of America's Presidents were first Vice Presidents, including five of the last nine. Moreover, as the recent Vice Presidential candidate selections made by George W. Bush and Al Gore, demonstrate, Vice Presidents can also play a significant role in the election campaigns of the Presidential candidates with whom they run.

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Read the Constitutional Convention Debates about the Presidency and Vice Presidency:

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