The sad, unintentionally funny history of America's vice presidents

Smithsonian has a fun article on America's top second-banana—the vice presidency—a job that John Adams, the first vice-president, described as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived."

Lest you think Dan Quayle was the first VP mocked in the press, or that The Onion's superb (if fictional) coverage of Joe Biden was some uniquely inventive portrayal of what vice presidents do with their time, Tony Horwitz is here to set you straight. The truth is that the vice presidency has a very long history of mediocrity, wackiness, and lack of purpose.

The Constitution also failed to specify the powers and status of vice presidents who assumed the top office. In fact, the second job was such an afterthought that no provision was made for replacing VPs who died or departed before finishing their terms. As a result, the office has been vacant for almost 38 years in the nation’s history.

Until recently, no one much cared. When William R.D. King died in 1853, just 25 days after his swearing-in (last words: “Take the pillow from under my head”), President Pierce gave a speech addressing other matters before concluding “with a brief allusion” to the vice president’s death. Other number-twos were alive but absentee, preferring their own homes or pursuits to an inconsequential role in Washington, where most VPs lived in boardinghouses (they had no official residence until the 1970s). Thomas Jefferson regarded his vice presidency as a “tranquil and unoffending station,” and spent much of it at Monticello. George Dallas (who called his wife “Mrs. Vice”) maintained a lucrative law practice, writing of his official post: “Where is he to go? What has he to do?—no where, nothing.” Daniel Tompkins, a drunken embezzler described as a “degraded sot,” paid so little heed to his duties that Congress docked his salary.

Read the rest of the story at


  1. Lyndon Johnson, a serious badass, was regarded as a joke by many as VP. From the comedy albumn “First Family” :

    Child’s voice: Can Caroline come out and play?
    Kennedy: I’m sorry, young man, but she can’t. She’s in Italy with her mother.
    Child’s voice: Oh. Well, then, what’s Lyndon doing?

  2. One of the most puzzling omissions from the article (maybe censored by the Smithsonian?) concerns William King, the Pierce VP mentioned in your excerpt, and James Buchanan, who were widely rumored to be lovers (Buchanan had been previously engaged to a woman who died of an overdose of laudanum–it’s not noted in the Wikipedia article if it was intentional or not–and confessed in a letter to having “gone a wooing to several gentlemen” while King was in France. 

  3. From one external pointofview (I can’t assess all of them, only what I’ve watched): what if we separated the action politician from the symbol politician. The politician who exhorts morally and attends state funerals = the vice president. The politician who welds coalitions = the president.

  4. I remember reading that when he was Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon was asked what it was like. Nixon said that it reminded him of the poor widow lady who had two sons. One ran off to join the merchant marine, and the other became vice president of the United States. Poor woman; neither one was heard from ever again.

    On the other hand, had Dick Cheney’s mechanical heart ever failed, George Bush would have actually become President.

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