Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


A Heartbeat Away:

Vice Presidents from Virginia


. . . a more tranquill & unoffending station could not have been found for me . . . It will give me philosophical evenings in the winter & rural days in the summer.

- Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 1797


Most students of Virginia history know the commonwealth provided four of the first five presidents of the United States. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe all called the Old Dominion home. Over the next 100 or so years, an additional three native Virginians would take the helm – William Henry Harrison, John Tyler and Woodrow Wilson.


What is less known is that two of these gentlemen also served as vice commanders-in-chief, and under unusual circumstances. Due to the eccentricities of the electoral system back in 1796, Thomas Jefferson, who was trying to retire from public life, ended up as vice president to his opposition party’s candidate, John Adams. A little more than 40 years later, John Tyler had the unique distinction of being the first vice president to succeed a president who died in office.


Jefferson’s odd road to the vice presidency began in September 1796 when George Washington announced he would not seek a third term. By then a two-party system had begun to emerge in the new nation with Federalists on one side and Jefferson’s Republicans (also called the Democratic Republicans, later to become the modern Democratic Party) on the other. The Federalists decided to select Adams, Washington’s vice president, as their presidential candidate. The Republicans turned to Jefferson. They felt he was the only candidate who could beat Adams, who was popular in New England and associated with the success of the American Revolution.


At the time electors could cast two votes for president. The candidate with the highest number of votes would become president; the one with the next highest tally would be vice president. The framers of the Constitution had set up the system in the hopes that the top candidate would have broad national popularity and the vice president would have at least regional support. They hadn’t anticipated the possibility that parties would propose opposing slates of candidates, which occurred for the first time in 1796. Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran against John Adams and Thomas Pinckney.


When Jefferson came in second behind Adams, he was actually relieved. He had retired from public office two years before and was enjoying his days at Monticello. That’s when he wrote to Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, declaring his relief at being vice president. In fact within days of being sworn in as vice president, Jefferson also took on the duties of president of the American Philosophical Society, a well-respected scientific and philosophical body. In his inaugural speech to that organization, he talked about a subject dear to his heart – the recently discovered fossil remains of a large animal he referred to as Megalonyx or “Great Claw.” No, it wasn’t a dinosaur. It’s now referred to as “Jefferson’s giant sloth,” a creature that lived during the last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago.


As with everything he touched, Jefferson made his mark on the vice presidency. Jefferson was only the second person to serve in the office, and he found the position still ill-defined. The U.S. Constitution stated that the vice president should serve as president of the U.S. Senate, but didn’t actually define what that role meant.


John Adams, who served as president of the Senate before Jefferson, had been considered officious. The new vice president decided what the U.S. Senate needed was a Manual of Parliamentary Practice that would better define his role and how the body should conduct business. He was concerned that the rights of the minority party should be respected. Jefferson had kept notes on parliamentary procedure when he served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and he also admired how the British Parliament operated. Using those sources, he developed a 53-section manual that dealt with topics such as privileges, petitions, motions, resolutions, bills, treaties, conferences and impeachments. As Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone wrote, the vice president “exercised his limited functions [as presiding officer] with greater care than his predecessor and left every successor his debtor.”


In 1993, on the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, the Senate even published a special edition of Jefferson’s parliamentary rules. Thus, our second vice president can take credit for any decorum that remains in the chambers of Congress.


John Tyler’s contribution to the vice presidency occurred more by chance. He actually served as vice president for only 33 days before President William Henry Harrison succumbed to pneumonia in April 1841 and Tyler became president.


He is probably best known as the second part of the political slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!” The slogan which referred to Whig presidential candidate Harrison’s success as an Indian fighter at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. In a country that was becoming more divided over the issue of slavery, the Whigs chose Tyler in the hopes that, as a slaveholder, he would balance presidential candidate Harrison, who was rumored to sympathize with abolitionists.


When the ticket won, Tyler attended his and Harrison’s inauguration on March 4, 1841, opened the Senate in his role as president and the next day returned to his Sherwood Forest plantation in Charles County. As with Jefferson, he went home “with the expectation of spending the next four years in peace and quiet.” (Oliver Perry Chitwood, John Tyler: Champion of the Old South.)


Such a quest was not to be. He received a letter on April 5 informing him that Harrison had died of pneumonia the day before. He immediately returned to Washington. Since Harrison was the first president to die in office, many feared a constitutional crisis. It was not clear whether Tyler would become president until a new president was elected in a special election or if the Constitution allowed him to fill out Harrison’s term.


Tyler, of course, championed the second interpretation and even though some newspapers continued to refer to his term as “His Accidency,” in the end few questioned Tyler’s authority as the new president. It was not until the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, that the language of the Constitution on the order of succession was clarified. But Tyler had set the precedent.


These two Virginians helped fine-tune the murky role of the vice president in our nation’s early years; it’s doubtful those who have held the position since still look forward to “a tranquill and unoffending station.”


(Sources: Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789 – 1993, Mark O. Hatfield, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997; "Thomas Jefferson, 2nd Vice President (1797-1801," Senate Historical Office.)


NEXT: Is Virginia Really a State? What the Heck is a Commonwealth?


-- September 25, 2006


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About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.