The office of Vice President has not exactly impressed people. The first Vice President, John Adams, called it “the most insignificant office ever the invention of man…” Another Vice President, John Nance Garner, reportedly judged the office as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” The long list of inconsequential Vice Presidents might be proof of those evaluations. But early in this nation’s history, the Vice President did make some noise. Here are three examples.
The “Sage of Monticello” established his willingness to defy the administration he worked for during George Washington’s presidency. As Secretary of State, Jefferson opposed Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s financial policies and its supporters- the Federalists (including Washington). Jefferson went so far as to hire a writer, Philip Freneau, as a clerk in the State Department in order for him to establish a newspaper, the National Gazette, to harangue the administration.
Jefferson continued these anti-administration actions as Vice President under Federalist John Adams. Desperate to oppose the Alien and Sedition Acts, which allowed the government to crack down on government dissenters and deport suspicious foreigners, Jefferson, along with James Madison, stealthfuly passed on the suggestion to the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures to nullify these acts (the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions).
President Jefferson himself had a Vice President who didn’t wholly tow the administration line in his first term. In the Vice President’s role as President of the Senate, Aaron Burr allowed the Federalist Senators time to review legislation to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801, an act Jefferson and the Republicans loathed. The repeal passed despite Republican Burr’s ambivalence, and, according to historian Nancy Isenberg, this added to the New Yorker Burr’s waning influence with the Virginian Jefferson.
With Burr out of favor with Jefferson, he perhaps saw the need to protect his political prospects by challenging Hamilton to a duel. Although he was trying to uphold his honor in a personal dispute, Burr was in a desperate political battle with other New York Republican factions. But when Burr killed Hamilton, he was seen as a murderer. After finishing his Vice Presidential term (Republicans chose George Clinton to succeed him), Burr privately sought western lands (filibustering) for the U.S., but it seemed to President Jefferson that he was a traitorous empire builder.
John C. Calhoun
About twenty years later, another Vice President would not be on the same page as the President. The son of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, won the presidential election in the House in 1825. He aimed to apply nationalist principles during his Presidency- using the federal government to improve the nation’s economy, education, and culture. Calhoun, a South Carolinian, did not cooperate with this agenda, favoring states’ rights to protect slavery from possible intervention by the federal government.
In 1828, Tennessean Andrew Jackson defeated Adams for the Presidency and Calhoun was elected to another term as Vice President. Both Jackson and Calhoun had a states’ rights background but Calhoun crossed the President. In his desperation to block the “Tariff of Abominations,” Calhoun, borrowing a page from Jefferson, extolled the principles of nullification- states could reject federal laws they did not like. Jackson stood up to South Carolina’s attempt to nullify the tariff and civil war was in the air. Fortunately, a compromise was reached in Congress.
These three rebellious Vice Presidents occupied the office during a time of no formal political party structure or discipline. During the 1830’s, that party structure and discipline would develop and afterwards many Vice Presidents bowed to party principles and didn’t rock the boat. As a result, many Vice Presidents became obscure.