A Series on the Constitutional Amendments: The Twelfth

The scene at the signing of the US Constitution.

‘The man with the best job in the country is the vice-president. All he has to do is get up every morning and say, “How is the president?”‘

– Will Rogers

The office of Vice President isn’t given too much though past election time. With the exception of maybe the early founders and when a president is assassinated it’s generally a ceremonial position. Recently, however, the office has been given a little more face time with the public and more responsibility. Vice President Mike Pence recently had to make a tie breaking vote in the Senate to confirm Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, and Dick Cheney was jokingly referred to as the most powerful vice president in history. What a lot of people don’t understand, however, is that choosing the Vice Presidential nominee was not part of the original constitution. The Twelfth Amendment reads:

‘The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and all persons voted for as Vice-President and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate.

‘The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted.

‘The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President.

‘The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.’

In the early days of the United States, the Vice President was ordained from whomever came second in the Electoral College vote. This was due mostly in part to the way the electors were supposed to vote. They were to case 2 votes for president, neither for the candidate from their own state. This resulted in one candidate receiving a healthy amount of votes despite losing. The way the government proceeded was to then aware the Vice Presidential seat to the candidate receiving the second most votes for president.

As can be seen in the recent Presidential Election this caused no end of headaches for the early United States Government. More often than not the early candidates would be at each others throats and not function as a team. Imagine, if you will, an alternate reality where the Twelfth Amendment doesn’t exist. We would currently be sitting with Donald Trump as our President and Hillary Clinton as our Vice President. Now imagine the strife caused by this arrangement. This was the conundrum faced by the early United States.

The issues with this process came to a head in 1800 when Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson received the same exact number of votes from the electoral college. The tie breaking process in the Senate and House went on through Thirty-Six rounds with each party voting for their own candidate and refusing to budge. Eventually it was resolved in round Thirty-Six when Thomas Jefferson was elected President and Aaron Burr then became Vice President.

The start for the Twelfth Amendment originally started in 1797 when Congressman William L. Smith of South Carolina presented a text similar to what eventually would become the Twelfth Amendment. This idea petered out but was eventually resurrected and eventually given great consideration during the 8th Congress in 1803 where multiple drafts of the amendment were proposed. On June 15, 1804 the requisite three-quarters of the States ratified the Amendment after it passed the House and the Senate enshrining the Twelfth Amendment in the United States Constitution.

The Twelfth Amendment changed how the Presidential Candidates campaigned which could be argued changed the course of the United States. Imagine a world in which the Twelfth Amendment doesn’t exist and we can take a look at how some of the Presidential offices might have looked. You would have had Ronald Reagan with a Jimmy Carter Vice President. You also might have had some interesting ones such as Truman with a Dewey Vice President. Ultimately it is a good thing that there is not a large amount of animosity between the President and the Vice President although it does lend itself to a two party system. Next week we will address the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments more or less together. They are intertwined in both cause and effect throughout history and it’s very hard to separate them.


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