A Cul-de-Sac and a Bucket of Piss

Thomas Jefferson did not know he was going to become the Vice President of the United States. At that early moment in the American constitutional experiment, the person who got the most number of electoral votes became President, the person who came in second became the Vice President irrespective of party affiliation or his relationship with the President. Adams won the election of 1796 with 71 votes. Jefferson was runner-up with 68.

The 55 men who crafted the United States Constitution in the summer of 1787 were not really sure what a Vice President should do. It was not until near the end of their deliberations that they decided he’d preside over the United States Senate—if only to give him something to do for his $5,000 a year salary. As Founding Father Roger Sherman said, "If the vice-President were not to be President of the Senate, he would be without employment."

Disenchantment with the Vice Presidency began early. The nation’s very first Vice President John Adams called the office "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

"I am Vice President," Adams lamented, "In this I am nothing, but I may be everything."

A hundred years later, Theodore Roosevelt called the Vice Presidency a "cul de sac," and suggested that the office ought to be abolished.

The 32nd Vice President John Nance Garner, who served under FDR, is often quoted as saying the vice presidency is "not worth a bucket of warm spit," when in fact the term he used was "a bucket of warm piss." Nance, a Texan, said accepting the Vice Presidency was "the worst damn fool mistake I ever made."

You get the point.

Jefferson approached the Vice Presidency as he did everything else in his life. He mastered the work, reveled in whatever time it afforded him for his rich intellectual life, and looked around for ways to make the job more efficient and useful.

Today’s Vice Presidents rarely actually preside over the Senate. They show up only on photo op days, ceremonial occasions, or when there is a potential tie in the Senate that they intend to break in favor of the administration they serve. Jefferson took his job seriously—as usual—and presided over the Senate with his usual courtesy, orderliness, and fairness.

Jefferson was one of the most orderly men who ever lived. He was not a control freak in the modern sense of the term, but he was always happiest when he controlled as many of the circumstances of his life as possible. He was not so much bored as bewildered by the haphazard procedures of the early Senate. So he decided to write a manual of Senate procedure. He wrote his old law mentor George Wythe several times to ask for recommendations of what he should read to prepare, but Wythe was unable to offer much help. Nevertheless, the result was Jefferson’s masterful Manual of Parliamentary Practice, published on February 27, 1801. With a few adjustments, Jefferson’s Manual is still being used by the United States Senate today.

Jefferson was not one of the most important vice presidents in American history. That honor probably belongs to Al Gore or perhaps Dick Cheney, depending on your definition of "important." For one brief shining moment early on, President Adams approached Jefferson to see if they might in some way serve as co-presidents. Jefferson loved his old friend more than he loved power—that was always his style—but he loved his republican vision more than he loved Adams. Meanwhile Adams was soon warned by the usual vicious partisans, in this case Federalists, that he must have nothing to do with the dangerous radical and infidel Jefferson. So we lost a great opportunity there, back when that tradition might have taken root and made America a better republic.

The Vice Presidency turned out to be just what Jefferson had predicted: "philosophic evenings in winter" and summers at his beloved Monticello.

You see, Jefferson won two elections in 1796. He became the second Vice President, but that year he was also elected President of the American Philosophical Society. That, by far, was the greater honor for a man who despised politics and preferred to circulate among the savants, literati, philosophes, amateur scientists, reformers, antiquarians, and men of letters of the world. Power meant nothing to Jefferson except insofar as he could use it, as the Enlightenment put it, "to ameliorate the condition of mankind."

On any list of Jefferson’s greatest hits, being Vice President doesn’t even register. It’s a bucket of piss only for those who thirst for power.