In the early years of the United States voters balloted for president only, not vice president. Electors were selected to vote in the Electoral College for president. No distinct Electors were to vote for a vice president.
Here was the quirk. The Electors met after the general election in the state capitols and cast their votes for president. The candidate with the most votes became President of the United States, the candidate with the second largest number of votes became Vice President of the United States. If there was a tie, the Senate voted on who would become vice president. A tie for president was decided by the House of Representatives.
So in fact the president was stuck with his opponent in the general election as the vice president in his administration. This was changed with Amendment XII of the Constitution passed by Congress December 9, 1803 and ratified June 15, 1804. Beginning with the election of 1804, there was distinct voting for president and vice president. Each part fielded a presidential and vice presidential candidate.
To illustrate how ridiculous the original concept was let’s look at how some historical election results would have played out if the amendment was never passed. In the cases of presidents who died in office (dio), note the person who would have become president.
President Abraham Lincoln (dio), Vice President George McClelland (a general Lincoln had fired)
1880 President James Garfield (dio), Vice President Winfield Hancock (no Chester Arthur)
President William McKinley (dio), Vice President William Jennings Bryan (no Teddy Roosevelt)
President Warren Harding (dio), Vice President James Cox (no Calvin Coolidge)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (dio), Vice President Thomas Dewey (no Harry Truman
President John F. Kennedy (dio), Vice President Richard Nixon (no Lyndon Johnson
President George W. Bush, Vice President Al Gore
President George W. Bush, Vice President John Kerry
You get the idea. History would be very different if the Constitution had not been amended to correct this quirk. The consitutional amendment took the vice president from being a political thorn in the president’s side, to a silent partner (very silent in most cases). Certainly vice presidents could still be embarassing to the administration as we will see in future posts.