Tis the season for lists–all kinds of lists–including the best movies, top
celebrities, most successful sports figures, even the dumbest utterances of
In the political world, Time Magazine jumped the gun in August with its list
of the 15 worst vice presidents. Not to be out done, Vice President-elect
Joe Biden recently leaped into the fray with his provocative, but typical
Biden-like assessment that Dick Cheney was the worst vice president in
American history. Subsequently a CNN poll, notwithstanding the spirit of
this holiday season, found that almost one quarter of Americans agreed with
We are content to let historians debate Cheney’s tenure, but not so willing
to leave unchallenged some of the earlier lists. What lands a particular
vice president on our short worst list is less what they did in office than
what they did to the office.
So, missing from this list are examples of vice presidents, such as Andrew
Johnson or Richard Nixon, chiefly reviled today for what they later did as
failed presidents. Also missing are vice presidents whose infamy is tied to
what they did after leaving office, such as Buchanan’s running mate John C.
Breckinridge who managed to get himself charged with treason by both the
Confederacy and the Union. Burr, Calhoun, Agnew, and others rebuked below
earned their place on the list by leaving the office they occupied in worse
shape–often much worse–than they entered it.
1) Aaron Burr–Even before he assumed the vice presidency, Burr intrigued
to become president–after he and his party’s presidential candidate, Thomas
Jefferson, tied in the Electoral College. It took the House 36 ballots to
elect Jefferson president, thanks to Burr’s unbridled ambition. His national
career basically shot at this point, he ran for governor of New York, and
lost in part because of the opposition of another powerful New Yorker
Alexander Hamilton, whom he subsequently challenged and killed in a duel.
Burr was indicted for murder in New Jersey and New York. He then fled out to
the southwest where he tried to set up an independent nation out of part of
the Louisiana Purchase–a scheme for which he was eventually indicted and
tried unsuccessfully for treason.
2) Spiro Agnew–Nixon’s vice president was the bete noir of liberals and
the media. His verbal assaults sent many of them both into frenzy and to the
family thesaurus. He made the polysyllabic "pusillanimous" part of everyday
vocabulary, and the awful alliteration "nattering nabobs of negativity?"
still evokes recognition. But Agnew’s critics had the last laugh. Early in
Nixon’s second term he was indicted on multiple charges of taking bribes
during his governmental career, ultimately permitted to plead to a single
count of income tax invasion, made contingent on his resignation as vice
president. He resigned becoming just the second vice president to do so, and
the only one to leave facing criminal prosecution.
3) John C. Calhoun–He served as vice president for two presidents, John
Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson–and served neither of them well. During the
1828 election, while still serving Adams, but supporting Jackson, he penned
the infamous "South Carolina Exposition," arguing that the union was a
contract among the states, and thus any state could veto or nullify any act
of the federal government. This argument later expanded by Calhoun
ultimately became the legal justification put forward by the South to leave
the union. Subsequently elected to the same office under Jackson, Calhoun
proved no more loyal. He undermined Jackson by opposing him on the tariff.
Worse, perhaps, Calhoun’s spouse took the lead role in the social ostracism
of Peggy Eaton, the wife of one of Jackson’s closest friends, leading to the
forced resignation of Jackson’s cabinet. Ultimately Calhoun himself resigned
the vice presidency late in Jackson’s first term to become a US Senator from
his beloved South Carolina.
4) Hannibal Hamlin–A senator from Maine put on the ticket with Lincoln to
provide geographic balance, Hamlin, and Lincoln had never met before the
1860 election. Hamlin is a classic example of a vice president who exercised
no power and no influence, managing even to lose control of the patronage
for his own state. While Lincoln sometimes asked his vice president for
advice, Hamlin’s role was so limited he often stayed in Maine, complaining
about his insignificance. In 1864 he was so bored with his job that when the
Maine Coast Guard was called to active duty, he refused a deferment and made
his small contribution to the Civil War as a cook. He was dropped from the
ticket in 1864, replaced by the ill-fated Andrew Johnson.
5) Thomas Jefferson–He is the surprise on the list. Widely regarded as a
great or near great president, he was a poor vice president. During his
single term he consistently undermined the president (John Adams) he served.
Jefferson, along with James Madison, was responsible for creating a party
system that opposed Adams on both domestic and foreign policy. This along
with Jefferson’s support of a partisan press transformed American politics
and led directly to Adams subsequent failure to gain re-election.
Ironically, Jefferson’s maneuvering in the vice presidency helped set forth
the political conditions that thrust Aaron Burr into national politics,
culminating in the latter’s election to the vice presidency. Jefferson is
the only vice president on the list who went on to become president, and, as
noted, was effective in that office.
Some may be surprised and others disappointed that the incumbent Dick Cheney
doesn’t make the list. And who can be sure that he won’t make a future list,
but it is simply too early to make that assessment. Certainly, he belongs on
any list of the most powerful vice presidents. And his tenure was
controversial, particularly with respect to his role in bringing on the Iraq
war and his advocacy for curtailing civil liberties in pursuit of national
security. But Cheney functioned less as vice president and more as a
co-president exercising powers, heretofore, believed to be exclusively
presidential. It may turn out that Cheney actually had more influence and
did more harm to the office of the presidency than to the office he
Politically Uncorrected is published twice monthly. Dr. G. Terry Madonna is
Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College and Dr. Michael
Young is Managing Partner of Michael Young Strategic Research. The article
can be used in whole or in part with appropriate attribution. The views and
opinions found in this article represent the authors’ views and opinions and
not those of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated.
Previous columns can be viewed at
http://politics.fandm.edu, and Politically Uncorrected columns with a
national focus are archived at