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Succession

Before there was a 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, there were no set rules to follow in the event that a vice president resigned. In the early 19th Century, John C. Calhoun had been elected vice president and served under John Quincy Adams. Although Calhoun began his career as relatively aligned with John Quincy’s politics and policies, by the time he was VP to JQA, he had radically turned to support the thinking and politics of JQA’s biggest rival, Andrew Jackson. In fact, he managed to become vice president to Jackson as well. Calhoun was a curious historical figure – and certainly one worth getting to know – but he is mentioned here only because he resigned the role of VP in 1832.


Calhoun resignation rabbit hole: So the story goes something like this – Calhoun was a pretty good speaker. Once he decided to support an issue, he could be quite eloquent (often outrageously wrongheaded, but at least he was well spoken if not well thought). Hayne, one of the Senators from his home state of South Carolina was not a good speaker. They both supported this nutty concept called “nullification” by which any state could invalidate any federal law if they did not like it. Kind of the opposite of an actual federal government, but we digress. Anyway – as the nullification issue was heating up, Hayne was itching to get into state government so he resigned his Senate seat. Calhoun – as sitting VP – runs for the newly vacant Senate seat and wins while Hayne becomes governor of South Carolina. After the election, Calhoun resigns as VP in order to serve in the Senate. Calhoun will go on to quit as Senator in order to prepare to run for the presidency. Don’t worry – he will lose. He was such an interesting guy – always on the wrong side of history and brutally ambitious for ambition’s sake.


When Calhoun resigned as vice president, he had already been replaced by Van Buren on Jackson’s re-election ticket. There was no successor appointed for the interim. Despite the descriptions of the job (i.e. as John Adams described it, “the most insignificant office” ever devised), no one else who was elected to the job ever resigned.


Until Spiro Agnew, in 1972. But, that was less voluntary. Just want to add something interesting about Calhoun and Agnew – both were insanely ambitious, both held a number of elected and appointed governmental positions, both changed their ideas and policies in very serious and fundamental ways, both espoused language and policies that truly were and continue to be the absolute worst of America. The two men have a lot in common. For more information about Spiro Agnew, please check out the incredible podcast Bag Man by the great Rachel Maddow. In brief, Agnew did some very good things as governor of Maryland, but the way he got things done as an elected official was by lining his own pockets. He accepted a number of bribes and got caught.


Recall that when Calhoun resigned, there was no set line of succession. By the time of Agnew’s resignation, the 25th Amendment had been ratified. So, Nixon had the power to appoint a new vice president so long as his nominee was approved by Congress. When Agnew resigned, Nixon had just been re-elected in a landslide. He had his pick of vice presidents. On the advice of leadership in the House of Representatives, he chose Gerald Ford. Fifty years ago this week (November 27, 1973), the Senate overwhelmingly approved; about 9 days later the House overwhelmingly voted in favor of Ford to take on the role of Vice President. This would be the first time the 25th Amendment was used to fill the role of Vice President.


That would be significant on its own. But, within a year, Nixon’s world would completely fall apart. By August 9, 1974, Ford would take the oath of office to be the president of the United States despite only ever having been elected as a Congressman from Grand Rapids, Michigan. President Ford then used the powers of the 25th Amendment to nominate Nelson Rockefeller to fill the role of vice president. So, as Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment and ouster after having won the presidency less than two years earlier by overwhelming margins, the two top executive office holders were men who had not been elected to the jobs at all. It was an extraordinary moment from a constitutional standpoint.


Although mocked mercilessly, Ford was a decent man and a calm president in a time of unbelievable turmoil. To his credit, he was the last pro-choice Republican president. Betty Ford, his wife, was a bright, outspoken, and wonderfully human First Lady. When Ford ran for the office on his own terms, he faced a challenger seeking to push the GOP further to the right. So, he dumped Rockefeller in favor of the more conservative Bob Dole. Ford-Dole would go on to win the nomination and then lose the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1980.


All before and ever since the short Ford presidency, America has been electing her presidents (albeit indirectly through an archaic system called the Electoral College) and vice presidents. But for that brief moment from 1974 – 1976, as America turned 200 and celebrated the Bicentennial of this democracy with much fanfare, the president and vice president were both appointed, and not elected, officials. America did not even bat an eye and the republic survived.



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