Sunday, October 05, 2008

Jefferson on the Nature of the Vice Presidency

Joe Biden's recent bizarre comments on the nature of the Vice Presidency bring the following to mind.

On January 22, 1797, Thomas Jefferson, at Monticello, wrote a letter to his friend and political ally and confidante James Madison that discussed the nature of the office of Vice President, which Jefferson was about to assume. I have added paragraph breaks and emphasis:


Yours of the 8th came to hand yesterday. I was not aware of any necessity of going on to Philadelphia immediately, yet I had determined to do it, as a mark of respect to the public, and to do away the doubts which have spread, that I should consider the second office as beneath my acceptance. The journey, indeed, for the month of February, is a tremendous undertaking for me, who have not been seven miles from home since my re-settlement. I will see you about the rising of Congress; and presume I need not stay there a week. Your letters written before the 7th of February will still find me here.

My letters inform me that Mr. Adams speaks of me with great friendship, and with satisfaction in the prospect of administering the government in concurrence with me. I am glad of the first information, because though I saw that our antient friendship was affected by a little leaven, produced partly by his constitution, partly by the contrivance of others, yet I never felt a diminution of confidence in his integrity, and retained a solid affection for him. His principles of government I knew to be changed, but conscientiously changed.

As to my participating in the administration, if by that he meant the executive cabinet, both duty and inclination will shut that door to me. I cannot have a wish to see the scenes of 1793 revived as to myself, and to descend daily into the arena like a gladiator, to suffer martyrdom in every conflict. As to duty, the constitution will know me only as the member of a legislative body: and its principle is, that of a separation of legislative, executive and judiciary functions, except in cases specified. If this principle be not expressed in direct terms, yet it is clearly the spirit of the constitution, and it ought to be so commented and acted on by every friend to free government.

For an earlier post that touches on the nature of the Vice Presidency, see John Adams's Salary as Vice President.

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