The American system of government is revered by its people, admired by its foreign friends, respected by most of its opponents, and understood in its entirety by only a few specialists, who, however, do not always agree about it. As an organism it is complex and often obscure. Not unlike the organism of the body, its strengths and its weaknesses are not always easy to account for. The fact that the system has survived so long in a changing world, and seems likely to go on surviving, certainly proves that it is viable, and what has been said about the wisdom shown in devising it is justified. To be sure, part of the wisdom was to allow the system to be adapted to new conditions. The Constitution has been drastically modified, and in many other ways the present form of government departs from the original design of the Constitutional Convention. But modern America differs still more from colonial America which had just won its independence, so the original plan had plenty of merit.
But there are weak spots in the system that still have not been dealt with. One of these is the Vice-Presidency. This office was almost an after-thought at the Constitutional Convention; it was proposed fairly late in the proceedings, was worked out by a committee over a weekend, and then adopted after only brief debate. Because the Vice- President was made presiding officer of the Senate the chief criticism at the time was that the separation of powers between executive and legislature was being blurred, a consideration that in practice has really not mattered. What at the time the convention did not realize was how difficult it might be to decide when a President was incapacitated, how many of his powers the Vice-President should exercise, and what powers he was to have if he took over the presidency by succession. The Constitution was not specific on these points.
The idea of the Founding Fathers was that the Vice-President should be the man next best qualified in the country to be President, surely a notably wise concept. It was implemented by an arrangement under which the Vice-President was to be the man to get the second highest vote for President in the Electoral College. But this could only work if there was no party system; and when that was introduced the Constitution was amended to provide a separate vote for Vice-President. This amendment threw the high office of Vice- President into the dust of party politics, where it has remained for most of our subsequent history.
Seven Vice-Presidents have succeeded to the presidency as a result of death. For more than one year in every five, since Tyler's accession . . .