Few people remember the 12th amendment to the US Constitution, the amendment that clarifies the complicated process of electing the president and vice-president. Even fewer remember the strange election of 1800 that necessitated the passage of the bill.
Strange as it may seem today, the original constitution specified that in the presidential election, the candidate who came it second became the vice-president. If the twelfth amendment had never been ratified, today, Vice President Hillary Clinton would probably have to be restrained by the Secret Service to protect President Donald Trump—so you already understand the need for the amendment.
During the 1800 presidential election, the New York representatives to the Electoral College believed they were voting for Thomas Jefferson to be the president, and Aaron Burr to be vice president, but accidentally cast their votes in such a way that the two men tied, throwing the election to the House of Representatives. Burr, overly ambitious, tried unsuccessfully to “steal” the presidency by pressuring representatives to give him the presidency.
For obvious reasons, President Jefferson hated Burr, never trusted him, and had few dealings with his vice president during his first term of office. The Twelfth Amendment provided for the candidates for the top two federal jobs to run as a ticket, and it was ratified before the 1804 election. Obviously, Jefferson chose a different running mate, dropping Burr from the ticket.
Since 1804, all the presidential elections have resembled those today. But, what if the New York electors had not messed up their ballots in 1800 with a single, simple error in paperwork? If Jefferson had been elected on the first ballot of the Electoral College—as the electors intended—no one would have even realized that the 12th Amendment was necessary.
And without that amendment, a lot of American history would be changed dramatically.
William Henry Harrison had the shortest presidency in American history: his term lasted exactly a month: Harrison died of pneumonia, after catching a cold during the torrential rain at his inauguration. His death would return President Martin Van Buren—who had unsuccessfully run for reelection—to the presidency. Since John Tyler would never become president, it is doubtful that the 1844 presidential election would have turned on the pivotal question of Texas’ annexation.
President Van Buren was a strong opponent of Texas Annexation, believing that annexation through war was unconstitutional. Without the military protection of the Tyler administration, it is doubtful that the Lone Star Republic would have survived, probably being reabsorbed by Mexico. Without the skirmishes along the Texas border, the Mexican American War would probably never have happened, meaning that Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Colorado, and Nevada would never been part of the United States. And the great California gold rush would probably have benefitted Mexico, not the United States.
Without the Mexican American War, I’m not sure how Zachary Taylor would become a war hero, but supposing he were still elected president in 1848, he died from cholera in 1850. This would mean that President Lewis Cass (right) would have become the 13th president. Though Cass was a Northern Democrat, he strongly supported Popular Sovereignty, an issue so unpopular in the North that almost half the party had split off to form the Free Soil Party.
A Cass presidency would almost have certainly forced an alliance between the Free-Soilers and the new Republican Party, assuring a presidential victory in 1852 of an anti-slavery president, touching off the Civil War almost a decade earlier than previously.
Since Millard Fillmore was not Zachary Taylor’s running mates, Fillmore would
never be president. And as a historian, I can say that would probably be a good thing, since Fillmore was a dud. His main accomplishments were admitting western states to the union, but since the Mexican American War never happened…
Abraham Lincoln was shot after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, but if George B. McClellan had become president on April 15, 1865, we can only assume that Lee would have changed his mind and continued the war. Since McClellan hated General Grant, it is probable that he would have replaced him, and the Civil War would have continued until President McClellan could fulfill his campaign promises of a negotiated peace and the continuation of slavery.
Since the amendment to ban slavery had already passed Congress before Lincoln’s death, it would probably still have been ratified to become the new 12th Amendment. (And, yes, this is becoming increasingly confusing.) Since McClellan favored a negotiated settlement with an independent Confederacy, it is unlikely that slavery would have ended in the South until the plantations no longer needed slaves to be profitable. This might have been as late as the mid-twentieth century, with the invention of the mechanical cotton picker.
Let’s skip a few presidents, since for most of the latter half of the nineteenth century, it didn’t matter much who was president. I’m even going to skip the Presidency of William Jennings Bryan, after the death of William McKinley, because I’m almost positive that Teddy Roosevelt would still have won the presidency in 1904. (But if Roosevelt hadn’t been around for the Treaty of Portsmouth, would the Japanese still have been humiliated enough to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor?)
When Warren G. Harding died in 1923, James Cox would have become president. Cox, a Democrat, was a staunch supporter of lower personal and business taxes to spur employment. If these policies had been effective, it is quite possible that a reelected Cox could have delayed, if not prevented the economic collapse of 1929 that triggered the Great Depression.
Since Franklin D. Roosevelt was not a vice-presidential running mate in 1920, I’m not sure how he would get from Assistant Secretary of the Navy to President in 1932, but I’ll play along. On Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Thomas E. Dewey (right) would have become president. A Dewey presidency would have been so boring that it would have reminded people of Millard Fillmore—oh, wait, Fillmore was never president!
How boring were Dewey’s speeches? A newspaper once summed them all up into just four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.
I would love to say that Dewey would have avoided the Cold War and the Korean War, but that is unlikely. Dewey was a fervent believer in the United Nations and a staunch anti-communist. Unfortunately, Dewey was also a supporter of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy. Nor did Dewy ever criticize Truman’s decision to use the Atomic bomb to end the war with Japan. I am forced to believe that a Dewey presidency would not have been substantially different from Truman’s.
When John F. Kennedy died in 1963, Richard Nixon would have become president almost a decade early, resulting in several changes. First, when Kennedy died, the United States was already in the process of pulling out of Vietnam, plans that were halted by Lyndon Johnson, who was unwilling to appear to be “losing a war.” Nixon, by contrast, would probably have pulled the troops out and blamed any failure on Kennedy.
Second, without Johnson—first as vice president and then as president—acting as the driving force behind the space program, I think it unlikely the US would have landed a man on the moon by 1969. Remember, Nixon began cutting the budget for NASA shortly after Armstrong landed on the moon. Certainly, without Johnson, the space program would have never been based in Texas. So the first words spoken from the moon could not have been, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The eagle has landed.”
And it would have been impossible for me, a young supporter of Nixon in 1972 to have met a young McGovern supporter and fall in love. Which would mean that this blog would lose The Doc as an editor, rendering everything above into such a grammatical mess of colloquial nonsense that you wouldn’t have read this far.
Okay, that’s enough. Historians don’t do ‘alternative history’. When we do it, it is called ‘counter factual speculation’. Regardless of the term, too much of this kind of nonsense drives you mad. Would Napoleon have won at Waterloo if he had a cell phone? Would the Gauls have defeated Caesar if they had air power? I’m going to stop before I decide that wheels would have made my elderly aunt a tea cart.