The Vice Presidency: An Afterthought
Having spent months deliberating how the new national legislature would be organized, if executive power should be vested in one person or in a collective group, and what the relationships would be between the states and the federal government (and among the states themselves), the amount of time spent at the Constitutional Convention discussing other matters was remarkably short.
The idea of a Vice President of the United States, for example, would first be proposed as the sixth of a nine-point proposal submitted by a committee headed by New Jersey delegate David Brearly, on September 1, 1787 - just two and a half weeks before the Convention adjourned.
On Thursday, September 6, the Convention approved the Brearly Committee proposal by a vote of 10 states to one; on the same day they modified their plans to fix the length of presidential terms, reducing the previously approved seven-year term for a President to a four-year term for both a President and Vice President.
The following day the Convention voted to let Congress determine who would act as President in the event both a President and Vice President died or were disabled. In effect, they punted on the issue; but in their deliberations it was evident that their vision for the Vice President was simple: he'd preside over the United States Senate, acting as President whenever the office were vacated or its incumbent disabled.
Unfortunately, as with a number of other areas in which the delegates opted for brevity rather than clarity, in the final draft of Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, they failed to make that distinction clear enough:
In the case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of said Office, the same shall devolve upon the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
"...the same shall then devolve upon the Vice President." Those eight words would cause the nation to suffer complete leadership paralysis on at least two occasions, and on many others for brief periods of time. What did the phrase mean, exactly? If the presidency were vacant, did it mean a Vice President succeeded to that office, or merely that he'd discharge its functions as Acting President? And what what exactly constituted an "Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of said Office," for that matter? The wording of this phrase would be the catalyst for what I call the "Five Key Questions" that existed with respect to presidential succession and disability prior to the ratification of the 25th Amendment.
Those and other questions however would go unanswered by the Convention. And in a relatively short period of time, their choice of brevity over clarity would prove somewhat problematic.