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This Day in History: The U.S. Senate selects a Vice President of the United States

On this day in 1837, the U.S. Senate selects a Vice President of the United States. The Electoral College had already elected a President: Martin Van Buren. So why hadn’t Van Buren’s running mate been elected, too? And how did the Senate manage to get involved?

Let’s just say that it had been quite a controversial election year! Even the party nominating conventions had been a bit of a mess.

A political cartoon attacks Johnson's personal life.

Would you believe that the Democratic Party held its national convention a full year and a half before the November 1836 election? Talk about a long presidential campaign season?! Democratic delegates gathered in Baltimore in May 1835, and they tapped Martin Van Buren as their nominee for President. Southern delegates weren’t too thrilled with the New York native, but matters got a lot more heated when it came time to nominate a candidate for Vice President. The man poised to get the nod was Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky.

Delegates from Virginia were irate! They were already upset about Van Buren, but adding Johnson to the ticket was simply more than they could bear.

Johnson was a controversial figure because he’d been living with a slave of mixed lineage, Julia Chinn. The couple even had children, whom Johnson freely acknowledged.

Virginia thought the whole thing smacked of immorality, and the state refused to go along with the nomination. Indeed, when Johnson was nominated, the state’s delegates “hissed most ungraciously.” Their chairman got to his feet and announced that Virginia could not support Johnson for Vice President as they had “no confidence in his principles nor his character—they had come there to support principles, not men, and they had already gone as far as possible in supporting Mr. Van Buren.”

Did some Democrats hope that Virginia would soften during the course of the long campaign? If so, they were surely disappointed. Several months later, Democrats in the Commonwealth of Virginia held a state party convention and they chose their presidential electors. These electors never took a pledge to support Johnson, as the national party had hoped. Instead, Virginia electors were pledged to William Smith of Alabama.

On Election Day, Virginia voted Democratic, thus electing a Democratic slate of electors. Those electors kept their promise: They voted for Van Buren for President (as the national Democratic Party wished), but then they cast their vice presidential ballots for Smith.

In the end, Johnson was unable to win even a single elector from Virginia. Indeed, neither Johnson nor any other vice presidential candidate had been able to obtain a majority of electoral votes. In that scenario, the Constitution provides that the Senate is to choose a Vice President from the top two electoral vote-getters. That election was finally held on February 8, 1837. Senators chose Johnson, despite his loss in Virginia.

It was the first—and so far only—time that the Senate would be asked to choose a Vice President.

More information on the 1836 election can be found in The Indispensable Electoral College: How the Founders’ Plan Saves Our Country from Mob Rule.