The 12th Amendment

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13533

The Founding Fathers constructed the Electoral College before political parties were established. With the creation of the Federalist and the Democratic-Republican parties, something had to change.


Civics, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Did you know that, in 1796, the president and vice president were from two opposing political parties?
  • Can you imagine if that happened today with the Democrat and Republican parties?
  • So, how did Congress stop this from happening again?

The Electoral System

we the people

As originally instructed in the Constitution, the office of the vice president would be filled by the person with the second-most number of votes in a presidential election.

At the time, political parties did not exist in the country. While people had their own beliefs, they did not place themselves into any political factions.

Because of this, the Founding Fathers assumed that, if the president were to die or leave office, the rightful successor would be the person who came in second during the election.

Moreover, if the runner-up were the vice president and the winner were the president, it would create an executive branch that represented the will of a large majority of the American people.

  • So, what went wrong?

Watch a clip from History of American Political Parties (Part 1) by KnowledgeHub:

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The Federalists wanted to expand federal authority while the Democrat-Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson, wanted to expand authority at the state level.

This division occurred during the presidency of George Washington, who expressly warned about this type of infighting. Despite his warnings, the two parties established themselves by the election of 1796, as George Washington left office.

Election of 1796

john adams

In this election, John Adams gained the highest number of votes, and Thomas Jefferson gained the second most.

For the first time in the history of the election process, candidates were tied to political parties. Having a president (Adams) from one party and a vice president (Jefferson) from the opposing party created an obvious problem that only got worse with time.

Election of 1800


As vice president, Thomas Jefferson ran against the incumbent president John Adams. While John Adams did not win, he narrowly beat Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr was also a Democratic-Republican like Jefferson, but the two hated each other.

Again, as a result of the electoral process in the Constitution, the runner-up became vice president.

It was during Thomas Jefferson's first term that he set out to resolve this unforeseen issue.

The 12th Amendment

Beginning the day that Jefferson took office, Congress set out to fix the electoral process. However, it took over two years to develop the means by which a vice president could be elected.

Eventually, it was decided that the vice president would become an extension of the president's candidacy. The electors of each state would have to vote specifically for the president, and the vice president would occupy its own category.

Developing this process took so long because the principle of incluidng the winner and the runner-up in the executive branch was important. It insured that a majority of voting Americans would have a voice in this branch just as they did in the legislative branch.

2016 general election

Image by Corey Taratuta, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

As seen in the image above, the president and vice president are now a pair on the ballot, not a separate candidate.


The legacy of this amendment is that every vice president since has been a member of the winning political party.

  • Can you think of any ways this power of choosing a second in command could broaden a president's support from the public during an election?

Continue on to the Got It? section to explore this idea.

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