Historians love to rank the presidents from best (usually George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln) to worst (usually Richard Nixon and James Buchanan). Having done it myself it is a fun intellectual exercise. However, I doubt any one has ever made a list of Vice Presidents. Here is my list of the five worst Vice Presidents in United States History:
1. Aaron Burr (1801-1805). The election of 1800 still operated under the constitutional and arcane rules for selecting the president. The winner of the electoral college received the presidency and the runner-up became vice president. When this system was adopted under the constitution no one was prepared for the advent of political parties. In 1800 Burr ran as
Jefferson's VP, but lo and behold, they tied in electoral votes. Instead of stepping aside and acknowledging popular intentions, Burr challenged Jefferson through 36 ballots in the HOR. Jefferson won the election, but he never trusted Burr again. As well he should not have. Burr engaged in treason by hatching a plan to lead a revolt in the west. Only after General Wilkinson betrayed Burr was he arrested and later tried for betraying his country. He was aqcuitted on what today we would call a technicality.
2. Spiro Agnew (1969-1973). Agnew was Nixon's verbal hit man (not that he really needed one) and issued such colorful alliterative phrases as "the nattering nabobs of negativity", which he used
to describe the liberal media and the anti-war protestors. Agnew, however, was not Mr. Clean. In 1973 he resigned from the office of VP because he had been charged with accepting bribes as Baltimore County Executive, Baltimore Mayor, and VP.
3. John C. Calhoun (1825-1832). Calhoun of South Carolina started his political life as a nationalist who looked to the federal government to build roads and canals, and promote economic growth. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, however, changed Calhoun's mind and he feared the growing electoral power of the north with its free labor ideology (which was not exactly anti-slavery where slavery already existed but not in favor of expanding slaver territory). Calhoun
realized that the growing number of immigrants in the north would outweigh any benefit the south had in the HOR with the 3/5 clause. The battle had to be fought in the Senate to maintain enough slave states to block any effort to diminish slavery. For example one thing southerners feared was the prohibitive taxation of slaves (this is why Patrick Henry objected to the Constitution in the first place). So Calhoun became the arch states rights advocate to argue against any federal power because it might be used against slavery. To make his point, while VP, he persuaded South Carolina to nullify the Tariff of 1832. This led to a great crisis. Calhoun resigned his seat as VP to become US Senator from SC, but he had already sowed the seeds for disunion, crisis, and possibly even civil war. Fortunately, the crisis was averted by a compromise on the tariff, but Calhoun provided an example that would be followed in 1860.
4. Chester Arthur (1881). President James G. Garfield worked to bring the civil service under control and, like his predecessor Rutherford B. Hayes, he fought against Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Arthur sided with Conkling and conspired against his own president. When the a
deranged man shot Garfield (who died after two months of agony) he said something to the effect that now Chet Arthur will be president. Arthur recovered his composure when he became president but he never had the trust of the people. As VP it is hard to find anyone who worked so hard to undermine the president he was elected to serve.
5. Thomas Marshall (1913-1921). A former Indiana governor, Marshall is most famous for saying that "what this country needs is a good five cent cigar." In addition to this deep socio-economic analysis Marshall loved to play pranks on people when he was traveling the country on the railroads. When President Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke in 1919 Marshall essentially crawled under a rock. The country remained leaderless. No one was in charge as chaos reigned in
the Red Scare (the Palmer Raids, not the McCarthy Red Scare that would come 30 years later), and one of the most pressing issues in the history of American foreign policy (the US Senate vote on the Versailles Treaty which would have meant membership in the League of Nations). While I tend to doubt that American entry into the League of Nations would have prevented WWII, it sure wouldn't have hurt. The country never needed the VP to act more than it did in 1919 and Marshall failed to do anything meaningful.