25th Amendment: Presidential Succession, Part 1

This two-part Common Sense Paper will explain the history of presidential succession both prior to and following the ratification of the 25th Amendment.  Part 1 focuses on the early history of presidential succession, from the ratification of the Constitution until 1967, which illustrated the need for an amendment.  Part 2 focuses on the drafting and ratification of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, and the history of presidential succession since its ratification.

Presidential Succession: The Initial Constitutional Text

For nearly the first two hundred years of the American Republic, presidential succession was governed by Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution, referred to as the Presidential Succession Clause.  This clause states:

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on 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.

This clause provided for the vice president to assume the president’s duties in cases of death, resignation, or inability to discharge the office.  It also allowed Congress to enact a law regarding instances where both the president and vice president were unable to discharge their duties, but it also left many questions open to interpretation.  For instance, it was not clear whether or how a president might resume his duties in cases when the vice president took over for a period of time.  It was also not clear whether a vice president was the constitutional president during that tenure, or whether he was serving merely as the acting president.

These distinctions might sound trivial at first, but they had severe potential ramifications.  Transitions of executive power are historically perilous times, with the deaths of kings and queens having led to many wars throughout the centuries in other countries.  A lack of political consensus regarding the legitimacy of a vice president taking over as president in the event of the prior occupant’s death had the potential to take similarly violent and chaotic turns.  Luckily for America, such violence and chaos never came to be through the many transitions of power from a deceased president to his vice president.

Despite these open questions and their associated potential pitfalls, the Presidential Succession Clause was the law of the land for nearly two centuries. Thanks to precedents set by the first presidential vacancy, it succeeded in maintaining the smooth transfer of power to vice presidents in cases of presidential death in office for the duration of that time.

Presidential Succession under the Presidential Succession Clause

Between the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 and the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967, the Presidential Succession Clause was used eight times to transfer power from a deceased president to the vice president.  Half of these deaths were caused by illness, and half by assassination.  The first such succession was caused by the death in 1841 of President William Henry Harrison, who died of illness shortly after being inaugurated.  Vice President John Tyler took the oath of office shortly after Harrison’s death and claimed to have succeeded Harrison as president automatically for the remainder of the term by operation of the Presidential Succession Clause, sidestepping the acting president conundrum.  Congress quickly enacted a Joint Resolution addressing Tyler as president, putting to rest the question of whether he was serving as president or acting president.  These actions would serve as a historical precedent that succeeding vice presidents used for the next hundred and twenty-six years following the deaths of presidents, until the enactment of the 25th Amendment.

The next succession happened in 1850, when Vice President Millard Fillmore took over the presidency following President Zachary Tyler’s death from illness.  Fifteen years later, in 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson became president following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination a week after the end of the Civil War.  This succession laid the precedent for a transfer of power following the assassination of a sitting president, laying out that such a transfer would be no different than a transfer following a death by illness.

Vice President Chester A. Arthur similarly took over as president following the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881, who died 80 days after being shot.  This transfer illustrated some of the problems caused by the vagueness of the Presidential Succession Clause. Vice President Arthur declined to assume President Garfield’s duties in the 80 days between his being shot and his death, since it was not clear how or whether President Garfield could have resumed his duties under this clause had Garfield recovered.  Not wanting to permanently oust Garfield as he was fighting for his life, Arthur maintained his status as Vice President, an office that has very few Constitutional duties and powers.  Thus, in 1881, for nearly three months it was not clear who, exactly, had practical control over the executive branch.

The first transfer of power by operation of the clause in the 20th century occurred in 1901, when Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took office as president following the assassination of President William McKinley, who died eight days after being shot.  Twenty-two years later, Vice President Calvin Coolidge became president following the death by heart attack of President Warren G. Harding.  In 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman became president following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage.  Finally, and tragically, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson became president following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.


These eight transfers of power by operation of the Presidential Succession Clause illustrate the strengths and drawbacks of this clause.  The strength was that the clause worked, and thanks to a combination of adherence to its verbiage and to the precedents set in 1841 by President Tyler, it succeeded in allowing for clear and peaceful transfers of power to vice presidents following the deaths of these eight presidents.  The drawbacks, however, had also become clear, including most importantly the fact that it provided no mechanism for a clear, temporary transfer of power during the pendency of a presidential incapacitation.