To maintain a stable democracy it is important to have a clear succession procedure in the event of the death of the president. (Left: President William Henry Harrison, first President to die in office.) This also applies to a resignation or removal from office (impeachment). When these types of events occur it is usually a time of confusion and vulnerability for the government.
Again let’s look at what the Constitution of the United States laid out for these contingencies. Keep in mind that this is what was in the original Constitution. Amendments were made later to clarify presidential succession. I will discuss those later on.
Article II, Section 1 states:
“In the case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or in ability 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 section did not clearly state that the Vice President automatically became President on the death, removal from office, or resignation of the President. In fact it seems to say that the Vice President would only be an “acting” President until they could elect a new President. Very much subject to interpretation.
The first test of this took place when President William Henry Harrison died one month after taking office in 1841. His Vice President John Tyler was not liked and when he took it upon himself to take the “Oath of Office”, there was confusion and great controversy. Many in the Congress attempted to nullify the oath taking and appoint their own choice for President. Finally a vote in the House of Representatives confirmed him as President and his presidency was formally recognized.
What this did was effectively set a precedent in law. Constitutionally it was still foggy and should someone mount a serious challenge to a succession in the future it might succeed.
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution modified Article II, Section 1, but this was not ratified until February 23, 1967. After President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 lawmakers realized that a clearer succession procedure was needed to avoid any future confusion or doubt as to who the new President would be.
Amendment XXV, Section 1 states:
“In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.”
As you can see this is very clear. Further, it built in another safeguard by filling the vacant Vice Presidency that occurs when he succeeds to the Presidency. In some cases the office of Vice President has been vacant for almost four years. Examples of this are when President Harrison died one month into his term, Tyler served virtually an entire term without a Vice President. (Right: John Tyler, first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency.) Then when President Franklin Roosevelt died a few months into his fourth term, Harry Truman served FDR’s remaining term (almost four years) without a Vice President. Fortunately nothing happened to either President, but certainly some uncertainty would likely have occurred when the Speaker of the House succeeded, for he would be the next in line. This eventuality was covered off by Amendment XXV, Section 2 which states:
“Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”
The first time this provision was used was December 1973. President Richard Nixon appointed Rep. Gerald Ford as Vice President when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in scandal. Subsequent to that Ford succeeded to the Presidency after Nixon’s resignation to avoid likely impeachment. He then appointed Nelson Rockefeller to be his Vice President. The Congress ratified the appointments in both cases. (Left: Gerald Ford, first to be appointed Vice President under Amendment XXV.)
Finally there has always been confusion about what happens if a President becomes incapacitated and can’t discharge his duties. The primary point of contention has been at what point is he unable to do that and who decides that an “acting” President is needed.
Section 3 of the Amendment states:
“Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate (the Vice President) and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.”
Several examples of this have occurred where Presidents have had minor surgery that required general anesthetic. Vice Presidents have been “Acting President for several hours.
If the President is unable to resume his duties and can’t notify Congress himself the Amendment states:
“the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue”.
Then after a vote in Congress if it is agreed that the President is unable to function:
“the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President”
So for example if a President slipped into a coma, the Vice President would only be “Acting President”. Only on the President’s death would he officially become President.