Twenty-fifth Amendment

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Twenty-fifth Amendment

Section 1.

In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.

Section 2.

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.

Section 3.

Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate 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.

Section 4.

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit 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, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments 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, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

The Constitution anticipated many of the problems that would face the United States, but it did not spell out exactly what should happen if a president had to leave office in the middle of his term, either permanently or temporarily. For almost 200 years, questions about presidential succession were answered on an as needed basis by the administration in office. Though the need for rules specifying the process of presidential succession were evident when President George Washington fell gravely ill during his first term in office, the Twenty-fifth Amendment was not added to the Constitution until 1967.

The basic goal of the Twenty-fifth Amendment is to ensure the smooth transition of power from a president leaving office mid-term to another who will assume his position. A president may leave office for a variety of reasons. The Twenty-fifth Amendment’s four sections establish rules for the various reasons that a government might need to replace the president.

The first section states that when a president dies in office, resigns, or is impeached that the vice president will become the president for the remainder of the departing president’s term of office. The second section details how the president may fill a vice president’s vacant office. These rules were clearly needed. By the year 2000, nine of the forty-two presidents, and eighteen of the forty-five vice presidents, did not complete their terms of office.

Sections three and four of the Twenty-fifth Amendment ensure that the presidency does not remain vacant when the president is temporarily unable to perform the responsibilities of office. Section three allows a president to declare himself temporarily unable to function as president and to indicate that his responsibilities will be assumed by the vice president for a period of time. This section has been used by modern presidents for short periods of time, such as during surgeries when a president was under general anesthesia. Section four ensures that the United States will not have to be ruled by a disabled president who refuses to step aside. Under section four, the vice president and a body of people appointed by Congress may declare a president unfit to serve, perhaps even against his will.

In total, the four sections of the Twenty-fifth Amendment provide the clear guidelines for presidential succession that were missing from the Constitution. While the amendment seems fairly specific, presidents have been reluctant to use the third section. The perception that the president is healthy and vigorous is an integral part of the public’s trust in his abilities—a trust presidents have been hesitant to test, even when their own health seemingly demanded it.

Ratification Facts


Submitted by Congress to the states on July 6, 1965.


Ratified by the required three-fourths of states (thirty-eight of fifty) on February 10, 1967, and by nine more states on May 25, 1967. Declared to be part of the Constitution on February 23, 1967.

Ratifying States:

Nebraska, July 12, 1965; Wisconsin, July 13, 1965; Oklahoma, July 16, 1965; Massachusetts, August 9, 1965; Pennsylvania, August 18, 1965; Kentucky, September 15, 1965; Arizona, September 22, 1965; Michigan, October 5, 1965; Indiana, October 20, 1965; California, October 21, 1965; Arkansas, November 4, 1965; New Jersey, November 29, 1965; Delaware, December 7, 1965; Utah, January 17, 1966; West Virginia, January 20, 1966; Maine, January 24, 1966; Rhode Island, January 28, 1966; Colorado, February 3, 1966; New Mexico, February 3, 1966; Kansas, February 8, 1966; Vermont, February 10, 1966; Alaska, February 18, 1966; Idaho, March 2, 1966; Hawaii, March 3, 1966; Virginia, March 8, 1966; Mississippi, March 10, 1966; New York, March 14, 1966; Maryland, March 23, 1966; Missouri, March 30, 1966; New Hampshire, June 13, 1966; Louisiana, July 5, 1966; Tennessee, January 12, 1967; Wyoming, January 25, 1967; Washington, January 26, 1967; Iowa, January 26, 1967; Oregon, February 2, 1967; Minnesota, February 10, 1967; Nevada, February 10, 1967.

What Happens when the President Cannot Perform His Job

The original Constitution did not set clear guidelines for this important political transition in the event that the president was unable to complete his term in office.. It took the Twenty-fifth Amendment, passed in 1967, to address this omission. The framers of the Constitution gave little thought to presidential succession and disability during the Federal Convention of 1787, but the issue soon proved to be important.

In 1789, during his first term in office, President George Washington fell ill with a persistent fever and a painful tumor on his leg. The tumor had to be surgically removed. (Washington was alert during the surgery because it was performed without anesthesia, which was not invented until the 1840s.) Washington quickly regained his health after the surgery, but later the next year he caught a cold that progressed to a near fatal sickness.

These two episodes of presidential illness caused Vice President John Adams much worry about his own position in the government. Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution declared that “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 [pass] on the Vice President.” The same article gave Congress the power to determine a successor if both the president and vice president could not serve.

But questions lingered regarding who would decide the president’s ability to discharge the powers and duties of his office. In the case of the president’s inability, would the vice president become the president, or just act in his place? The Constitution did not provide clear answers about how to replace temporarily a disabled president. Adams voiced his concerns to the Senate in 1789, saying “In esse I am nothing, but in posse I may be everything.” Essentially, this means “In this office I am nothing, but I may be everything.” (“In posse” means not in actuality but in possibility. In other words, Adams was stating that the position of vice president is not full of responsibility and power, but it has the potential of becoming so.)

The changing vice presidency

The federal government is organized a bit differently in the early 2000s than when John Adams wondered about his duties if the president became disabled. Until the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, the vice president was the candidate who came in second in the electoral college voting. He was not a person who campaigned with the presidential candidate, as was the case subsequently. Many times, the president and vice president were political rivals.

After 1804, a vice presidential candidate was often chosen as a running mate, not because he would make a strong president if the president could not fulfill his term, but because he might win votes in an area in which the presidential candidate could not. The vice presidential candidate would “balance the ticket,” or broaden the appeal of the presidential candidate to more voters.

Though not necessarily rivals, the vice president and president might have very different views on government. Vice presidents were rarely included in the president’s inner circle of advisers and had little to do with running the executive office. When the president toured the country or was not in the office to take care of mandatory issues, the president would often leave cabinet members to fulfill his tasks, not the vice president. It was only in the twentieth century that the vice presidency was filled by a person with whom the president would want to confer.

Shortly after George Washington’s illnesses, Congress considered the issues of presidential and vice presidential succession. In 1792, Congress passed the Succession Law that detailed the line of succession from the president, to the vice president, to the president pro tempore of the Senate, and to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. This law left the government vulnerable, however. Congress did not convene until December of the year after elections. Because of this calendar, the country risked being without a president or vice president if both offices became vacant when Congress was between sessions.

The Tyler precedent

In 1841, President William Henry Harrison became the first president to leave office mid-term. At sixty-eight, Harrison was the oldest man elected to the presidency (a record he held until the election of the seventy-year-old Ronald Reagan in 1981). Eager to prove himself a strong, common man, President Harrison refused to let a driving rain cancel his inaugural speech. During his first few weeks in office, Harrison braved bitter weather as he walked to town to buy his own groceries. He soon caught a cold that quickly turned into pneumonia. Four weeks after his inauguration, President Harrison was dead.

Upon his death, Harrison’s vice president, John Tyler, set a precedent (standard) that would be copied until it became section one of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Tyler became the president. He insisted that the Constitution meant for the vice president to assume the presidency in the case of death. Tyler did not accept the former president’s cabinet members’ pleas to become a passive acting president. Tyler had very different ideas about governing than Harrison, and, for the remainder of Harrison’s term, Tyler fought with Congress by vetoing legislation he thought expanded the authority of the federal government too much.

Harrison’s death and the problems of Tyler’s performance convinced the Whig Party that they should be more careful the next time they selected a vice president. Tyler had infuriated the Whig Party by opposing their agenda after he assumed the presidency.

In 1848, General Zachary Taylor became president. Much like Harrison before him, Taylor was chosen by the Whig Party as a man who would stand behind the party’s political agenda. But this time, the Whigs chose a strong supporter of the party’s agenda as the vice president, Millard Fillmore. When President Taylor died of a stroke on July 9, 1850, Fillmore followed Tyler’s precedent of assuming the presidency. But, unlike Tyler, Fillmore cooperated with the Whig leadership and Taylor’s cabinet members for the remainder of his term. Fillmore’s positive experience in government helped the Tyler precedent gain validity. But, unlike Tyler, Fillmore cooperated with the Whig leadership and Taylor’s cabinet members for the remainder of his term. Fillmore’s positive experience in government helped the Tyler precedent gain validity.

Presidential Death and the Succession Law of 1792

Following the assassination of James A. Garfield in 1881, the nation began to debate whether the rules governing the transition of executive power were clear enough. When Garfield campaigned in 1880, there was a deep divide in the Republican Party between Stalwarts and Mugwumps. Stalwarts were people comfortable with the spoils system historically used by the Republicans. Mugwumps were those who wanted to make governmental appointments fairer. Generally, Stalwarts used civil offices as rewards for party faithfuls, but Mugwumps despised this practice and pushed for civil-service reform.

Garfield was a Mugwump who ran with a Stalwart, Chester A. Arthur. Arthur was known as the “Gentleman Boss,” because of the corruption he presided over as the collector of customs of the Port of New York. The Mugwumps who elected Garfield worried that little reform could really happen with a Stalwart in the vice presidency.

The Mugwumps’ worst fears were realized when President Garfield was shot by an assassin as he was trying to catch a train in 1881. An angry mob subdued assassin Charles A. Guiteau, who shouted “I am a Stalwart and Arthur is President!” The need for clear rules of transition between a president and a vice president became especially evident as Garfield lingered for twelve days before dying. Unlike President Abraham Lincoln who died quickly after he was shot sixteen years earlier, Garfield seemed as though he might recover. Not wanting to appear eager to take the president’s place, Arthur stayed out of Washington until the president died. The nation was left without clear leadership for twelve days while doctors searched Garfield’s body for the bullet. Garfield died of an infection caused by the doctors’ attempts to save him.

As soon as Garfield died, Arthur knew exactly what to do: he assumed the presidency. Surprisingly, as president, Arthur soon reversed his political leanings and won Mugwump praise for supporting civil-service reform. While in office, Arthur’s health began to fail him. He suffered from a kidney disease called Bright’s disease. Although this condition sapped the president’s energy and eventually caused him to suffer bouts of depression, Arthur refused to disclose his condition to the public and completed his term as president. He had hidden his symptoms so well that his death a year after leaving office shocked many.

Reconsidering the Succession Law

The deaths of presidents and vice presidents concerned many legal scholars. Within the same two decades that Lincoln and Garfield were assassinated, for example, two vice presidents also died. During the second term of Ulysses S. Grant, vice president Henry Wilson died on November 22, 1875, twelve days after suffering a stroke. The president after Arthur, Grover Cleveland, also lost his vice president: Thomas Hendricks died of a stroke on November 25, 1885. Cleveland did not replace him for most of his first term. The problem was that if the vice president died and the Congress had not yet selected its presiding officers (the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the president pro tempore of the Senate), the nation would only have one top official in office. Should that top official die, it was unclear who would lead the country.

To address concerns about presidential succession, Congress passed new legislation in 1886 which made the line of succession run from the president and vice president down through the cabinet members in the order in which the executive departments they represented had been created. Creators of the law felt it better preserved the separation of powers between the legislative branch and the executive branch than the Succession Law of 1792. In addition, cabinet members were more likely than the leaders of the House or Senate to support the departing president’s policies.

This line of succession pertained to the executive branch until 1947 when Harry S. Truman assumed the presidency after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Shocked by the enormous change in responsibilities of his new office, Truman believed that presidential succession should remain with elected officials. He argued for a new law that looked very much like the Succession Law of 1792. The new statute placed cabinet members after the speaker of the house and the president pro tempore of the Senate in the line of succession. It remains the law of the land into the twenty-first century. The law ensured the country would never be without a leader. But it did not address the process by which the transition of power would take place, nor did it encompass presidential disability.

Concealing Presidential Illness

Historically, presidents have tried to conceal their health problems from the public. Presenting themselves as vigorous, strong men created a public sense of security in their leadership abilities, a sense of security that presidents want to reinforce.

In 1893, President Grover Cleveland went to extremes to conceal his illness from the public. Cleveland needed an operation to rid his body of cancer, so he announced that he was going on a yacht trip around Long Island Sound. Secretly, part of the yacht was transformed into a floating operating room where doctors removed cancer from Cleveland’s mouth. Though one newspaper learned of the story, no one would confirm it. Only the president’s doctors, his family, and close friends were certain of the president’s cancer. They did not disclose any information about the operation until 1908, nine years after the president’s death.

Over the years, health has become an even more important facet of the presidency. As the United States developed into a powerful nation, the responsibilities and demands of the presidency grew too. Once almost a part-time position, the presidency evolved into a physically and emotionally challenging job. The public is keenly interested in the president’s ability to work under such demanding conditions.

Presidential Disability

The first president to become observably disabled in office was Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a tough man. He led the country through World War I (1914-18) and was the first American president to travel abroad on official business when he helped to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

Even though he was suffering from influenza and severe headaches, Wilson mounted an intense campaign to persuade Congress to ratify the treaty. Wilson planned a rail journey to deliver several speeches a day for twenty-seven days. But the trip proved too much for him. It was canceled on September 26 when Wilson lost movement on the left side of his body. As he was regaining the movement in his left arm and leg, he suffered a stroke on October 2, 1919. The White House did not offer specific reassurances about the president’s health. The public worried that their president had “gone insane and was being kept prisoner in the White House,” according to R. B. Bernstein.

Secretary of State Robert Lansing wanted to have the president declared incapacitated and have the vice president act as president. The legislators looked to the Constitution for guidance but found it lacking. Wilson’s doctor refused to declare Wilson unable to perform the duties of his office. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall did not want to declare himself acting president because he did not know what would happen if Wilson became able to assume his duties.

Lansing was uncertain about what to do without the leadership of the president, and he was unable to convince Marshall to act as president. Between October 1919 and February 1920, Lansing held cabinet meetings without the president and sometimes without the vice president,. The only link to the president during this time was Mrs. Wilson, who was rumored to be running the country during Wilson’s illness. On February 7, 1920, President Wilson wrote a punishing letter to Lansing stating that only the president could convene cabinet members under constitutional law. Wilson asked for Lansing’s resignation and Lansing complied.

The public was astonished by the news of Lansing’s departure. Rumors continued to dwell on state of the president’s mental health. Some members of Congress proposed procedures for determining presidential disability but secured no action on the issue. Wilson did call cabinet meetings after April 13, 1920, but he never fully regained his health for the rest of his term as president.

Physically challenged but sharp of mind

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (commonly called FDR) was the first president confined to a wheelchair. Stricken with polio, the president could not stand without help. But many never knew of the president’s disability. The national press corps only released photographs showing the president as the picture of health: portraits or cropped pictures of him standing without his aides.

FDR was a charismatic speaker who inspired many during some of the most difficult times the country had ever faced: the Great Depression (1929–41), and World War II (1941–45). Even though he suffered many severe health problems during his terms, the press corps’ “splendid deception,” as Roosevelt’s biographers called it, helped FDR remain in the presidency for an unprecedented four terms.

Presidential recognition of the dangers of presidential disability

Dwight D. Eisenhower was sixty-three years old and had a heart condition when he was elected president of the United States in 1953. In office, Eisenhower suffered three major health problems that threatened his ability to perform his duties of office. On September 23, 1955, he had a kind of heart attack called a coronary thrombosis. He remained hospitalized until November 11. He required surgery on his small intestine in 1956, which affected his workload for nearly one month. On November 25, 1957, he suffered a stroke that affected his speech and interrupted his normal schedule until December 3.

During each of Eisenhower’s recuperation periods, vice president Richard M. Nixon took over presidential duties. After the first three incidents, Eisenhower became keenly aware that he might become unable to fulfill his duties as president. Even though he did not personally like Nixon, Eisenhower—with the help of attorney general and close friend Herbert Brownell—drafted agreements with Nixon for use if Eisenhower became disabled. These agreements became the foundation for the future Twenty-fifth Amendment (see sidebar) .

Eisenhower-Nixon Agreement

Having suffered three debilitating illnesses in office by 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted to create rules for the smooth transition of executive power should he suffer another health crisis. Eisenhower, attorney general Herbert Brownell, and vice president Richard M. Nixon drafted the foundation of the Twenty-fifth Amendment when they created letters of agreement between the presidency and the vice presidency in the late 1950s. The letters of agreement detailed the procedures to be followed in case of presidential disability. The following letter was publicized on March 3, 1958. It was used by future administrations and by the creators of the Twenty-fifth Amendment:

(1) In the event of inability the President would—if possible—so inform the Vice President, and the Vice President would serve as Acting President, exercising the powers and duties of the office until the inability had passed.

(2) In the event of an inability which would prevent the President from so communicating with the Vice President, the Vice President, after such consultation as seems to him appropriate under the circumstances, would decide upon the devolution of the powers and duties of the Office and would serve as Acting President until the inability had ended.

(3) The President, in either event, would determine when the inability had ended and at that time would resume the full exercise of the powers and duties of the Office.

Near the end of his second term, Eisenhower ordered Brownell to explore the possibility of turning the letters of agreement into law or a constitutional amendment. Brownell found that the Constitution did not adequately provide for issues such as 1) the Tyler precedent when a vice president assumed the presidency; 2) how the vice presidency should be filled when vacant; and 3) the procedures to determine and respond to presidential disability. When Congress began considering the Twenty-fifth Amendment in 1963, it used much of Brownell’s research.

Crafting the Twenty-fifth Amendment

In 1963, the Senate Judiciary Committee began debating issues of presidential succession and disability as a possible amendment to the Constitution. At the time, John F. Kennedy, the youngest person ever elected president, had recently been assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. Kennedy’s successor was the fifty-five year old, chain-smoking Lyndon B. Johnson. He had suffered a severe heart attack in the 1950s and was rumored to have suffered another upon news of Kennedy’s death. Next in line for the presidency were a seventy-four-year old speaker of the house, and an eighty-six-year old president pro tempore of the Senate. The American public was openly concerned about the health of the federal leadership.

Senator Estes Kefauver began the debates about presidential succession and disability in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But shortly after he convinced the committee to begin the process of amending the Constitution, Kefauver died, and Senator Birch Bayh took over. Bayh spent the next two years drafting what would become the Twenty-fifth Amendment.

Debates quickly resolved that the Tyler precedent was valid. In case a president does not complete his term of office, the vice president becomes the president. Senators struggled to define rules to fill a vacant vice presidency. Finally, they agreed that the president should nominate a new vice president, and the House and Senate should confirm his decision.

The most difficult task in shaping the Twenty-fifth Amendment was defining the procedures for determining presidential disability. If the president identified his own disability, the procedure would be rather simple. But what if the president did not recognize his own disability? Who would have the authority to pronounce the president incapable of fulfilling his duties?

In the end, the task was given to the vice president and a majority of the president’s cabinet “or of such other body as Congress may by law provide.” It was done this way because congressmen reasoned that those people would best know how well the president was performing in office. The amendment included ways for the president to dispute the findings and gave the president the ultimate authority to decide the termination of the presidential disability.

When the amendment passed through Congress on July 6, 1965, state legislatures quickly ratified it. The Twenty-fifth Amendment was ratified by more than the required thirty-eight states by February 10, 1967.

Using the Twenty-Fifth Amendment

The Twenty-fifth Amendment was first invoked after the resignation of a corrupt vice president and president. In 1973, President Richard M. Nixon used the amendment to replace Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Agnew resigned from the vice presidency as part of a deal with federal prosecutors. They had a strong case for charging Agnew with bribery and tax evasion. He pled “no contest” to the charges on October 10, 1973. On October 12, Nixon nominated well-liked House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford to replace Agnew.

With the scandal of his vice president behind him, Nixon soon became caught up in the controversy surrounding the Watergate Affair. On June 17, 1972, there was a burglary of the National Committee at the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C. Investigations into the burglary implicated the Nixon administration. By 1974, Congress had begun impeachment hearings. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. Ford assumed the vacant presidency the same day. On August 20, Ford nominated New York governor Nelson A. Rockefeller for vice president. By December, both houses had confirmed the nomination. For the first time in U.S. history, the leaders of the country had not been elected to their positions by the American people.

The President Is Shot

The Twenty-fifth Amendment provided clear instructions for dealing with a circumstance that made the president temporarily unable to perform his duties. Yet these instructions did not consider the reluctance of the president’s staff to declare the president disabled.

The American public watched in horror as John Hinkley Jr. shot several times at Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. The president’s smile and wave quickly faded as gunshots rang out when he and his group of associates emerged from the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. The president, presidential press secretary James Brady, a Secret Service agent, and a local police officer took bullets before Hinkley was pinned to the ground. In less than five minutes, the president was at the hospital. He was operated on within an hour.

A panic raced through the nation, one that had not been felt since President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963. The White House staff was eager to reassure the public. They decided not to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment while Reagan was in the hospital, nor during the time of his recovery—even though the president was unconscious during his surgery and very weak afterwards. Reagan was nearly back to his regular schedule by June 1981. His doctor, Daniel Ruge, later told author Herbert L. Abrams that Reagan probably had not fully recovered until October. The country had been without a fully functioning leader for quite some time.

White House communications director David Gergen later explained why the Twenty-fifth Amendment was not invoked. “There is a very great reluctance to move on the Twenty-fifth. Everyone is hesitant because in effect you are expressing less than full confidence in your chief executive. There is an overwhelming urge to convey a serene view to the world,” as quoted in The President Has Been Shot.

At the time, Reagan’s doctor did not offer any help in deciding whether Reagan was disabled. While Dr. Ruge recalled being prepared to deal with a dead president, he was not prepared for the consequences of a disabled one. As quoted in The President Has Been Shot, Dr. Ruge noted: “if [the president] had had an injury like Brady’s which made him completely disabled, my role would have been clear. Probing into the relative degrees of competence is another matter.” In the end, the greatest concern remained keeping the American public calm, by reassuring them that the president would soon recover.

Several years after this incident, the White House staff and many of the doctors agreed that the Twenty-fifth Amendment should have been invoked. Senator Bayh criticized the administration. In The President Has Been Shot, he was quoted as saying: “This was a time for a good precedent to be set. There is a tenacious desire to hold on to presidential power and not to trust other people with it. I think the president botched it.”

Reagan did invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment later, however. In 1985, while having a growth removed from his intestine, Reagan turned the presidency over to Vice President George H. Bush for seven hours.


The Twenty-fifth Amendment clarifies the process of transferring executive power and provides guidance for presidential disability. It has also clarified the duties of the vice president, and, in turn, has increased the significance of that office. But the sections addressing presidential disability continue to trouble some legal scholars and some modern presidential administrations. The amendment spells out how to transfer power when the president is disabled, but does not address an underlying problem with presidential disability: a president’s reluctance to reveal weakness.

Historically, presidents have resisted admitting that they cannot perform their duties. Since the ratification of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, presidents have invoked it sparingly. Rather than use the amendment for every illness, the president and his staff carefully consider questions such as the matter of who will run the country if the Twenty-fifth amendment is not invoked. One question pertains to the vice president’s taking over temporarily, and how that might upset the daily routines established by the president. Another question pertains to the possible loss of public confidence if an ailing president returns to his office but may seem to be in a weakened condition.

These questions highlight the fact that the Twenty-fifth Amendment does not define disability. Each president is free to decide for himself. More recent presidents have continued to search for ways around invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment. In 1997, President Bill Clinton chose to undergo knee surgery with only a local anesthetic. This way, he could remain conscious and avoid presidential disability.

There are other possible problems concerning presidential disability in addition to the reluctance of presidents to use the amendment in cases of disability. Some legal experts worry about an instance in which a president disagrees about a disability with the vice president and cabinet. Sections three and four may be so difficult to follow that effective governing would be blocked. As of 2007, this situation had yet to occur. But by the early twenty-first century, the Twenty-fifth amendment had worked to ensure a more fluid transition of executive power if needed.



Abrams, Herbert L. “The President Has Been Shot”: Confusion, Disability, and the Twenty-fifth Amendment in the Aftermath of the Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan. New York: Norton, 1992.

Amar, Akhil Reed. America’s Constitution: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2005.

Bernstein, Richard B., with Jerome Agel. Amending America: If We Love the Constitution So Much, Why Do We Keep Trying to Change It? New York: Times Books, 1993.

Brands, H. W., ed. Woodrow Wilson. New York: Holt, 2003.

Cannon, Lou. Ronald Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Gilbert, Robert, ed. Managing Crisis: Presidential Disability and the Twenty-fifth Amendment. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.

Palmer, Kris E., ed. Constitutional Amendments, 1789 to the Present. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2000.


Bellamy, Calvin. “Presidential Disability: The Twenty-fifth Amendment: Still an Untried Tool.” Boston University Public Interest Law Journal 9 (2000).

Fortier, John C., and Norman J. Ornstein. “Presidential Succession and Congressional Leaders.” Catholic University Law Review53 (2004).

Raj, Kirath. “The President’s Mental Health.’ American Journal of Law and Medicine 31 (2005).

Web Sites

The Twenty-fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (accessed September 14, 2007).