The framework for electing a President and Vice-President every four years is spelled out in the Constitution. As originally adopted, the Constitution was not clear about certain aspects of succession to the Presidency in the event something happened to the elected President. The Framers were content to establish the office of Vice-President and to add the general provisions of Article II, section 1, clause 6: "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."
The Framers left unanswered questions concerning the status of a Vice-President in cases of removal, death, resignation, and inability, the meaning of the term "inability," and the means by which the beginning and ending of an inability should be determined. Because no event occurred to trigger the succession provision, these ambiguities were of no consequence during the first half century of our nation's existence. Although three Vice-Presidents died in office and another resigned, the presidency and vice-presidency never became vacant at the same time. If that eventuality had come to pass, the president pro tempore of the senate would have served as President under the provisions of a 1792 statute on presidential succession.
The ambiguities inherent in the succession provision surfaced in 1841 when President William Henry Harrison died in office. Despite protests that he had become only the "acting president," Vice-President john tyler assumed the office and title of President for the balance of Harrison's term. Tyler's claiming of the presidency, said john quincy adams, was "a construction in direct violation both of the grammar and context of the Constitution.…"
The precedent established by Tyler was followed twice within the next twenty-five years when Vice-Presidents millard fillmore and andrew johnson became President upon the deaths in office of Presidents zachary taylor and abraham lincoln. In 1881 the precedent became an obstacle to Vice-President chester a. arthur's acting as President during the eighty days that President james a. garfield hovered between life and death after being shot by an assassin. The view was strongly expressed at the time that if Arthur were to succeed to the presidency, then according to the Tyler precedent he would be President for the remainder of the presidential term regardless of whether Garfield recovered. Arthur made clear that he would not assume presidential responsibility lest he be labeled a usurper.
In the twentieth century the Tyler precedent was followed on the four occasions when Presidents died in office (william mckinley, warren g. harding, franklin d. roosevelt, and john f. kennedy.) Once again, however, it became an obstacle to a Vice-President's acting as President during the lengthy period woodrow wilson lay ill, unable to discharge the powers and duties of office. For the most part, presidential responsibility was assumed by the President's wife, doctor, and secretary.
Between 1955 and 1957 the lack of clarity in the succession provision was highlighted when President dwight d. eisenhower sustained a heart attack, an attack of ileitis, and a stroke. Efforts to have Congress address the question were unsuccessful, but important groundwork for reform was established. President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 became the catalyst for implementing that reform. Congress proposed and the states ratified the twenty-fifth amendment to the Constitution to resolve the major issues surrounding the subject of presidential succession. The amendment confirmed that the Vice-President becomes President for the remainder of the term in the case of death, removal, or resignation. In the case of an inability, the amendment provided that the Vice-President serves as acting President only for the duration of the inability. The amendment provided for two methods of establishing the existence of an inability. The President was authorized to declare his own inability and, in such event, its termination. For the case where the President does not or cannot declare his own inability, it empowered the Vice-President and a majority of the Cabinet to make the decision. If the President should dispute their determination, Congress decides the issue.
The amendment also established a mechanism for filling a vice-presidential vacancy: presidential nomination and confirmation by a majority of both houses of Congress. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment is supplemented by a statute on presidential succession adopted in 1947 which provided for the Speaker of the house of representatives to serve as President in the event of a double vacancy in the offices of President and Vice-President.
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment served the nation well in the 1970s when both a President and Vice-President resigned from office during the same presidential term. Twice Vice-Presidents were nominated by the President and confirmed by Congress. The first of those Vice-Presidents, gerald r. ford, became President of the United States upon the resignation of richard m. nixon on August 9, 1974. Ford's succession, as did the eight preceding successions of Vice-Presidents, took place in a manner that demonstrated the stability and continuity of government in the United States.
John D. Feerick
Bayh, Birch 1968 One Heartbeat Away. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Feerick, John D. 1965 From Failing Hands. New York: Fordham University Press.
——1976 The Twenty-Fifth Amendment. New York: Fordham University Press.