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,9 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 is the presidential succession clause, establishing procedures for dealing with the death, disability, resignation or removal of the President.
At first the clause appears rather straightforward. It declares that the Vice President is next in the line of succession, and that Congress can, by law, establish the remaining line of succession. However, upon further inspection, there are a few important issues that are not clearly resolved.
The Convention originally provided that the president of the Senate (which had not yet been determined to be the Vice President) would replace the President in the case of death, disability, resignation or removal. In late August Gouvernor Morris suggested replacing the president of the Senate with the Chief Justice. In early September the Convention settled on the Vice President.
The first issue is whether the Vice President becomes the President in such cases, or whether the Vice President merely becomes the acting President. This issue is important because if the VP merely becomes the acting President, he would be a temporary placeholder while a new President is selected. In fact, the clause suggests that a special election for President be called in the case of the President’s death, disability, resignation or removal, rather than the automatic ascension of the VP to the office. James Madison actually insisted upon the possibility of a special election for the President at the Convention.
The other ambiguity of the clause had to do with the issue of the President’s “disability.” As John Dickinson noted at the Constitutional Convention, “what is the extent of the term ‘disability’ & who is to be the judge of it?” If the Congress can declare the President to be disabled, the Constitution’s separation of powers would be subverted by basically giving the Congress the power to choose the President.
Both ambiguities were resolved by the Twenty-Fifth amendment, with an assist from John Tyler. When President William Henry Harrison passed away in 1841, Tyler boldly claimed that he was not merely the VP acting as President, but was the President for the remainder of Harrison’s elected term. By doing so he prevented the possibility that an election would be called to establish a new President (Harrison passed away very early in his term, a result of contracting pneumonia at his unusually long Inaugural Address.)
Tyler was criticized for this action, but his precedent has stood the test of time. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, passed in 1967, codifies the Tyler precedent by stating that “the Vice President shall become President” if the President is removed from office, resigns, or passes away. However, in the case of presidential disability (formally communicated to the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate), the Vice President merely becomes “Acting President.”
Amendment XXV also cleared up the issue of presidential disability by creating a procedure for establishing the president’s disability. While the Tyler precedent helped ease the transition of power from President to VP in cases of death, resignation, or removal of the President, it also made VPs hesitate before assuming the presidency in the case of disability. This is because the Tyler precedent suggested that whenever a VP assumed the presidency, he became President in full, not just Acting President. Thus, if the President’s disability were cured, there would be a question whether the VP needed to revert back to his earlier position.
After President Garfield was shot in 1881, for example, he was incapacitated for eighty days, while his VP hesitated to assume the office in case Garfield would recover. The same issue occurred following Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919.
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment established a protocol for determining whether a disability existed, and how the President could be restored to power after the disability is gone. It allows the President to declare himself disabled, and to resume the office when he formally declares that the disability has ended.
In situations where the President is unable (or unwilling) to declare himself disabled, the Vice President, along with a majority of the cabinet, is authorized to declare the disability. If the President disagrees with the decision of the VP and the cabinet, Congress has to resolve the disagreement.
The succession of the chief executive of the country is, thankfully, an issue that has not caused great discord in American politics. But the Framers were well aware that succession to the chief executive power, which was usually the throne, was an issue that had fractured societies for centuries. As with so many other important constitutional questions, the Framers refused to allow these issues to be settled by appeals to the sword. Rather, they established a framework for such contentious issues to be resolved by law, rather than arbitrary force or will.