Amendment XXV, Section 1:
In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
The 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967 to clarify the Presidential line of succession established in Article II of the Constitution. For the sake of national security, and to avoid the turmoil of contested authority – with which the Founders were familiar after a revolutionary war – the new nation established a clear, indisputable contingency plan in the case of a Presidential death, resignation, or removal from office.
This provision in the Constitution points to the underlying idea that America’s destiny does not live or die with one person or one leader, but that she is always ready to continue thriving, even in the face of a national tragedy or crisis.
Fully nine U.S. Vice Presidents have come to the office of President in this way – eight because of the death of a President. One occasion, the resignation of President Richard Nixon, resulted in Vice President Gerald Ford taking the office of President in 1974. This has also been the only such occasion (of a Vice President ascending to the office of President) that occurred after the ratification of Amendment XXV.
Previous to this Amendment, the nation looked to Article II, Clause 6 for guidance. This clause states that in case of a Presidential disqualification or death, the “powers and duties” of the President will devolve to the Vice President. However, the language of this clause left unclear whether the Vice President would indeed become the next President, or if he would simply execute the duties of the office until a new President could be elected.
Precedent resolved this controversy, when the first Presidential death occurred in 1841. President William Henry Harrison died in office, and Vice President John Tyler took the oath of office to succeed him as President.
Amendment XXV finally clarified in supreme Constitutional law that the successor to the office of President would indeed become President, not simply become “acting President.”
Because they are established as first in line for succession, the Vice Presidents of the United States are subject to the same eligibility requirements as Presidents. According to Article II of the Constitution, these requirements are that the person be a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and have spent at least 14 years residing in the U.S.
The Constitution gives Congress the authority to further define the line of succession. The Presidential Line of Succession Act of 1947 established that the next successors would be the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, followed by the members of the Presidential Cabinet in order of their department’s establishment.
The 25th Amendment – along with Article II of the Constitution and the Presidential Line of Succession Act – make provision for the United States to have continuous leadership, even in the event of the disqualification or death of the national leader. This important establishment, in law, is meant to guarantee a peaceful and seamless transition.
So far in our history, although the occasions have been rare, this part of our government’s structure has provided new leadership in the face of national tragedy and hardship. This clearly serves to underscore the American idea that the future of our nation is not in the hands of one man or one executive, but that as a people we’ve consented to the leadership of duly elected and vetted leaders, as designed by the Constitution.
Hadley Heath is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.
June 5, 2012