The U.S. Constitution’s 25th Amendment, enacted in the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy, provides the procedures for replacing the president or vice president in the event of death, removal, resignation, or incapacitation. Before this Amendment, the situation with presidential succession was dangerously unclear and open to precedents. Here’s a brief history behind the Amendment, followed by its full text.
[Adopted from an article first published on the National Constitution Center website]
Amendment XXV Presidential Disability and Succession
When the Constitution was written in 1787, the issue of who was to take the President’s place in case of death, disability or resignation was murky at best. It took until 1841 for John Tyler, the first Vice President to face the problem and settle the question—at least until the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967 and did so officially.
After William Henry Harrison died just a month after his own inauguration in April 1841, Tyler decided to take the oath to become President – and not to simply become the “Acting President” as some people suggested. The “Tyler precedent” held for eight instances until the 25th Amendment was ratified and confirmed that the Vice President indeed becomes President upon a sitting President’s death or removal from office.
But what happens when the offices of President and Vice President are vacant at the same time and no one can “discharge the powers and duties of the office of President?” Responsibility for deciding the line of succession was left to the First Congress. In 1791, a House committee suggested that Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, an anti-Federalist, be named as third-in-line to the White House, an idea opposed by the Federalists.
Instead, the Second Congress agreed in 1792 that the Senate President Pro Tempore, (the Senate president in the absence of the vice president,) followed by the Speaker of the House, would serve as Acting President until a disability was removed that prevented a President or Vice President from serving, or until a new election was held. (In that case in 1792, Richard Henry Lee and Jonathan Trumbull were next in line as Acting President.)
The original Presidential Succession Act had some problems, specifically related to the Constitution’s missing provision to name a replacement Vice President for when that office became vacant. (The 25th Amendment would later address that problem.)
In 1886, Congress and the Grover Cleveland administration pressed for changes in the Succession Act after Cleveland’s Vice President, Thomas Hendricks, had died. Nervous that Democrats would lose power in the case of President Cleveland’s death, they fought to give Cabinet members the line of succession. The 1886 plan made the Secretary of State third-in-line, and then other Cabinet members based on the tenure of their departments. Importantly, a special election wasn’t required to choose a new President.
After Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Harry Truman took office. Once President, he pressed for a return to the succession line from the 1792 act with one important difference: The House Speaker would be the third-in-line for the White House, followed by the Senate President Pro Tempore, thus flipping the order. Congress passed a revised version of this plan, which was signed by Truman and enacted on July 18, 1947. There would be no special election provision, and Cabinet officers, based on their department’s tenure, followed the House Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tempore in the line of succession. Anyone serving in the role of Acting President needed to resign the office they held that allowed them to serve as Acting President.
Full Text of Amendment XXV: Presidential Disability and Succession
Passed by Congress July 6, 1965. Ratified February 10, 1967. The 25th Amendment changed a portion of Article II, Section 1
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 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, 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.