The Presidential Line of Succession

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Podcast Transcript

Many movies and television shows have as their plot some disaster that eliminates the United States government. 

As a result, some low-level cabinet official becomes president, who then has to solve the crisis.

How accurate is such a scenario? What really would happen if multiple members of the executive branch were incapacitated? 

Learn more about the Presidential Line of Succession, its history, and what would happen if the unthinkable were to occur on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Most of what I will talk about in this episode is entirely theoretical. I can’t think of any real-world examples where an entire country had its leadership eliminated in one fell swoop. 

That being said, it is a problem that has to be considered because if something horrible did happen, and there wasn’t a contingency plan in place, it could completely destroy a political system. 

That being said, the issue of succession of a national leader is really only an issue in presidential systems. 

In a parliamentary system, replacing a leader can be done easily. 

All it takes is the majority party or coalition to take a vote, and you have a new prime minister. 

There are some issues regarding the short-term incapacitation of a prime minister. For example, when former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in intensive care for COVID, there was a question of who would act as Prime Minister. 

There is no equivalent of a vice president in most parliamentary systems. In the recent case in the UK, the prime minister appointed someone to take his place in cabinet meetings. 

Because it is so easy to replace a prime minister, these problems are only short-term problems. You would only need to worry about who would be in charge for a few hours until a new vote could take place.

In a presidential system, it is a completely different game. Presidents are elected by a vote on a set timetable. You can’t just organize a snap election that wasn’t scheduled. 

When the US constitution was written, they covered this eventuality with the office of vice president. I previously did an episode on the office of vice president. 

For all practical purposes, the vice president covers the issue of presidential succession. 

There have been nine times in US history when a president either died in office or resigned. In all eight cases, the vice president became president, and that was that.  

Here is the exact text in the original constitution regarding presidential succession:

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.

If you read it closely, it doesn’t say that the vice president becomes president. It says that the powers and duties of the president devolve to the president. It is a minor distinction, but it was an important one when it first became an issue. 

William Henry Harrison died in 1841 with John Tyler as his vice president, a lot of people only thought that Tyler would be acting president and not take the title of president. 

Tyler, figuring it was better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, immediately took the oath of office without any debate or advice.  It set a precedent every vice president who ascended to the presidency has followed, and the 25th amendment codified it. 

However, the constitution still says that congress can declare what official would act as president if the president and vice president were incapacitated. So what has congress done about that?

There have been three separate congressional acts in US history that covers the issue of presidential succession.

The first law was The Presidential Succession Act of 1792. 

The issue was first brought up in the first congress in 1790. 

There were many suggestions as to who should take over in the event that both the president and the vice president were removed. The President Pro Tempore and Speaker of the House were suggested, as were the Secretary of State and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. 

The political landscape at the time influenced the debate. Thomas Jefferson was the secretary of state, so Federalists didn’t want the Secretary of State to assume the position. 

Separation of powers issues were the primary objections to either the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, or the Chief Justice from assuming the position. 

However, in the second congress, the issue was picked up, and the President Pro Tempore and the Speaker were once again put into the line of succession, however, only in an acting capacity.

There was also a stipulation that a new election would be held to elect a new president. At the time, presidential electors were not elected by popular vote, so an election could be conducted much quicker than it probably could be today.

According to statute, the election would be held the next November whenever the vacancies occurred. The newly elected president would then serve a full four-year term, which would have totally reset the current four-year presidential election cycle. 

Such an election never took place, but because there was no constitutional mechanism to replace a vice president, the vice presidency was vacant every time a president died. In each of those cases, a special election would have been called had the new president died.

When President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881, there was a big problem. At the time of his death, the offices of President Pro Tempore and the Speaker of the House were both vacant. 

If something happened to the new president, Chester Arthur, nothing in the current legislation would cover this eventuality. 

In 1884, Grover Cleveland was elected president, and in 1885, his vice president, Thomas Hendricks, died in office after just eight months.

There was clearly a need to expand the succession list beyond the two leaders of congress.

The Presidential Succession Act of 1886 removed any members of the legislative branch and replaced them with the members of the cabinet in the order in which the cabinet departments were created. 

The order after the vice president now was: the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, Attorney General, Postmaster General, Secretary of the Navy, and then the Secretary of the Interior. 

Furthermore, cabinet members could only ascend to the presidency if they were eligible to be president, which means they needed to meet the age and citizenship requirements. 

This wasn’t the end of changes to the presidential line of succession. 

After Franklin Roosevelt died, Harry Truman requested several changes to the succession act. His biggest request was that the Senate Pro Tempore and the Speaker of the House both be reinserted into the succession list, but in reverse order, with the Speaker of the House being placed first. 

Truman’s logic was that elected officials should be placed higher on the list than appointed officials. 

The 1947 Presidential Succession Act made these changes and also added more cabinet departments. 

The 1947 Act is basically the law that currently governs succession today, with small modifications made when new cabinet departments were created. 

After the assassination of President John Kennedy, the issue of there not being a replacement for the vice president was addressed with the 25th amendment.

With this amendment, if there was a vacancy in the vice presidency, the president could appoint a new vice president subject to the approval of the Senate.

This has only happened once, with the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973 and the appointment of Gerald Ford as Vice President.

The 25th amendment also covered cases of temporary disablement of the president. This was addressed because of the stroke which disabled President Woodrow Wilson at the end of his administration. 

This was also an issue in 1955 when President Eisenhower had a heart attack. 

Having such a long line of succession was almost an entirely theoretical exercise. The odds of so many people dying all at once were astronomical. 

That all changed with the advent of nuclear weapons. 

Now there was a real threat of all of Washington being destroyed and many people on the succession list being killed in a single attack. 

This risk was especially poignant when all of the branches of government were assembled in one place, usually during a State of the Union address. 

A terrorist attack could wipe out almost the entire government at such an event.

This led to the notion of a designated survivor. 

At every such gathering since the 1950s, one person on the presidential succession list has been selected not to be in attendance at the State of the Union Address. 

This is almost always a cabinet official, but on occasion, the President Pro Tempore has not attended.

The designated survivor is usually a lower-ranking cabinet official, but pretty much every department has been represented at one time or another. 

The White House Chief of Staff usually selects the designated survivor.

The location of the designated survivor is always kept a secret, but they are usually located somewhere outside of Washington, and in some cases, they haven’t even been in the United States. 

They are given secret service protection for the short duration of the event, and there is some with the nuclear football standing by. 

Past designated survivors reported that they were usually at home and would often just have dinner during the State of the Union address. 

Since 2005, both houses of Congress have also appointed their own designated survivors. There are four members in total which are designated, two from each party from each house. 

The purpose of the congressional designated survivors is to rebuild congress and continue its traditions, and provide some sort of continuity with previous congresses.

There are still those who think that there needs to be a new succession act. The reason is that two people from the legislative branch are in the line of succession.

In the event that one party controls both houses of congress and another controls the presidency, it would be possible for congress to remove both the president and vice president and, in effect, have a legal coup d’état.

Likewise, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate is really just an honorary position and the holder is usually in their 80s or 90s. Senator Strom Thurman held the position when he was 98. 

There is also the issue of if it is even legal to have people from the legislative branch on the succession list due to the separation of powers. This law has never been tested in court, and in the event that it should ever need to be tested, it would probably be too late.

The entire issue of the line of succession beyond the vice president is probably theoretical. The odds of it ever being enacted are vanishingly small. 

However, it is necessary to have such contingency plans in place. If such an incident were to occur, it is far better to have a plan in place than it is to face it with no direction. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Gibbers in SC, over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Wow! What a great way to learn

Loving this podcast. Gary’s choice of topics and his approach to presenting them is brilliant. Having so much fun learning all sorts of things. Also very humbling in that having a graduate degree, traveled a good bit (not close to Gary’s level), and working at a national lab, I have always considered myself well learned. However, at 61, discovering I have so much left to learn and really know very little. What fun!

Thanks, Gibbers! You have figured out something that more people need to learn. That is that learning never ends. Too many people think that once you are done with school, your time of learning is over. Actually, it is only beginning. The big difference is that now you are own your own, and that stage of learning continues for your entire life. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.