Lesson Plan - Get It!
- What happens if the President of the United States is no longer able to serve?
This was a question the country did not need to even consider for nearly 65 years.
By 1841, the United States was becoming an industrialized nation and President William Henry Harrison planned to position the country to capitalize on this new age.
To learn how his hopes of leading the nation were cut short, watch William Henry Harrison: America's briefest President from
- What was the nation supposed to do?
U.S. Constitution Article 2, 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.
After Harrison died, Congress went to this clause in the Constitution to determine what the framers wanted to happen.
- When you read it, does a plan of action seem clear to you?
- What does same mean in this context? The duties of the president or of the office itself?
The original interpretation at the time was that Vice President John Tyler should act as president with help from the cabinet advisors until there was another election in four years.
However, Tyler convinced Congress to let him take the Oath of Office and become the next full-fledged President of the United States, arguing he could lead much more effectively that way.
From this point onward, it seemed that the ambiguity in this clause of the Constitution had been solved.
- Everything was solved, right?
After John Tyler, other vice presidents followed his lead, and this easy system kept order whenever a president died.
- But what if the president didn't die but could no longer serve effectively?
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke that made him completely unfit for office.
- So what did the country do?
Watch a portion of Woodrow Wilson's Stroke, from The History Guy: History Deserves to Be Remembered:
Wilson and his wife kept it entirely secret!
Over his remaining 17 months in office, the cabinet rarely saw him, and he only slightly recovered.
Without any procedure for this, the vice president and the cabinet were powerless. All they could do was request to see the president and recommend that he step down.
This situation never happened again after Wilson; however, the concern remained that the U.S. government was powerless to remove a sitting president over incapacity concerns.
Line of Succession
A line of succession simply means the order in which a position is filled.
In the United States, the line of succession to the presidency is based on seniority. First, it is the vice president followed by the speaker of the House and then the president pro tempore of the Senate.
Image by Cecil W. Stoughton, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.
In 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Congress saw a major flaw in the current system and decided it had to be fixed.
Watch this short clip from U.S. Presidential Line of Succession, from UsefulCharts, to see if you can spot the concern:
When a vice president ascended to the presidency, there was no procedure to add a new vice president.
This meant that, if anything happened to the new president, the office could be led by the speaker of the house for years until the next scheduled election.
Many members of Congress knew Lyndon Johnson had chronic health problems. They also knew the current speaker of the House and president of the Senate were both over 70 years old.
This prompted Congress to try to fix all the issues inherent in this vague clause from the Constitution.
The 25th Amendment was passed and ratified, all during Lyndon Johnson's second term. It was passed in 1965 and ratified by the states in 1967.
Most of the amendments to the Constitution only contain one truly important section. However, all four sections of the 25th Amendment are extremely important:
- If the president dies, is removed, or resigns from office, the vice president becomes president.
- Vice presidents who ascend to the presidency will nominate a new vice president whose confirmation will require a majority vote from the House and the Senate.
- The president can make the vice president acting president by sending a letter to Congress saying he will not be able to serve and can regain power by sending another letter stating he is able to serve.
- If the vice president and a majority of the cabinet believe the president is unfit to serve, the president is removed from office, and the vice president becomes President of the United States.
Compare this to the original clause in the Constitution.
- Doesn't it seem much more detailed?
The 25th Amendment covers every possible instance in which the president would no longer be able to govern effectively.
Continue on to the Got It? section to connect these clauses with the historical events discussed so far in this lesson.