History and Current Order of US Presidential Succession

Brief History and Current System of US Presidential Succession

Lyndon B. Johnson sworn in on Air Force One
LBJ Sworn In On Air Force One. Keystone/Hulton Archive

The presidential line succession refers to the manner in which various federal government officials assume the office of President of the United States leaves office before an elected successor is inaugurated. Should the president die, resign or be removed from office by impeachment, the Vice President of the United States becomes president for the rest of the former president’s term. Should the vice president be unable to serve, the next official in the line of succession acts as president.

The US Congress has wrestled with the issue of presidential succession throughout the nation's history. Why? Well, between 1901 and 1974, five vice presidents have taken over the top office due to four presidential deaths and one resignation. In fact, between the years 1841 to 1975, more than one-third of all U.S. presidents have either died in office, resigned, or become disabled. Seven vice presidents have died in office and two have resigned resulting in a total of 37 years during which the office of vice president was completely vacant.

The Presidential Succession System

Our current method of presidential succession takes its authority from:

  • The 20th Amendment (Article II, Section 1, Clause 6)
  • The 25th Amendment
  • The Presidential Succession Law of 1947

President and Vice President

The 20th and 25th Amendments establish procedures and requirements for the vice president to assume the duties and powers of the president if the president becomes permanently or temporarily disabled.

In the event of the president's temporary disability, the vice president serves as president until the president recovers. The president may declare the beginning and end of his or her own disability. But, if the president is unable to communicate, the vice president and a majority of the president's Cabinet, or "...other body as Congress may by law provide..." may determine the president's state of disability.

Should the president's ability to serve be disputed, Congress decides. They must, within 21 days, and by a two-thirds vote of each chamber, determine whether the president is able to serve or not. Until they do, the vice president acts as president.

The 25th Amendment also provides a method for filling a vacated office of the vice president. The president must nominate a new vice president, who must be confirmed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Until ratification of the 25th Amendment, the Constitution provided that only the duties, rather than the actual title as president should be transferred to the vice president.

As originally adopted, the Constitution did not provide a method of filling such a vacancy. The position simply remained vacant until a new vice president took office after the next presidential election. Prior to the 25th Amendment, the vice presidency was unoccupied more than 20% of the time. One Vice President resigned, seven died in office, and eight took over for presidents who had died in office. 

This posed few problems until the mid-twentieth century when vice presidents began to function as a “deputy presidents” more often. The need to these problems became more immediate after Congress’s passed the 1947 Presidential Succession Act, which places the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate immediately behind the Vice President in line to assume the presidency, even if they were not members of the president’s political party. 

In October 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and President Richard Nixon nominated Gerald R. Ford to fill the office. in August 1974 President Nixon resigned, Vice President Ford became president and nominated Nelson Rockefeller as the new vice president. Although the circumstances that caused them were, shall we say, distasteful, the transfers of vice presidential power went smoothly and with little or no controversy.

Beyond the President and Vice President

The Presidential Succession Law of 1947 addressed the simultaneous disability of both the president and vice president. Under this law, here are the offices and current office holders who would become president should both the president and vice president be disabled. Remember, to assume the presidency, a person must also meet all the legal requirements to serve as president.

The order of presidential succession, along with the person who would currently become president, is as follows:

  1. Vice President of the United States 
  2. Speaker of the House of Representatives 
  3. President pro tempore of the Senate

Two months after succeeding Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, President Harry S. Truman suggested that the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate be moved ahead of Cabinet members in the line of succession in order to ensure that the president would never be able to appoint his potential successor. 

Both the Secretary of State and other Cabinet secretaries are appointed by the president with the approval of the Senate, while the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate are elected by the people. The members of the House of Representatives choose the Speaker of the House. Similarly, the President pro tempore is chosen by the Senate. While it is not a requirement, both the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore are traditionally members of the party holding the majority in their particular chamber. Congress approved the change and moved the Speaker and President pro tempore ahead of the Cabinet secretaries in the order of succession.

The secretaries of the president's Cabinet now fill out the balance of the order of presidential succession:

  • Secretary of State 
  • Secretary of the Treasury
  • Secretary of Defense
  • Attorney General
  • Secretary of the Interior
  • Secretary of Agriculture
  • Secretary of Commerce
  • Secretary of Labor
  • Secretary of Health & Human Services
  • Secretary of Housing & Urban Development
  • Secretary of Transportation
  • Secretary of Energy
  • Secretary of Education
  • Secretary of Veterans' Affairs
  • Secretary of Homeland Security

Presidents Who Assumed Office by Succession

Chester A. Arthur
Calvin Coolidge
Millard Fillmore
Gerald R. Ford *
Andrew Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson
Theodore Roosevelt
Harry S. Truman
John Tyler

* Gerald R. Ford assumed the office after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon. All others took office due to the death of their predecessor.

Presidents Who Served but Were Never Elected

Chester A. Arthur
Millard Fillmore
Gerald R. Ford
Andrew Johnson
John Tyler

Presidents Who Had No Vice President

Chester A. Arthur
Millard Fillmore
Andrew Johnson
John Tyler
* The 25th Amendment now requires presidents to nominate a new vice president.