Amendment Twenty to the Constitution was ratified on January 23, 1933. It changed the original calendar dates for the president and vice president’s terms from March 4 to January 20. For those in Congress, the calendar date was changed from March 4 to January 3, and a backup procedure for what to do if there is no president-elect was defined. The official text is written as such:
The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.
The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.
If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.
The Congress may by law provide for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the House of Representatives may choose a President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a Vice President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them.
Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.
At the time of its ratification, Article I of the Constitution asserted that Congress was expected to meet at least once a year. While Congress has the authority to choose whichever day this would be, the default provided by the Constitution was the first Monday of December. After the new Constitution was ratified, Congress set March 4, 1789 as the day when the new U.S. government would commence its operations. No calendar date for federal elections was specified in the Constitution, so Congress in 1792 set the day to take place within the time frame from November to early December. A single, uniform day was later selected in early November in 1845. For America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the four month delay worked as a grace period for the newly-elected leaders to settle their current affairs, and for some to prepare for a long-term move to their new jobs. The prevailing setback for having a four-month delay between the November elections and the March inauguration period was the inability to take action in times of crisis. Both Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 and that of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 were faced with two major national crises: the beginning of the American Civil War, and the Great Depression. Even with both their promises to their constituents to respond to the looming troubles, neither were legally allowed to intervene for four months after their elections. In March 1932, Congress proposed an amendment to revise the timing for political inaugurations, accompanied by a collection of additional political revisions. Less than a year after its proposal, the Twentieth Amendment was adopted by the required thirty-six out of the then forty-eight states in January 1933.
In addition to the key changes to the waiting period between election and inauguration, the Twentieth Amendment determined that if the president-elect dies or is otherwise incapacitated before they are inaugurated, the vice president-elect takes up the now vacant role and serves for the full four-year term. If there is no president-elect before Inauguration Day, the Twentieth Amendment allows the vice president-elect to act in that role until a new one can be appointed by Congress. The Congressional authority to select a president and vice president is divided respectively between the House of Representatives and the Senate. While Congress has never had to enact this statute, this segment of the Twentieth Amendment was designed to eliminate any possibility of a constitutional succession crisis, such as those faced in the elections of 1800 and 1876. The Twentieth Amendment’s provisions were each set to take place at different times after it was ratified, making the 74th Congress the first one to use the new calendar dates for inauguration on January 3, 1935. In a coincidental incident regarding the new provisions for succession, president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was targeted for assassination on February 15, 1933. Although the new date for presidential inauguration would not take effect until October 15, the Twentieth Amendment would have had Roosevelt’s vice president-elect become the president if Roosevelt was killed or incapacitated in the attack. In the face of the rapidly-changing world of the early 20th century, fast-paced government action in response to crises necessitated equally-swift changes of power from one administration to the next. The Twentieth Amendment confirmed and addressed this need, and in so doing streamlined the time for one set of newly-elected American leaders to ascend to their positions.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum