Amendment Twenty-five to the Constitution was ratified on February 10, 1967. It established and explained the complete order of presidential succession, as well as a series of contingency plans to fill any executive vacancies. The official text is written as such:
In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
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.
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.
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.
According to Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, the “powers and duties” of the president are given to the vice president in case of the former’s removal from office. While the line of succession from president to vice president is clearly implied and understandable in context, the question of what exactly “devolves” to the latter is not explained further. The lack of a detailed explanation of the presidential powers being transferred led to a series of succession disputes. In response to the sudden death of President William Henry Harrison in 1841, John Tyler became the first Vice President in U.S. history to fill a vacant presidency. Rather than only taking up the “powers and duties” of the vacant presidency, Tyler insisted that he was now the President of the United States. Being the first time such a scenario took place in the young American republic, many sitting Congress members opposed and disputed Tyler’s ascension, some arguing that he had misused the Presidential Succession Clause. Tyler would go on to serve as president for a full term as the 10th President, and the precedent he established of a vice president fully becoming the vice president would repeat itself in several future presidencies throughout the 19th to 20th centuries.
Furthermore, the Constitution had no specific outline of what would happen if the office of vice president had a vacancy. Aside from eight vice presidents taking the place of their respective presidents throughout American history, the office of vice president was left vacant sixteen times up to 1967. Through the late 18th and 19th centuries, vacant vice presidencies were generally not seen as a politically dangerous, nor pertinent, issue that necessitated swift remediation. With the outbreak of the Cold War in the mid 20th century, the need for both a president and vice president serving simultaneously became apparent. In an era where political, military, and social tensions constantly veered on the edge, the question of what would happen if the president was explicitly incapacitated, or even died, loomed in Congress. During the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower in the late 1950s, he made an effort to keep Congress and the public updated on his physical and mental health. Further, Eisenhower signed an unofficial agreement with his vice president – future President Richard Nixon – that he would take up the presidency if he was unable to continue his work, for whatever the reason may be. It was ultimately the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 which finally pushed Congress to create a detailed, specific, and unambiguous outline of executive succession. After over six months of negotiations between the House of Representatives and the Senate, an amendment proposing a new series of executive succession was released to the states for ratification in July 1965. In February 1967, the required thirty-eight states had ratified the proposal, officially making it the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
Upon its ratification in 1967, the Twenty-fifth Amendment reaffirmed several of the precedents set by previous presidents and vice presidents in response to their own succession crises. Section 1 authorizes the vice president to become the president upon the former’s removal from office, resignation, or death. Section 2 further requires the president to nominate a politician who can replace the vice president when necessary. This was invoked for the first time with Gerald Ford replacing Vice President Spiro Agnew after his resignation in 1973. Using the precedent set by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Section 3 grants presidents the authority to temporarily transfer the power of their office to the vice president. The president can accordingly petition to have their powers restored after the interval concludes. In the complex and unique scenario where a president is considered to be unable to do their job but does not want to step down, Section 4 authorizes the vice president and a majority of the president’s cabinet or Congress to decide if the president is unable to perform their duties. Should the group have a majority opinion of “yes,” then the president’s powers are automatically transferred to the vice president. In response, the president can announce that they are able to resume their leadership role, after which the voting group has four full days to disagree, otherwise the president’s powers are fully restored when the time elapses. If the voting group disagrees with the president’s assertion, then they conduct a quick vote in Congress to decide if the president is unable to serve. With all its explanations of procedure, the Twenty-fifth Amendment managed to clear up the succession ambiguities that had persisted in the Executive Branch since the end of the 18th century.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum