Skip to main content

What Happens When the President Dies?

Thelma Raker Coffone is an award winning non-fiction writer. She enjoys sharing information about America's presidents and their families.


Constitution Was Vague on What Should Happen

All Americans know that when a president dies or can no longer serve in the role, the vice president assumes the duties of the office. However, history shows us the Constitution of the United States has not always been clear on this issue.

Circumstances That Questioned the Constitution's Wording

The first time questions arose about the proper succession was in 1841 upon the death of President William Henry Harrison after holding office for only one month. He has the unfortunate distinction of being the first president to pass away in office.

He developed a severe case of pneumonia after delivering the longest inaugural address in history. His oration lasted almost two hours while standing in a snowstorm without a coat.

Vice President John Tyler was ready to assume the office of the presidency, as dictated by the Constitution. Or so he thought!

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

One Word Creates Controversy

Surprisingly, the one word that created turmoil and confusion in Washington was "same." Did the gentlemen who drafted the Constitution in 1787 mean Tyler should take over the presidency or just perform the presidential functions without assuming the title? Many in Washington began referring to Tyler as "vice president acting as president."

When the president's cabinet informed Tyler they had to approve all of his decisions, he firmly replied they either agree with his full power as president or he would replace them. Needless to say, they agreed and Tyler became the 10th president. However, it was the start of a very tumultuous time between him and Congress, resembling present day politics!

The Tyler Precedent

The decision to acknowledge his presidency became known as the "Tyler Precedent." The following presidents assumed office while the ruling was in effect:



Millard Fiillmore

Zachary Taylor



Andrew Johnson

Abraham Lincoln



Chester A. Arthur

James Garfield



Theodore Roosevelt

William McKinley



Calvin Coolidge

Warren Harding



Harry Truman

Franklin Roosevelt



Lyndon B. Johnson

John F. Kennedy


In 1967, the 25th amendment was added to the Constitution to insure there would be no question when the need arises to replace the president. The wording is intentionally very clear and concise. This is a prime example of the old saying: "Less is more."

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2018 Thelma Raker Coffone

Related Articles