What Happens When the President Dies?

Updated on July 26, 2018
ThelmaC profile image

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 when a president dies or no longer can 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!

President's Cabinet Found Wording Unclear

“In case of removal of the President from office, or of his death, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President…”

Article II, section 1 of the US Constitution

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 tenth 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".

The 25th Amendment to the Constitution Added in 1967

"In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President."

© 2018 Thelma Raker Coffone


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    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      23 months ago

      1947 Act of Succession

      After the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945, President Harry S. Truman lobbied for a revision of the law. The resulting act of 1947 restored the Congressional officers—who are after all at least elected—to places directly after the Vice President. The order was also revised so that the Speaker of the House came before the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Truman's main concern was that with the third position of succession set as the Secretary of State, he would be, in effect, the one who named his own successor.

      The 1947 succession law established the order that is still in place today. However, the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1967, reversed Truman's practical concerns and said that if a Vice President was incapacitated, dead, or ousted, the president could appoint a new Vice President, after majority confirmation by both houses of Congress. In 1974, when both President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned their offices since Agnew resigned first, Nixon named Gerald Ford as his vice president. And in turn, Ford was required to name his own Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller. For the first time in American history, two unelected persons held arguably the most powerful positions in the world.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      23 months ago


      Reagan and Trump became president within 1 year age difference. And Reagan took a bullet and survived.


      Life Expectancy at 65

      As people age, their life expectancy actually increases. Each year you live means that you have survived all sorts of potential causes of death. If you were born in 1942, your life expectancy at birth was about 68 years. But the good news is that you didn't die of infectious diseases when young, car accidents, or anything else. The average 65-year-old today can expect to live another 18.4 years. So your life expectancy now is not the same as it was at your birth. It is 5.9 years longer than the current life expectancy figure (which is for people born in 2006) or 83.4 years.

      Life Expectancy at 75

      The news just keeps getting better — if you make it to 75 your life expectancy increases to 86.8. You gain another 3.4 years. That means the average 75-year-old will live 9.3 years longer than the average child born in 2006. Sound like funny math? It's not, it is one of those weird things that statistics does. So don't be discouraged when you outlive the current average life expectancy at birth. Only the oldest person in the world can outlive his or her own life expectancy. For the rest of us, there is always someone older.

      Gender Differences

      Men tend to die younger, bringing down the averages. The average 65-year-old woman today can expect to live another 19.8 years or a total of 84.8 years. If she makes it to 75, she can expect an additional 12.6 years or a total of 87.6 years. Men don't do quite as well, but the difference shrinks as they age. A 75-year-old man can expect, on average, another 10.5 years or 85.5 years total. Remember, these are averages — you can beat them by eating right, staying active, staying involved, and exercising your brain.

      "Cohort" Effect

      Here are a few more numbers that are interesting and show the changes in life expectancy over time:

      In 1950 the life expectancy:

      at birth was: 68.2

      for 65-year-olds: 78.9

      for 75-year-olds: no data available

      In 1980 the life expectancy:

      at birth was: 73.7

      for 65-year-olds: 81.4

      for 75-year-olds: 85.4

      In 2003 the life expectancy:

      at birth was: 77.5

      for 65-year-olds: 83.4

      for 75-year-olds: 86.8

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      23 months ago

      The answer to this article is to change the constitution if there is a problem.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      23 months ago from Beautiful South

      Thelma, this is a very good and a very timely article. Glad to know this.

      Even as a legal editor of 30 years, I was never aware of this. Apparently our Code Revisor was because we were instructed to substitute the proper noun or adjective for "said," "same," or "such," even if it appeared in old language that was being amended. Then the document (bill, act or Code section) would go back to the bill drafter who submitted it to make sure the word we used was that which the legislator intended. Sometimes even the drafter had to consult the legislator to make sure of the intent.

      I say that this is timely because I shudder to think of Pence taking over in the event that our president is impeached.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      23 months ago from USA

      Very interesting information and with Trump being the oldest president there may be reason yet to rely on this Amendment.


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