In the U.S. and most militaries, the chain of command is well-defined from the most senior man down to the most junior private. In the U.S. Government, the line of succession is now laid out from the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House, President, Pro Tem of the Senate down to the most junior cabinet member.
But it wasn’t always this clear. The framers of the Constitution wrote the document that was ratified, Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 states In the case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of said office, the same shall devolve to the Vice President, and the Congress, may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation or inability of both the President and Vice President, declaring what officer shall then act as President, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed or a President shall be elected.
Essentially, this very long sentence gives Congress the power to create the chain of command for the U.S. government. In the spring of 1792, the Second U.S. Congress took up this matter and, the House and Senate agreed that the order of succession was to be President, Vice President, President Pro-Tem of the Senate followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The Presidential Succession Act of Marc 1st, 1792 also stipulated that if a President was removed from office, died, resigned, or could not function as the country’s leader, the Vice President would only serve as President until a new presidential election was held. The election would be in November of the year following the President’s departure from office.
If the President left office in the last year of his term, then the regular election would be held. Only if both the President and Vice President somehow were no longer in office, would an election be held to replace them on the first Tuesday in October.
The new law was not without its detractors. None other than James Madison, the man credited with writing most of the original document, protested the new law, saying it was against his intent and that of the Constitutional Convention. Madison wanted the Secretary of State added to the line of succession. At the time, that would have Thomas Jefferson, the country’s Secretary of State in the chain-of-command.
Having Jefferson in the chain of command was an anathema to Washington, Adams, and the Federalists who controlled Congress. They ensured that the Secretary of State was not included in the chain of command.
Another suggestion that was not approved was adding in the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This idea was rejected because both the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans agreed that it would violate the separation of powers concepts embedded in the Constitution.
The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 has been modified only three times. The first change came in 1886 when Congress established a new order of precedence of cabinet positions, with the Secretary of State at the top of the list. This law removed the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tem of the Senate from the line of succession. This law also dropped the requirement to hold a new election if both the President and Vice President were removed from office.
In 1947, the law was modified a second time when the Speaker of the House came after the Vice President, followed by the President Pro Tem of the Senate, then the cabinet positions in order of precedence. The third modification came in 2006 when the Secretary for Homeland Security was added to the list of Cabinet members as its most junior in terms of the order of precedence in the line of succession.
Robert Knudsen photo of Gerald Ford being sworn in as President by Chief Justice Warren Burger