When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, the office of vice-president was created as an afterthought, as a solution to potential problems with the Electoral College.
The Constitutional Convention delegates were concerned that if there was only the office of president, all electors would always vote for a favorite son of their state. The result would be a constant state of chaos. In short order they created the office of vice-president and give each elector two votes, with one vote mandated for a candidate from another state. The runner-up would be vice-president, theoretically making both votes of equal importance.
The vice-presidency was created not to fulfill a specific government function but rather to ensure the integrity of the presidential vote. The vice-president was given only two specific jobs, to preside over the Senate and to execute presidential power if the president was unable to serve.
In their haste to address the electoral issue, little thought was given to other aspects of the vice-presidency. As a result, several constitutional amendments have been needed over time to define vice-presidential matters that the Constitution failed to consider.
Three Amendments Needed to Clarify Role of Vice-President
The Twelfth Amendment was needed to separate electoral votes for president and vice-president to ensure the two office holders were not political rivals. The Twentieth Amendment changed the term of office and addressed the situation of what happened if the person elected to the presidency died before taking office. Despite these two amendments more was required of the unfinished work of defining the vice-presidency. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment put the finishing touches on this work 178 years later.
Despite John Tyler’s assuming the office of president when William Henry Harrison died in 1841, the Constitution was unclear on the actual status of the vice-president. There were also no constitutional mechanisms regarding a temporary disability of the president, or to fill the office of vice-president if that office became vacant.
Super Power Status and Nuclear Weapons
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States had assumed super power status on the world stage. With the development and deployment of nuclear weapons under the control of the president the issue of swift and orderly presidential succession or dealing with presidential disability became more critical than it had been in the 18th Century.
Kennedy Assassination Provides Impetus to Resolve Issues
When Lyndon Johnson, with a history of heart disease, became president upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination, these issues assumed critical mass. With the vacancy in the vice-presidency, the law provided that Speaker John McCormack, who was 72 at the time, would become president. These facts gave momentum to the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. On July 6, 1965 Congress submitted a proposal to the states that provided:
- The vice-president upon removal, death or resignation of the president, the vice-president would become president.
- If the office of vice-president was vacant the president would appoint a vice-president subject to approval of a majority of both houses of Congress.
- A method for the president to temporarily delegate his office to the vice-president and to resume the office.
- A method by which the vice-president and the Cabinet could declare a presidential disability and a method for the president to contest that declaration.
The 25th Amendment
On February 10, 1967, with the ratifications of Minnesota and Nevada the following proposal became the Twenty-Fifth Amendment:
SECTION. 1. In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
SECTION. 2. 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.
SECTION. 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives has 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.
SECTION. 4. 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.
Twenty-Fifth Amendment in Practice
The nation had survived 190 years (despite the illnesses of James Garfield, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower) without such provisions. However, since the passage of the 25th Amendment it has seen much use.
Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973. Richard Nixon appointed Gerald Ford Vice-President pursuant to the Twenty-Fifth Amendment’s Section 2. Subsequently, Nixon resigned in August, 1974 and Gerald Ford became President. Ford appointed Nelson Rockefeller Vice-President. While Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were president both had surgery requiring anesthesia. During the time Presidents Reagan and Bush were incapacitated by the surgery, their respective vice-presidents, George H. W. Bush and Dick Cheney, had the powers of the presidency pursuant to Section 3.
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment answered questions left open in 1787 that had become of critical importance in the modern world.
The Article II provision speaks of the powers of the presidency “devolving” upon the vice-president. It does not say he becomes president.
Harrison was the first president to die in office. Tyler set a precedent by assuming Harrison’s office, but the Constitution had not given that specific instruction. For details on Tyler’s actions, see:
Certainly presidential control of America’s nuclear arsenal was important. A critical consideration was the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union and development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that could launch devastating nuclear attacks on American soil in need of immediate presidential response.
This gave constitutional definition to the precedent set by John Tyler.
Thus Ford became the first president to not have been elected either as president or vice-president.