13 Surprising Facts About the Presidential Line of Succession

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If the president steps down or dies, who takes over? Well, the vice president, of course. Okay, but what if the vice president steps down or dies? Well, that's when the Speaker of the House steps in. Okay, but what if…?

As you can see, the presidential line of succession can get murky, fast. And it's by no means written in stone. Today, the presidential line of succession is 18 people deep. After the president, it goes (deep breath) vice president, Speaker of the House, President pro tempore of the Senate, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Labor, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Education, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and, finally, the Secretary of Homeland Security. (Phew.)

But, as with all things in U.S. politics, the line of succession isn't as straightforward as it seems. Over the years, it's constantly been in flux; the laws around it have morphed, and it remains hotly debated in some niche political quarters. In other words, it's not just the world's most exclusive VIP list. It's a political minefield in its own right. And for more savvy political trivia, get a load of the 30 Craziest Things U.S. Presidents Have Done.

The Constitution Didn't Say Much About Succession

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While we often think of succession as something settled long ago (you know, that 1776 to 1787 stretch), the rules of who succeeds the president stated in the Constitution pretty much just state that the vice president takes over in the case the president can't.

Specifically, Article 2, Section 1, Clause 6, reads: "In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of 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." And for more surprising trivia about the land of the free, check out 50 Facts About America That Most Americans Don't Know.

The Presidential Succession Act Was Criticized by Some

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In 1792, the Presidential Succession Act was passed, making the Senate pro tempore (the second-in-command of the senate, not to be confused with the Senate majority leader) the next in line after the vice president to succeed the president, followed by the speaker of the House of Representatives. This did not go over well with those, like James Madison, who wanted to see power held by the central government. And for more on our country's past, check out The 40 Most Enduring Myths in American History.

Cabinet Members Weren't Added to the Succession Line Until 1886

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In the late 19th century, the country's leaders decided to swap things and decided that Cabinet officials should form the official line of succession. Members of the cabinet were added to the list in order of when their respective departments were established. At the time, it went: Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, Attorney General, Postmaster General, Secretary of the Navy, and Secretary of the Interior. The leaders of the House and Senate no longer were included on the lineup.

Over a Four-Year Period, the U.S. President Twice Had No One in Line to Succeed Him

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The Presidential Succession Act of 1886 came to be largely because, between 1881 and 1885, the U.S. twice ran into a situation in which the sitting president had no official successor: In September 1881, Chester A. Arthur succeeded the presidency due to James Garfield's death—but Arthur had no vice president (since that had been his job) or leaders of the Senate or House (since Congress had yet to convene to elect new leaders) in place. Then, in November 1885, when Vice President Thomas A. Hendricks died unexpectedly, Grover Cleveland found himself in a similar situation. Fortunately for both men—and the country's stability—Arthur and Cleveland survived their term. And for more from the history textbooks, don't miss these 30 Crazy Facts That Will Change Your View of History.

The Leaders of the House and Senate Bounced Around the Lineup Several Times

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While the President pro tempore was at the top of the original line of succession (after the vice president, of course), followed by the Speaker of the House, they both got dropped completely in 1886, then came roaring back in 1947, with the final (so far) Presidential Succession Act, in which they were returned to the top of the lineup. But this time, the House speaker took the top position after the vice president.

There Is a Modern Push to Rewrite the Rules of Succession

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It may seem like we've finally sorted these rules out, but there have recently been critics pushing for another revision of the rules. A Continuity of Government Commission—formed after 9/11 to identify weaknesses in the line of succession should a large-scale emergency take place—recommended "streamlining the line of succession, dropping lower-level Cabinet members, and adding a new category of people deputized as Officers, chosen by the president to be confirmed in the posts by the Senate, representing geographical breadth and presumably policy and even political depth." But, as one of the Commission's leaders admits, "that reasoned and reasonable suggestion went nowhere."

Others Want the Congressional Leaders Removed

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While the Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate have bounced around the line of succession over the years, there has been a renewed push to have them removed from the lineup altogether. Why? As Bloomberg Opinion columnist Jonathan Bernstein explains, Congress has the ability to impeach the president and vice president, so if its leaders were of another party or simply had it in for the honchos of the executive branch, it would be in their power to essentially remove top figures and take their spots themselves. This seems unlikely to happen (not to mention highly questionable, politically), but the points are decent nonetheless.

John Tyler May Have Used Succession to Steal the Presidency

President John Tyler

It was not explicitly clear in the Constitution whether the vice president was empowered to serve simply as acting president—until a new president could be elected or as a full-on president—with all the powers that included. But Vice President John Tyler forced the issue in 1841, when William Henry Harrison died just 31 days into his term. Tyler simply designated himself as the new president, taking the oath of office and even going so far to return mail, unopened, if it referred to him as "Acting President." Plenty of critics were not too pleased with this move and referred to Tyler as "His Accidency," but Tyler's view eventually won out when the Senate voted to accept his title as "President."

The Line of Succession Can Create Some Awkward Situations

Thomas Marshall, vice president to Woodrow Wilson
George Grantham Bain via Wikimedia Commons

Sure, it's pretty straightforward that the vice president takes over when the president dies, but what exactly does the law text mean by "inability?" Well, Vice President Thomas Marshall ran into this question when his boss, President Woodrow Wilson, suffered a severe stroke that partially paralyzed him and left him almost blind.

Certainly, Wilson was dealing with a disability, but he wasn't going anywhere, sticking around the White House and giving Marshall little information about his health. Not wanting to appear disloyal or overly ambitious, Marshall avoided taking on any of his boss's responsibilities, leading any cabinet meetings, or even mentioning the president's health. As a result, he was left with little legacy—beyond the reputation as a man overly polite.

Nine Presidents Have Died in Office

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In every situation, the vice president has succeeded them. But stop for a second and think about that: Out of 44 men who have held the job in the history of the country (Grover Cleveland was elected twice for two nonconsecutive terms, so he was both the 22nd and 24th president), nine men have died on the job as president. That's a more than 20 percent average of death on the job. If someone told you that you had better than one-in-five odds of dying in a job, would you still apply?

We've Come Close to a Simultaneously Vacant Presidency and Vice Presidency Three Times

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US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons

While every case of presidential death or inability to serve has led to the veep taking over, there have been two moments in U.S. history when it looked like we would have to look at the third person in line for succession.

The first was in 1865, following Abraham Lincoln's assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. The actor-cum-killer had also targeted Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward in an effort to throw the Union government into confusion. Had he succeeded, the country would have been run by the Secretary of the Treasury.

The second close call occurred in 1868, when Johnson (who had yet to appoint a vice president) was impeached by the House of Representatives. If they'd voted to remove him, the Secretary of State would have taken over. He avoided this fate by a single vote.

The third close call was in the 1970s, when two major scandals arrived at a dangerously close time: Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after pleading no-contest to charges of tax evasion, and less than a year later, President Richard Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal.

Three States Have Never Had Anyone in the Line of Succession

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Nineteen states have produced presidents, and nine additional states have seen home-state boys grow up to be veeps. A handful of others have produced House speakers and Senate presidents pro tempore or cabinet officials. But the states of Montana, Nevada, and South Dakota have never produced anyone who's landed on the line of succession, according to an analysis by The Washington Post, which used the line as laid out in the 1947 Presidential Succession Act.

Designated Survivors Are Selected for Major Events

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For State of the Union addresses, presidential inaugurations, and other events in which everyone on the line of succession could be expected to be present, a "designated survivor"—usually a member of the Cabinet—is selected to be physically distant. They're located in a secure, undisclosed location in order to provide continuity in the case of catastrophic disaster. This practice was started during the height of the Cold War when fears of nuclear attacks were high. And for more awesome trivia, check out these 50 Amazing Historical Facts You Never Knew.

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