Presidential Line of Succession

The meaning of “presidential line of succession” is that it is legislation dictating the process by which the federal government delegates presidential responsibilities, should something happen to the President. For example, the presidential line of succession kicks in if a President dies while in office or becomes impeached. If an event like this happens, then the Vice President is next in line to take over for the President. To explore this concept, consider the following presidential line of succession definition.

Definition of Presidential Line of Succession


  1. The order in which members of the federal government take on responsibilities of the President, should the President become unable to perform his or her duties while in office.



What is the Presidential Line of Succession?

The presidential line of succession is the order in which certain individuals within the federal government assume presidential responsibilities, should anything happen to the President while in office. For example, the presidential line of succession becomes active if a President dies, resigns, or becomes incapacitated while in office, or if Congress votes to impeach him.

The line of succession consists of, respectively:

  • The Vice President, then
  • The Speaker of the House of Representatives, then
  • The President of the Senate, then
  • Those who head up the individual departments of the President’s Cabinet (in a specified order).

History of Lines of Succession

The history of lines of succession began in 1792. The first instance where succession almost became necessary after its inception occurred in 1868, during the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. Benjamin Wade, the leader of the Senate at that time, missed becoming president by one vote – the one “not guilty” vote that saved Johnson’s presidency.

Johnson already had some experience with succession at that point. Before he became President, he was the Vice President for Abraham Lincoln, having become President after Lincoln’s assassination. In this instance in the history of lines of succession, Johnson had to take over the Presidency without a Vice President, as there was no one in line to assume the position.

In 1886, Congress passed a law removing the Senate and House leaders from the line of succession. However, these leaders reclaimed their place in the line of succession after the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.

Presidential Succession Act

The Presidential Succession Act is the law establishing the major players in the line of succession. There have been three different versions of the Presidential Succession Act, with the earliest being in 1792, and the most recent in 1947.

The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 established the practice going forward, that individuals would take over for the President if he was no longer able to fulfill his duties. The Act of 1886 was Congress’ reaction to the faults of the 1792 Act, brought to light by the death of President James Garfield in 1881, and then the death of Vice President Thomas Hendricks thereafter in 1885.

With this Act, Congress removed the Speaker of the House and the Senate President from the line-up, citing potential “confusion” in that the Presidential and Congress elections don’t always sync up, which could make for problems if relying on members of Congress to fill in.

The Act of 1947 is the Act we know today. This Act restored the members of Congress to the lineup and, in fact, received a higher priority than they had enjoyed before. These were the doings of President Harry Truman, who believed the President should not have a say in who can take over for him in the event he is no longer able to perform his duties.

Statutory Successors

When it comes to statutory successors, the number only grows as time goes on. As a Presidential line of succession example of how things have changed over the years, when the Act first passed in 1792, there were only two successors: the leaders of the Senate and the House. By 1886, the list grew to seven successors, and with the most recent amendment in 1947, the list topped out at a whopping 21 statutory successors!

In order, the current list of statutory successors goes from the leaders of the House and Senate, respectively, to the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of War. From there, the list moves on to the Attorney General, then the Postmaster General, then the Secretary of the Navy. The remainder of the list rounds out with the Secretaries from the Presidential Cabinet, starting with the Secretary of the Interior and finishing with the Secretary of Homeland Security, added in 2006.

Requirements for Succeeding

There are certain requirements for succeeding in the Constitution that a person must meet in order to become President of the United States. There are three main requirements for succeeding, along with some lesser requirements. These three main requirements for succeeding hold that the candidate must:

  • be a citizen of the U.S., having been born here.
  • be over the age of 35 years old.
  • have lived in the U.S. for the past 14 years at a minimum.

If he or she meets these requirements, the Constitution may still disqualify him if he has already served as President twice before, or if Congress has already impeached him in the past. He also cannot serve as President if he ever actively worked against the best interests of the U.S., though Congress can override this if they so choose with a two-thirds vote from each house.

Surprising Examples of Presidential Line of Succession

When it comes to Presidential line of succession examples that are surprising, there are actually quite a few of them. Serving as one of these Presidential line of succession examples are two instances within a mere four-year period in which a president had no one in line to succeed him in the event of an emergency. This happened to both Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland, both of whom became President due to the death of the sitting President – and neither of whom had a Vice President.

Another of these Presidential line of succession examples is the fact that even today, people are still championing for the Senate and House leaders’ removal from the line-up. Why? Because they are afraid that members of Congress could simply kick the President out and replace him with themselves if they wanted the seat badly enough.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Impeachment – A process akin to an indictment, wherein a legislative body, like Congress, levies charges against a government official, such as the President.