Presidential Succession During the Johnson Administration

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visits President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visits President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, Sept. 17, 1963.
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visits President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, Sept. 17, 1963. Just 10 weeks later, LBJ unexpectedly would become president.

There was no provision on how to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency until the ratification of the 25th Amendment of the Constitution.

Presidential Succession Act of 1947

During the 14-month period between the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and the inauguration of Hubert H. Humphrey as vice president on Jan. 20, 1965, there was no Vice President of the United States.

Succession at that time was dictated by Public Law 80-199, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, signed by President Harry Truman. According to the act, "if, by reason of death, resignation, removal from office, inability, or failure to qualify, there is neither a President nor Vice President to discharge the powers and duties of the office of President," the line of succession is the Speaker of the House and then the President pro tempore of the Senate. The same rule applies "in the case of the death, resignation, removal from office, or inability of an individual acting as President..."

Presidential Succession Act of 1947

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 was signed by President Harry S. Truman.

If there is no Speaker of the House or President pro tempore of the Senate to assume the duties of the office of the President, the line of succession jumps to the Cabinet, with the ranking order determined by the order in which each department was established.

Lyndon B. Johnson makes his first address as president to a joint session of Congress days after President John F. Kennedy's assassination.
Lyndon B. Johnson makes his first address as president to a joint session of Congress days after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, 1963
Nov. 27, 1963: Lyndon B. Johnson makes his first address as president to a joint session of Congress days after President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Speaker of the House John McCormack and President pro tempore of the Senate Carl Hayden are seated behind him.

Note: When Johnson assumed office following the assassination of President Kennedy, the Speaker of the House was John McCormack of Massachusetts, and the President pro tempore of the Senate was Carl Hayden of Arizona.

Ratification of the 25th Amendment

However, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 did not have a provision on how to appoint a new vice president in case of a vacancy. It was not until the ratification of the 25th Amendment of the Constitution on Feb. 10, 1967 (passed by Congress on July 6, 1965) that rules were set forth in relation to a vice presidential vacancy.

Remarks at Ceremony Marking the Ratification of the Presidential Inability (25th) Amendment to the Constitution, February 23, 1967

It was 180 years ago, in the closing days of the Constitutional Convention, that the Founding Fathers debated the question of Presidential disability. John Dickinson of Delaware asked this question: "What is the extent of the term 'disability' and who is to be the judge of it?" No one replied.

It is hard to believe that until last week our Constitution provided no clear answer. Now, at last, the 25th amendment clarifies the crucial clause that provides for succession to the Presidency and for filling a Vice Presidential vacancy.

Mr. Vice President, Member's of the Cabinet, Senator Bayh, Congressman Celler, Members of the Congress, distinguished Governors, ladies and gentlemen:

It was 180 years ago, in the closing days of the Constitutional Convention, that the Founding Fathers debated the question of Presidential disability. John Dickinson of Delaware asked this question: "What is the extent of the term 'disability' and who is to be the judge of it?" No one replied.

It is hard to believe that until last week our Constitution provided no clear answer. Now, at last, the 25th amendment clarifies the crucial clause that provides for succession to the Presidency and for filling a Vice Presidential vacancy.

Two years ago I urged Congress to initiate this amendment. I said that only our very amazing good fortune and the remarkable stability of the American system, have prevented us from paying the price that "our continuing inaction so clearly invites and so recklessly risks."

Twice in our history we have had serious and prolonged disabilities in the Presidency. In 1881 President Garfield lingered near death for 80 days before succumbing to Guiteau's bullet. President Woodrow Wilson was virtually incommunicado for many months after a stroke, yet dismissed his Secretary of State for attempting to convene a Cabinet meeting. In each case there was controversy, but the Constitution provided no mechanism for installing the Vice President in the Chief Executive's empty chair while the President himself was disabled.

Sixteen times in the history of the Republic the Office of Vice President--the Office created to provide continuity in the Executive-itself has been vacant. Seven men have died while Vice President, John C. Calhoun resigned, and eight others left the Office vacant when succeeding to the Presidency. Again our American Constitution was silent on the selection of a new Vice President.

Once, perhaps, we could pay the price of inaction. But today in this crisis-ridden era there is no margin for delay, no possible justification for ever permitting a vacuum in our national leadership. Now, at last, through the 25th amendment, we have the means of responding to these crises of responsibility.

We pay tribute here in the East Room today to some of those who have worked to provide those means--and thus to assure prompt and orderly continuity in the executive branch of the Government. Herbert Brownell, J. Lee Rankin, and Nicholas Katzenbach were among those who helped to develop this vital reform in the Department of Justice. Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana and Representative Emanuel Celler of New York introduced the measure in the Congress, carried it through exhaustive hearings and many negotiations, and presided over its passage. Many of the Members of Congress who contributed to its passage are here as our guests today. Many private citizens and organizations, and particularly the leaders of the American Bar Association, helped to gain broad public approval for it. And finally the legislatures of three-quarters of our States have made it the law of our land.

By this thoughtful amendment, they have further perfected the oldest written constitution in the world. They have earned the lasting thanks of the American people, for whom it has so long secured the blessings of liberty. Thank you very much.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson
Vice President Hubert Humphrey (foreground, soft focus) applauds as President Johnson shakes hands with Speaker John McCormack after the 25th Amendment ratification ceremony.
Note: The President spoke at 1:18 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his opening words, he referred to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, and Representative Emanuel Celler of New York. Later he referred to Herbert Brownell, Jr., Attorney General from 1953 to 1957, J. Lee Rankin, Solicitor General from 1956 to 1961, and Under Secretary of State Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, Attorney General in 1965 and 1966. The 25th amendment to the Constitution is printed in the Federal Register (32 F.R. 3287) and in the United States Statutes at Large (81 Stat. 983). Citation: Lyndon B. Johnson: "Remarks at Ceremony Marking the Ratification of the Presidential Inability (25th) Amendment to the Constitution.," February 23, 1967. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
Artifact date
February 23, 1967

The 25th Amendment

In addition to provisions on how to fill a vice presidential vacancy, the ratification of the 25th Amendment also provided more clarity on presidential vacancies.