Presidential Succession Act of 1792

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Presidential Succession Act of 1792

Early in the Second Congress, on February 20, 1792, the Senate joined the House in passing the Presidential Succession Act—a compromise measure that placed in the line of succession its president pro tempore, followed by the House Speaker.

The framers of the Constitution of the United States had left Congress with considerable responsibility for resolving questions about the new government's structure and operations. Considering the high rates of serious illness and early death in late eighteenth-century America, one of the most pressing among those questions was, "Who would become president if both the president and vice president died or were otherwise unavailable to serve during their terms of office?" The Constitution provides only that Congress may pass a law "declaring what Officer shall then act as President."

In 1791, a House committee recommended that this duty fall to the cabinet's senior member—the Secretary of State. Federalist senators objected because they had no desire to see Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, leader of the growing Anti-federalist opposition, placed so close to the presidency. Others proposed the Senate's president pro tempore, reasoning that as this official succeeded the vice president in presiding over the Senate, he should also succeed the vice president in performing the duties of the presidency. This plan attracted opposition from those who assumed the president pro tempore would remain a senator while temporarily performing duties of the presidency and feared the arrangement would upset the balance of powers between the two branches. Others suggested the Chief Justice of the United States or the Speaker of the House of Representatives. At an impasse, Congress adjourned for nine months, thereby risking governmental paralysis in the event of presidential and vice-presidential vacancies.

Early in the Second Congress, on February 20, 1792, the Senate joined the House in passing the Presidential Succession Act—a compromise measure that placed in the line of succession its president pro tempore, followed by the House Speaker.

Years later, in 1886, Congress responded to longstanding uneasiness with this arrangement by removing its two officers from the line of succession and substituting the president's cabinet members, by rank, beginning with the Secretary of State. This troublesome issue received yet another revision in 1947 (Presidential Succession Act of 1947), when Congress inserted the Speaker of the House and Senate president pro tempore, in that order, ahead of the president's cabinet.

Reference: Feerick, John D. From Falling Hands: The Story of Presidential Succession. New York: Fordham University Press, 1965.

Recommended Viewing: The History Channel Presents The Presidents (DVD: 6 Hours). Description: THE PRESIDENTS is an unprecedented eight-part survey of the personal lives and legacies of the remarkable men who have presided over the Oval Office. From George Washington to George W. Bush, THE PRESIDENTS gathers together vivid snapshots of all 43 Commanders in Chief who have guided America throughout its history--their powerful personalities, weaknesses, and major achievements or historical insignificance. Based on the book To the Best of My Ability, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner James McPherson, THE PRESIDENTS features rare and unseen photographs and footage, unexpected insight and trivia from journalists, scholars, and politicians such as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Wesley Clark, Bob Dole, and former President Jimmy Carter. Continued below...

Viewed within the changing contexts of each administration, the Presidency has never seemed more compelling and human. Narrated by Edward Herrmann ("The Aviator"), this three-DVD set is a proud addition to the award-winning documentary tradition of THE HISTORY CHANNEL®. DVD Features: Feature-length Bonus Program "All The Presidents' Wives"; Timeline of U.S. Presidents; Interactive Menus; Scene Selection, and more!

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Recommended Reading: U.S. Presidents for Dummies (408 pages). Description: Forty-three Americans, as of 2002, have held the office of President of the United States. Each has a story, be it one of vision, accomplishment, conflict, scandal, triumph, or tragedy. And each story is at the center of the national story, a part of what we all experience. History buffs find endless fascination – and a greater understanding of America today – in the colorful personalities and momentous events that surround the Oval Office. If you want the complete take on U.S. presidents, from George Washington to George W. Bush, you’ll appreciate U.S. Presidents for Dummies. Continued below...

Written in a lively style by a history professor at the University of Texas, this fun guidebook of chief executives is packed with information, factoids, and memorable quotes. Inside, you’ll find out which president:

Promised to only serve one term, and kept his word!

Was a great person but a rotten president

Campaigned on nothing but image – in the nineteenth century!

May be the most underrated president in history

Had his own distributor bringing liquor to the White House – during Prohibition!

Appointed the first female cabinet member

Pushed through the first civil rights legislation after the end of the Civil War

Said of himself, “I am a man of limited talents from a small town. I don’t seem to grasp that I am president.” 

U.S. Presidents for Dummies offers a wealth of knowledge on what it takes to be the leader of the free world, and who has stepped up to the challenge. Dividing the ranks of presidents into chronological groups for a broader, historical understanding of the office, this book discusses:
The birth and evolution of the presidency
Ineffective presidents
Forgettable presidents
Working up to the Civil War
Reconstruction presidents
Becoming a force in the world
Instituting the Imperial Presidency
Today’s changing dynamics and the Presidency
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Recommended Reading: The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents--6th Edition: Includes Material through 2005 (Complete Book of U.S. Presidents) (848 pages). Description: This is the consummate guide to the political and personal lives of every U.S. president through Bill Clinton. Arranged chronologically, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents elaborates not only on the major accomplishments and events of their terms, but also on less well-known details such as personalities, careers before the presidency, Supreme Court appointments, hobbies, ethnic backgrounds, and even extramarital affairs. Continued below...

Well-organized and packed with details, the book also includes a bibliography on each executive, including books written by and about them, along with useful and entertaining appendixes on the political composition of every Congress, presidential curiosities (such as the uncanny similarities between the lives and deaths of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy), and a ranking of presidents. Whether you want to know the opponent of James Monroe in the election of 1816 or read some of Harry S. Truman's more memorable quotes, this is a most complete and thorough reference to each commander-in-chief.


Recommended Reading: The First Ladies Fact Book: The Stories of the Women of the White House from Martha Washington to Laura Bush (Hardcover: 725 pages). Description: Ladies Fact Book is the definitive guide to the lives, achievements, triumphs, and tragedies of every first lady from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. Arranged chronologically for easy reference and illustrated throughout with artwork, photographs, and documents, it is a complete overview of everything you’d ever need to know: the major impact of their lives and the legacies they left behind; their personalities and personal habits; their early lives; their family backgrounds, siblings, children, friends, and foes. Continued below...

In addition, The First Ladies Fact Book surpasses typical references, featuring selections of the most intimate correspondence of each first lady, from letters to their families to letters to their presidential husbands. Delightful surprises abound, including little-known information about the women’s hobbies, style of dress, habits of socializing, and peculiarities. The more than 700 evocative photographs include sixteen pages of color photography of first-lady fashion, making it a wonderful combination of solid reference and eye catching visual history.


Recommended Reading: The Presidents Fact Book: A Comprehensive Handbook to the Achievements, Events, People, Triumphs, and Tragedies of Every President from George Washington to George W. Bush (Hardcover: 772 pages). Description: The Presidents Fact Book is the definitive guide to the political and personal lives of every U.S. President through George W. Bush. It is a complete chronological review of the chief executives: their major accomplishments and gaffes, their cabinets and legislation, their personalities and families, and much more. And it includes enlightening biographies of each of the first ladies, providing an intimate look at the presidents' personal lives. Continued below...

It is illustrated with 1,000 helpful photographs and illustrations throughout, and it features selections of the most significant primary documents of each administration, as well as thousands of little-known presidential facts. Whether you're interested in the uncanny similarities between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, the shortest president (James Madison), or the members of FDR's first cabinet, The Presidents Fact Book is the ideal resource--for comprehensive research or compulsive browsing.


Recommended Viewing: John Adams (HBO Miniseries) (2008) (501 minutes). Description: Based on David McCullough's bestselling biography, the HBO miniseries John Adams is the furthest thing from a starry-eyed look at America's founding fathers and the brutal path to independence. Adams (Paul Giamatti), second president of the United States, is portrayed as a skilled orator and principled attorney whose preference for justice over anti-English passions earns enemies. But he also gains the esteem of the first national government of the United States, i.e., the Continental Congress, which seeks non-firebrands capable of making a reasoned if powerful case for America's break from England's monarchy. The first thing one notices about John Adams' dramatizations of congress' proceedings, and the fervent pro-independence violence in the streets of Boston and elsewhere, is that America's roots don't look pretty or idealized here. Some horrendous things happen in the name of protest, driving Adams to push the cause of independence in a legitimate effort to get on with a revolutionary war under the command of George Washington. But the process isn't easy: not every one of the 13 colonies-turned-states is ready to incur the wrath of England, and behind-the-scenes negotiations prove as much a part of 18th century congressional sessions as they do today. Continued below...

Besides this peek into a less-romanticized version of the past, John Adams is also a story of the man himself. Adams' frustration at being forgotten or overlooked at critical junctures of America's early development--sent abroad for years instead of helping to draft the U.S. constitution--is detailed. So is his dismay that the truth of what actually transpired leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence has been slowly forgotten and replaced by a rosier myth. But above all, John Adams is the story of two key ties: Adams' 54-year marriage to Abigail Adams (Laura Linney), every bit her husband's intellectual equal and anchor, and his difficult, almost symbiotic relationship with Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) over decades. Giamatti, of course, has to carry much of the drama, and if he doesn't always seem quite believable in the series' first half, he becomes increasingly excellent at the point where an aging Adams becomes bitter over his place in history. Linney is marvelous, as is Dillane, Sarah Polley as daughter Nabby, Danny Huston as cousin Samuel Adams, and above all Tom Wilkinson as a complex but indispensable Ben Franklin.


Recommended Reading: John Adams, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster). From Publishers Weekly: Here a preeminent master of narrative history takes on the most fascinating of our founders to create a benchmark for all Adams biographers. With a keen eye for telling detail and a master storyteller's instinct for human interest, McCullough (Truman; Mornings on Horseback) resurrects the great Federalist (1735-1826), revealing in particular his restrained, sometimes off-putting disposition, as well as his political guile. The events McCullough recounts are well-known, but with his astute marshaling of facts, the author surpasses previous biographers in depicting Adams's years at Harvard, his early public life in Boston and his role in the first Continental Congress, where he helped shape the philosophical basis for the Revolution. McCullough also makes vivid Adams's actions in the second Congress, during which he was the first to propose George Washington to command the new Continental Army. Continued below...

Later on, we see Adams bickering with Tom Paine's plan for government as suggested in Common Sense, helping push through the draft for the Declaration of Independence penned by his longtime friend and frequent rival, Thomas Jefferson, and serving as commissioner to France and envoy to the Court of St. James's. The author is likewise brilliant in portraying Adams's complex relationship with Jefferson, who ousted him from the White House in 1800 and with whom he would share a remarkable death date 26 years later: July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration. (June) Forecast: Joseph Ellis has shown us the Founding Fathers can be bestsellers, and S&S knows it has a winner: first printing is 350,000 copies, and McCullough will go on a 15-city tour; both Book-of-the-Month Club and the History Book Club have taken this book as a selection.

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