The Presidential Succession Act 1886

The Presidential Succession Act became law on January 19. Under the law, in the event of the death or disablement of both the President and the Vice President, the Cabinet officer, in order of the date of the establishment of the department, would become President. This act remained in force until 1947.


The question of Presidential succession had been an often debated question. The constitution is vague stating "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. “ The constitution was unclear on the fundamental question of what was an officer of the country. Congress had passed a law in 1792 that stated that if there was no Vice President then President Pro Temper of the Senate followed by the Speaker of the House would become President. It also called for a special election to be held in such a case.

Scholars had questioned the act of 1792 wondering whether the two members of Congress qualified as officers of the country. A committee was established to examine the question. It reported back that the act of 1792 “would disturb the success under the present statues, and would in all probability lead to contest over it that would disquiet the nation, unsettle business, and disturb the peace of the country.” The committee was concerned about the legal status of the members of Congress, was concerned that there were times when those offices were not filled. Committee was also concerned about the constitutionality of holding special elections.

The Congress thus enacted the Presidential Succession Act of 1886. It replaced the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempe of the Senate with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Treasury. It also removed the provision for a special election instead stating that the successor would serve out the term of the President.