Presidential Succession Act of 1792
The Nation's First Pass at a Succession Law
In the wake of President Washington's illness eighteen months earlier, on February 20, 1792 the United States Senate joined the House of Representatives in passing what is now commonly referred to as the "Presidential Succession Act of 1792."
Formally known as "An Act relative to the Election of a President and Vice President of the United States, and declaring the Officer who shall act as President in case of Vacancies in the office both of President and Vice President," it was the first law establishing a line of succession to the presidency.
In truth, the act dealt with a variety of issues, waiting until Section 9 (see below for text) to address the subject of presidential vacancy and incapacity. Section 9 stipulated that if there was no President or Vice President in office, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate would "for the time being act as President of the United States until the disability be removed or a President shall be elected." Next in line was the Speaker of the House. But the act made no provision beyond the Speaker.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the act however wasn't its succession provisions. In Sections 10 and 12 of the act, Congress provided that if both offices were vacated, a new presidential election would be held - with the newly elected President and Vice President serving full, four year terms.
Section 10 reads in an unwieldly fashion and its provisions are perhaps best lost to history, but the concept of having a presidential election more frequently than every four years seems unconscionable today. Nonetheless it's evidently what our nation's founding fathers had in mind should the offices of President and Vice President be vacated.
Sadly, the 1792 law did nothing to address the key issues raised as the result of Washington's 1790 illness: How would a Vice President act as President in the event of a presidential disability? How would a President constitutionally resume his office... or, for that matter, could he even do so? Despite a number of incidents to come during the next 84 years, we'd never find out.
Pertinent text of the Presidential Succession Act of 1792
An Act relative to the Election of a President and Vice President of the United States, and declaring the Officer who shall act as President in case of Vacancies in the offices both of President and Vice President.
Section 9. And be it further enacted, That in case of removal, death, resignation or inability both of the President and Vice President of the United States, the President of the Senate pro tempore, and in case there shall be no President of the Senate, then the Speaker of the House of Representatives, for the time being, shall act as President of the United States until the disability be removed or a President shall be elected.