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Presidential Succession Act of 1947

When Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, incoming President Harry Truman had been Vice President just 82 days.

April 12, 1945.  The Allies are closing in on Adolf Hitler in Europe, but fighting between the United States and Japan rages on in the Pacific theatre with no evident end in sight.  Franklin Roosevelt, President for the past twelve years and seen by millions as a second father of the nation, dies of a stroke.

Left to finish the job and make the peace is Harry S Truman, who had been Roosevelt's Vice President for just 82 days, and who had been left largely in the dark about most aspects of the war. 

Truman, perhaps to greater extent than Roosevelt, was first and foremost a man of action.  While unaware of the existence of the atomic bomb before entering the White House, he didn't hesitate to authorize its use.  His domestic post-war agenda and willingness to go toe-to-toe with adversaries also were examples of this trait.  And when it came to presidential succession matters, he took action as well.  Sort of.

His concerns about presidential succession stemmed from his own brief experience as Vice President.  Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1886, Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. was next in the line of succession when Truman ascended to the presidency.  While Stettinius was adequate as a cabinet secretary, being a heartbeat away from the presidency was just a little too close for Truman's comfort.

The Truman Administration took a two-pronged approach to the matter.  The short term solution was to replace Stettinius with James F. Byrnes, a man Truman trusted and whom the Democratic Party leadership had considered as FDR's running mate in 1944.

The long term solution was taking Truman's former Congressional colleagues to task on the issue, demanding they revise existing succession law.  The result took nearly two years, but seven decades later it serves as the law under which presidential succession beyond the Vice Presidency is handled today:  the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.

The 1947 version of the law restored the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate to places immediately after the Vice President - but in reverse order from their original, 1792 positions.  Cabinet officers were then placed in order after the President Pro Tempore, with their order determined by the date their departments were created.

And yet, while the 1947 law remains on the books today, it still failed to really address those fundamental questions which had impaired Vice Presidents (or others) from filling in as Acting President at a time when the nation probably would have been best served by them doing so:  What determines if a President is disabled?  And how would he resume his service once he recovers?

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