Accidental Presidents: Death, Assassination, Resignation, and Democratic Succession

By Abbott, Philip | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Accidental Presidents: Death, Assassination, Resignation, and Democratic Succession


Abbott, Philip, Presidential Studies Quarterly


One of the commonly stated virtues of modern constitutional democracies is their capacity to ensure reliable and accepted methods of political succession through election (Calvert 1987). This essay focuses on one particular, though not uncommon, complication in the democratic mode of political succession: American vice presidents who assume office as a result of the death, assassination, or resignation of a president. To date, nine presidents (Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Ford) have assumed office in this manner. "Accidental presidents" are a prime illustration of the intricate process of succession because their irregular nature clarifies and highlights patterns of legitimacy that are less visible in other contexts. Without assuming office through direct election, these presidents must find ways to replicate what Bertrand de Jouvenal has identified as the twin aspects of political authority. According to de Jouvenal, the roles of "rex" and "dux," the stabilizer and the initiator, are essential to governance. The role of rex thus emphasizes the continuity of the political order and that of dux its capacity to respond to change. Without dux, rex is unable to assemble the forces necessary to engage in great projects and without rex, dux's achievements are fleeting (1957, 99). Thus, accidental presidents must hastily find ways to establish their qualifications as rex that are more substantial than those entailed by meeting minimal constitutional requirements and participating in an election in the role of vice president, and they must also rapidly create the conditions that will permit them to govern as dux. The range of these accidental presidents across identifiable periods permits us to review these creative efforts in widely different political and constitutional circumstances.

Three basic strategies have been pursued by accidental presidents to establish and enhance their legitimacy. None is reliably successful but each illustrates ways in which presidents are able to mimic conventional modes of democratic succession. The efforts of accidental presidents thus provide a framework to assess the question of a democratic theory of succession, for a certain resiliency is necessary to respond to irregular modes of succession yet excessive plasticity might threaten the primacy of election as the privileged method of succession.

Succession Without Election

By briefly reviewing the democratic ideal of succession, one can appreciate the difficulties that face an accidental president. As the term of office of the current leader is about to expire, two or more individuals announce their intention to claim the office through an election. In the modern context, a political party endorses each candidate. Citizens assess these claimants through a variety of formats--personal solicitation, visual and written representations, proxy performances--and reach a judgment. They register their support for a particular claimant at an election in which procedures for voting, counting ballots, and determining the victor are stipulated in advance. Thus authorized, the leader is ceremonially installed in office (with the former leader simultaneously vacating) and forms a new government. Democratic theorists support this mode of succession not only because it permits a much wider authorization for selecting new leaders than in other regimes bur also because the procedure is peaceful, swift, and decisive (Calvert 1987; Dahl 1989; Saward 2003; Schumpeter 1943).

Of course, this democratic ideal of succession is rarely met. Elections are frequently contested on the grounds of unacceptable exclusions, the presence of intimidation, and the use of force and fraud. Disputed elections often involve lengthy delays and electoral results are often ambiguous. In these cases, new leaders must find ways to claim that their succession fits at least a minimal standard of legitimacy. …

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