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1 page | SMC 1415
BackgroundBack in the day, before the 25th Amendment finally got around to clarifying the issue of presidential succession in 1967, Vice-Presidents ascended to the presidency upon the death of the President as a matter of precedent. But until William Henry Harrison became, just forty days into his term, the first president to die in office, no one knew exactly who would become president - except Harrison's Vice-President, John Tyler, who, despite the fact that Harrison’s cabinet refused to address him as President - and a quarter of the Senate voted to do the same - interpreted the Constitution to mean that the full rights and privileges of the presidency were duly his.
In this remarkable letter, Truman, who inherited the presidency upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, muses to his ex-Secretary of State about presidential succession in the case of death, or even disability:
I read your article on Presidential disability. I wrote one myself for the North American Newspaper Alliance in which I included the Speaker, the President pro tem of the Senate, and the leaders of the Majority and Minority in both houses in a group to pass on the disability of the President.
As you know, the difficulty between Thomas R. Marshall and Woodrow Wilson arose from Marshall's statement that there was only one heart beat between him and the White House. It was said as a joke, but I do not believe Wilson appreciated jokes which affected him.
I made another suggestion regarding the death of the President and the taking over of the office by the Vice President. It seems to me that it might be a good plan to have a constitutional arrangement whereby the Presidential Electors would meet, on the death, or perhaps the disability, of the President and elect a new Vice President, in which case there would be no necessity for a bill on succession. But I will talk it all over with you when I come back east.
Truman was in as good a position as anyone to muse about presidential succession. On becoming president, the first thing he had to do, he later recalled, was to scramble. Roosevelt had never, during the seventy days Truman was his Vice-President, talked to him for even five minutes about foreign policy or, for that matter, anything else. Had the fatally-ill and disabled President Roosevelt prepared his Vice-President, things would have been that much easier, not only for Truman, but the nation - which was shocked and in some quarters horrified, by the death of a man they had elected president four times and fully expected to lead them to victory in the midst of world war.
Truman, however, was up to the task, and though once reviled, in the half-century since his death, he has come to be generally regarded as an excellent president.
Typed Letter Signed ("Harry"), with Autograph addendum, 1 page, quarto, Independence, Missouri, March 28, 1958. To Dean Acheson.
With Acheson's retained carbon of the 2 page Typed Letter he sent on March 25, 1958, eliciting Truman's reply here.