Harry Truman Muses on Presidential Succession and Disability

March 28, 1958

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Harry Truman Muses on Presidential Succession and Disability
Typed Letter Signed
1 page | SMC 1415

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      Background

      Back 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.
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      Page 1 transcript
      HARRY S. TRUMAN
      INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI

      March 28, 1958

      Dear Dean:

      I appreciated your letter of the 25th and will arrange to arrive in New Haven at the time set.

      The suggested program suits me perfectly , and thanks to you I will remember to bring my dinner jacket.

      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.

      Sincerely yours ,

      HARRY.

      Hon. Dean Acheson
      Union Trust Building
      Washington 5 , D. C.

      My best to Alice.

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      Page 2 transcript
      March 25, 1958

      Dear Mr. President :

      I am enclosing the revised schedule for the three days, April 8, 9, and 10, in New Haven.

      You and I will both be staying with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Bergin at the Master's House of Timothy Dwight College.  This is one of the ten residential colleges in which Yale undergraduates, except Freshmen, live.  Professor Bergin is a genial host and an Italian scholar of considerable eminence.  Mrs. Bergin you will find a delightful lady.

      In making out the schedule, I have insisted that you must have a nap every afternoon.  If, as seems likely, they have crowded you a little, we will simply stretch it out again.

      All of your engagements on the list, with the exception of the Law Journal Banquet, are with small seminar groups, enlarged a little for your visit, but not too much, say, fifty or sixty students.  The Law Journal Dinner is the annual event given by the high-standing men in the Law School who publish their monthly Journal.  I am to introduce you and you are to speak.  There is no occasion for a lecture or any written speech.  As I said over the telephone this morning, the ideal thing would be for you to take an important presidential decision -- we talked this morning of Korea -- and trace through how a President meets this responsibility and comes to his conclusion -- how the facts, uncertain at first, gradually develop, how and from whom the President gets counsel, and how finally he does what only he can do, come to a decision. This can be fairly short, and I think I would keep it to twenty minutes.

      The Honorable
      Harry S. Truman,
      Independence, Missouri.

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      Page 3 transcript
      2.

      In the seminar groups, the subject matter of which is fairly well indicated on the schedule, either the professor in charge or I will break the ice with a few minutes of chatter, and then ask a question ourselves or stimulate the boys to begin.  Once they begin, the meeting rapidly becomes very informal and a great deal of fun.

      The train which you should take from New York on Tuesday morning, April 8, is the New York, New Haven and Hartford train No. 8, leaving from the Grand Central Station at 8:00 a.m.  You will be met at the New Haven station.  I will arrive as soon thereafter as my plane can get up and get in, and probably will meet you at Mr. Bergin's house around noon.

      They will arrange at Yale for your transportation to Washington as you will get there in time for the luncheon.  This will be either by Federal Express from Boston to Washington, which has a New Haven car, or by morning plane as the weather seems to indicate.

      You will need to bring dinner coat and black tie.

      I talked this morning with President Griswold, whom you will like very much.  He is looking forward keenly to your visit and to having you to dinner.

      Sam Rayburn has already said to me that the enclosed column of mine shows mental deficiencies which cause him grave worry.  Since you are the other "eminent" man referred to, you had better see how stupid I am as soon as possible.

      With my warm regards.

      As ever,