Obscure Individuals Who Came Close to the Presidency

Benjamin Wade, Willie P. Mangum, Lafayette S. Foster, Thomas W. Ferry, and John Nance Garner share a common thread in their history. Were it not for timely decisions or twists of fate, they could have found themselves assuming the role of Acting President of the United States, in an era preceding the ratification of the 25th Amendment.

This week marks the anniversary of Vice President Gerald Ford’s rise to the presidency in 1974 after Richard Nixon’s resignation. Yet, in the absence of the 25th Amendment, it would have been Carl Albert, not Ford, who would have occupied the White House.

In paraphrasing a phrase President Ford used when pardoning Nixon, the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967 brought an end to “our prolonged national ordeal” concerning the protocols of presidential succession.

The 25th Amendment empowers a President to nominate a Vice President in the event of a vacancy, subject to Congress’s endorsement. This concept gained momentum following President John F. Kennedy’s demise in 1963, during which Lyndon Johnson served the remainder of Kennedy’s term without a Vice President of his own.

Moreover, the 25th Amendment dispels any uncertainties regarding the Vice President’s ability to assume the presidency when the incumbent President passes away, resigns, or is removed from office. It provides a framework for how the President, Vice President, Congress, and the cabinet can address situations wherein a President is temporarily or permanently incapable of executing their duties.

Prior to 1967, the succession guidelines relied on a vaguely defined Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, a precedent set by President John Tyler in 1841 (whom some considered an Acting President), and legislative acts by Congress that designated the next-in-line for the presidency after the President and Vice President.

The office of Vice President remained vacant on 18 occasions due to the deaths of eight Presidents and seven Vice Presidents in office, two Vice Presidential resignations, and one Presidential resignation. Consequently, in various hypothetical scenarios, a figure other than the Vice President might have been entrusted with Presidential responsibilities following an assassination attempt, an accident, or a constitutional quandary leading to a Presidential vacancy. A few instances are outlined below:

Willie P. Mangum. Mangum, largely unfamiliar to many, served as the Senate president pro tempore in 1844. Between 1792 and 1886, the president pro tempore held the second-highest position in the line of presidential succession, trailing only the Vice President.

After President William Henry Harrison’s passing in 1841, Tyler boldly asserted his entitlement to the full authority and title of President. Although Tyler had been Harrison’s Vice President, the Constitution didn’t distinctly define the succession process—whether the Vice President would merely act as President temporarily or assume the role of President.

Tyler himself narrowly escaped death in a shipboard explosion in 1844. While en route to observe a naval gun display on the USS Princeton, Tyler was dissuaded from ascending to the deck by a dignitary. Tragically, the gun exploded, resulting in the deaths of the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy. Had Tyler perished, Mangum would have assumed the Presidency, given the vacancy in the office of Vice President.

Lafayette S. Foster. In 1865, Foster held the position of Senate president pro tempore when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The plot to assassinate Lincoln included a scheme to target Vice President Andrew Johnson.

John Wilkes Booth had enlisted George Atzerodt to eliminate Johnson at a hotel where the Vice President was lodging. Atzerodt occupied a room above Johnson’s quarters, but he chose on that fateful night to abandon the plan, opting to indulge in drinking instead.

Atzerodt was executed in July 1865 for his involvement in the conspiracy. Had he succeeded in assassinating the unsuspecting Johnson, Foster would have stepped in as Acting President until an election could be held to select a new President in December 1865.

Benjamin Wade. By 1868, Wade had taken over the role of Senate president pro tempore from Foster, at a time when President Andrew Johnson faced impeachment by the House and subsequent trial in the Senate.

One theory surrounding Johnson’s narrow acquittal by a single Senate vote was the presence of Senators who were disinclined to see Wade, a Radical Republican, become Acting President given the vacancy in the Vice Presidency.

As a newspaper of that era stated, “Andrew Johnson is exonerated because Ben Wade is culpable as his potential successor.”

Thomas W. Ferry. Ferry’s proximity to the presidency was more theoretical, but nonetheless significant under the electoral laws of 1876.

During the contentious presidential election of 1876, Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden won the popular vote against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. However, the electoral vote remained disputed.

Three states submitted conflicting sets of electors that would determine the election’s outcome. With no constitutional solution at hand, Congress established a 15-member commission, including five Supreme Court Justices, to settle the contested election. The commission’s decision favored Hayes, merely two days before the inauguration. The votes received Congressional approval at 4:10 a.m. on March 2.

Ferry held the position of Senate president pro tempore during this period and would have acted as President if the Electoral College vote had not been certified by March 4, 1877. In fact, Ferry might have believed he was President for a day, unaware that Hayes had privately taken the presidential oath on March 4, which happened to fall on a Sunday.

John Nance Garner. Garner came remarkably close to assuming the Presidency due to a constitutional amendment ratified shortly before an assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

The 20th Amendment, ratified on January 23, 1933, stipulated that the Vice President-elect—in this case, Garner—would ascend to the presidency if the President-elect perished before taking the oath of office.

On February 15, 1933, just 23 days after the amendment’s enactment, Giuseppe Zangara fired shots at a car in Miami carrying President-elect Roosevelt. While Roosevelt emerged unscathed, Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak was fatally wounded.

Garner, a conservative Southern Democrat, ultimately opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives. He might have aimed to succeed Roosevelt as President in 1940 had FDR not opted to pursue a third term. Garner was eventually replaced on the ticket by Henry Wallace.

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