Q40A: If the President can no longer serve, who becomes President? 

A. Whoever receives the most votes in a new election 
B. The President’s spouse 
C. The Vice President 
D. Whomever the President selects to take his or her place 

Q40B: If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President? 

A. the Speaker of the House 
B. the winner of the new election 
C. the President’s spouse
D. the previous President, only until the end of the current term

Question Background Information


When a monarch dies, the monarch’s heir takes over—usually the eldest child of the monarch. But the president is not a monarch or our nation’s ruler, but a republican executive—so who should replace him or her in holding that office until the next election?

This was a question left, at the Constitutional Convention, to the Brearley Committee, a.k.a. The Committee of Eleven. This Committee was charged with solving the issues that the framers struggled with, such as electing the President. Article Two of the Constitution is the direct result of their efforts.

And in that article, specifically in Section 1, Clause 6, is the line of succession, which names the Vice President as successor to the President:

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.

The Vice President of the United States is thus sometimes described as being “a heartbeat away” from the presidency, and given that the job of the vice president is to be ready to assume the presidency at any given moment, it’s a rather accurate statement.

In the event that the vice president is also unable to serve, the Speaker of the House, the highest-ranking member of the legislature, is also the second in the presidential line of succession, as per the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. The second and third places in line have changed a few times: in 1792 it went to the Senate president pro tempore and then the Speaker. In 1886, Congress replaced the Senate President pro tempore and Speaker’s places in the line of succession with members of the President’s Cabinet. The 1947 act restored the legislative leaders’ positions as second and third in succession, though switched the two of them to have the Speaker come after the vice president.

Additional Content

Offline Activity


Determined to ensure a smooth transition of power should something prevent the president from fulfilling his or her duties, the Founding Fathers implemented a line of succession. By designating the president’s replacement, they essentially eliminated the risk of a power struggle that would weaken the new government. This activity will help students understand how the line of succession helps prevent the government from falling into chaos. (The exercise uses t-shirts, but this can easily be modified to have the students make posters instead.)


  • Provide each group with a Line of Succession reading, Executive Branch: Cabinet and EoP reading, and directions. 
  • Provide each group with a T-shirt template (if doing a t-shirt instead of a poster). If doing posters, provide posters, markers, or other relevant art supplies.
  • Locate the current Presidential Line of Succession online if you wish to provide names to accompany the titles.

Required files


  1. The students will work independently for this activity. 
    • If you wish to have the students work in pairs, divide the class into pairs based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material. Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. Pair those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
  2. Explain to the students that they are going to create T-shirts (or, alternatively posters) that illustrate the presidential line of succession.
  3. Review the directions, found at the beginning of the reading, with the students and assign each student one person on the list.
    • For larger classes, it is recommended to assign all 18, and then start over.
    • For smaller classes, begin at 1 and go until all students have a person. Depending on the students, you may wish to assign students more than one person on the list.
  4. Provide the students with the necessary materials. If you wish, print the T-shirt templates on different colors of paper.
  5. Circulate throughout the room as the students design their T-shirts.
  6. Once the students complete their T-shirts, you can have them present them to the class -- in the correct order. To display the T-shirts in the classroom, string a piece of clothesline along the wall, and hang the T-shirts with clothespins.

Discussion Prompts

Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting. 

  • The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
  • The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events and historical events.


Originally, the Constitution provided only for the vice president to succeed the president. After that, as per Article 2, Section 1, Clause 6, Congress would provide “by Law… declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.’ In addition to the Constitution specifically providing that the vice president succeed the president, Congress has established a more comprehensive line of succession, placing members of Congress and the Cabinet as additional possibilities, beginning with the Speaker of the House.

Prompt 1

The Constitution of the United States is very clear in who will replace the president should he or she become unable to serve. Who is the immediate successor to the presidency? How does having a clearly named replacement protect the republic? 

Prompt 2

Because of its vague definition in the Constitution, the role of the vice president is rather unknown, aside from presiding over the Senate. What do you know about the Vice President of the United States, past or present? Do you see it as a particularly powerful or powerless position? Why do you think that way? Use past and present real-life examples as part of your answer.