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Acting Vice President, Part I

Jun 28, 2005 - © John S. Cooper

Although it does not appear in the Constitution and is no longer used today, the term "Acting Vice President" was once used on a regular basis. It ceased being used after the Presidential Succession Act of 1886 changed the situation that created the unofficial office.

The first Presidential Succession Act, passed in 1792, provided that the President and Vice President would be followed by the President Protempore (or President Pro Tem) of the Senate if both the President and Vice President died or resigned. Until the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1967, there were no provisions to fill the Vice Presidency if it became vacant; the office was left vacant until after the next election. The Vice Presidency was vacant ten (or eleven, depending on your definition) times between 1789 and 1886, due to the death of the Vice President or the elevation of the elected Vice President to the Presidency upon the death of the President.

The Constitution gives the Vice President two, and only two, official duties. The first is to preside over the U.S. Senate as President of the Senate. The other is to assume the office of President if the elected President dies or resigns. The Constitution also creates the position of President Pro Tempore of the Senate, to be elected by the senators, to preside over the Senate in the absence of the Vice President of the United States. The President Pro Tem is one of the elected senators.

So, according to the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, when there was no Vice President, either because the Vice President had died or resigned or moved up to the Presidency, the President Pro Tem was next in line to be President. He was also the presiding officer of the Senate, since there was no Vice President to serve as President of the Senate. In other words, the President Pro Tem was filling both of the official duties given by the Constitution to the Vice President of the United States. In these situations, this person was referred to as the Acting Vice President, and even addressed as Mr. Vice President in certain social settings.

One of the most common presidential trivia questions is a trick question asking who was the first president. The trick is that the person asking the question will say that George Washington is not the correct answer, and will claim the President of the Congress of the Confederation at the time the Constitution was ratified is the "correct" answer. This is, of course, completely incorrect since the President of the Congress was more like the Speaker of the House of Representatives today, merely a presiding officer.

But there may be a more correct "correct" answer to that trick question. The First Congress under the new Constitution convened on April 6, 1789 to count the electoral vote in the first presidential election. Since there was not yet a Vice President, they elected a President Pro Tempore as directed by the Constitution. As there was no President of Vice President yet, it may be argued that this person, John Langdon of New Hampshire, was actually Acting President until John Adams was sworn into office as Vice President on April 21, 1789.

By the same argument, John Adams was Acting President until George Washington was sworn in as President on April 30, 1789. From April 21 to April 30, 1789 (when George Washington was inaugurated), John Langdon as President Pro Tempore of the Senate was the second in line to the Presidency and presiding officer of the Senate, so it might be said that he was the first Acting President (the questionable eleventh person mentioned earlier). This is not as strong a claim, since John Adams took over his duties as Senate President immediately upon his inauguration, even though there was no President at the time. So, John Langdon never executed both constitutional duties of the Vice President at the same time.

In the next article, we will look at the other ten instances of the President Pro Tem of the Senate becoming the Acting Vice President. In one case, the Acting Vice President also served for one day as the Acting President. More on that one next time.

The copyright of the article Acting Vice President, Part I is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish Acting Vice President, Part I in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

John Cooper

MS/HS Social Studies / Alumni Director

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