Could the death of FDR in January 1945 triggered a constitutional crisis?

I was reading one of military historian Peter G. Tsouras’s alternative history books and he has a scenario where in January 1945 after the German Army successfully captures Antwerp during the Battle of the Bulge this creates such a crisis that FDR dies of a stroke that very month. As a result Henry Wallace becomes President and due to “the current crisis” he decides to postpone Truman’s inauguration as President “until the war is over” which triggers said Constitutional Crisis where Wallace tries to prevent Truman from taking his place.

I’m curious how realistic this scenario is. If FDR died before the inauguration, does Wallace immediately take power or does Truman immediately take power? Can a lame duck Vice President take full power at any point?

Per the 20th amendment, Wallace would become president… and then his term would have ended on January 20th.

At that point it depends on whether Congress had already certified the Roosevelt/Truman victory on January 3rd when the new Congress convened. If they had, then Truman becomes president. If for some reason they didn’t, then (AFAICT) the Presidential Succession Act of 1886 would have been the relevant legislation at the time, and absent a president or vice president, the next in line would have been Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr.

I can’t imagine there would have existed any legal means for Wallace to prevent that.

In this situation, the death of FDR isn’t triggering a constitutional crisis. The attempted coup by Wallace is triggering a constitutional crisis. Though it’s not really much of a “crisis”, since the Constitution and other laws of the time were quite clear as to what should happen.

Chronis is right, Smapti is right.

If the constitution says “do this” and does not say “you can do that”, then “this” is what happens.

The constitution makes no provision for elongating the president’s term - it explicitly says when it ends. So on Jan 20th, Wallace is no longer president.

So who is president? If Truman is certified, then all that is required for him to become president is for him to be sworn in. Recall Johnson was sworn in by a judge on the way back from Dallas in 1963. It does not have to be a grand ceremony complete with crowd and parade. All Truman would have to do is find someone to administer the oath of office. Some debate would ensue whether the oath is necessary or whether he automatically assumes power.

And, as mentioned, failing that, or if Truman’s election is not certified - then there are explicit instructions over who are next in line to be president. In 1945 this was Secretary of State. There are no explicit constitutional rules that the SoS stops being so because the president’s term expired, so SoS it is.

I guess the next question is - does the president have the authority to cancel a meeting of congress? How fixed is that Jan. 6 certification, what happens if it is missed for some reason? (I don’t recall, did Biden’s final certification creep into Jan 7th with all the delays?)

And, like every constitutional crisis, the question is how blindly others would obey what could be perceived as illegal orders or inappropriate use of powers? If the president says “stop congress meeting” and a quorum of congress, the police, and the military say “no” then- congress will meet.


Had the president died, resigned, been removed from office or been disabled during one of these vacancies, the secretary of state would have become the acting president. Although such circumstances never arose, President Woodrow Wilson apparently drew up a plan whereby, - given the turmoil of World War I - if his Republican opponent Charles Evans Hughes had won the 1916 election, then Wilson would have dismissed his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, and recess-appointed Hughes to the post before Wilson and Vice President Thomas R. Marshall both resigned, thus allowing President-elect Hughes to serve as acting president until his March 4, 1917 inauguration. Wilson’s narrow victory over Hughes rendered the plan moot.[20][21]

Also of note is that 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie and vice presidential nominee Charles L. McNary both died in 1944 (October 8, and February 25, respectively), the first (and as of 2021 only) time both members of a major-party presidential ticket died during the term for which they sought election. Had they been elected, Willkie’s death would have resulted in the secretary of state becoming acting president for the remainder of the term ending on January 20, 1945.

This is another of those much-debated clauses in the Constitution. The text reads:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation

Many scholars argue that the new President becomes President the moment the old President dies, resigns, or term ends. The oath or affirmation is only required to allow the President to perform the duties as President. What that means exactly is unclear, but the alternative is that there is an interregnum in which nobody at all is President and that is an untenable situation.

This would apply to Wallace, too, but as everyone has said, his action would be an attempt at an unconstitutional coup. If it succeeded, the constitution is irrelevant.

“The only thing known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle. He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously . Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles – kingons, or possibly queons – that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed.”
–Terry Pratchett

But nothing in the Constitution says that a president-elect’s assumption of the office at noon on January 20th requires some action by Congress to “certify” the election. Congress is supposed to show up to count the votes to determine if a contingent election is necessary, but nothing says that a failure to count the electoral votes somehow changes their effect. Refusing to count the number of feet I have on the ground doesn’t turn me into a bird. Not that this helps our hypothetical Henry Wallace; if Congress fails to meet, there are now two presidents at noon on the 20th, an acting president under the (erroneous IMO) “certification” theory and the actual elected president under the “count” theory, but neither of them is Henry Wallace.

Sure, that’s how it works today and in 1945 because there is widespread reporting on the results beforehand and unofficial counts done. But technically speaking, until there is an official count of the votes, we “don’t know” who the new president would be that could rightfully assume the office on January 20th.

It would be like the Schrodinger’s Cat of presidents. :slight_smile: We have elected a new one, but we don’t know who that person is.

Some states don’t officially release their Electoral votes. The balloting is secret. So we don’t officially know who won until Congress opens the ballots on Jan 3.

Could you give more information on this? Because it doesn’t correspond to my understanding of the process. Here’s an official timeline of the 2020 election.

December 14, 2020: Electors Vote in Their States Monday after the second Wednesday in December of presidential election years is set (3 U.S.C. §7) as the date on which the electors meet and vote. In 2020, the meeting is on
December 14. Electoral college delegations meet separately in their respective states and the District of Columbia at places designated by their state legislature. The electors vote by paper ballot, casting one ballot for President and one for Vice President. The electors count the results and then sign six certificates , each of which contains two lists, one of which includes the electoral votes for the President, the other, electoral votes for the Vice President, each of which includes the names of persons receiving votes and the number of votes cast for them. These are known as Certificates of the Vote, which the electors are required to sign. They then pair the six Certificates of Ascertainment provided by the state governors with the Certificates of the Vote, and sign, seal, and certify them (3 U.S.C. §§8-10). The six certificates are then distributed by registered mail as follows: (1) one certificate to the President of the U.S. Senate (the Vice President); (2) two certificates to the secretary of state (or equivalent officer) of the state in which the electors met; (3) two certificates to the Archivist; and (4) one certificate to the judge of the U.S. district court of the district in which the electors met (3 U.S.C. §11).

This says to me that all the electoral votes therefore have to be made public or at least given to a large number of people before Congress convenes. Nothing is said about secret balloting, although that could still be a state-governed issue. That’s why I’m asking what states don’t make this public.

The ballot might be secret, but there has to be a result tabulated and announced during the meeting, which AFAIK is a public meeting in every state, or else the certificates can’t be signed.

Furthermore, in the 21st century, you can literally go to the National Archives website, where they scan and upload all of their copies of the certificates as they show up in December. Obviously that doesn’t help people in 1945, but my point is that there are certificates out the wazoo, and the result is not hidden in the VP’s office where nobody else can get to it or find out what it is.

The 12th amendment states that “The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;–the person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President”.

Seems pretty cut and dry to me that Congress has to meet and count the votes in order for someone to be elected president, and that you can’t just skip it and go with “everyone knows so-and-so won”.

I’m guess I’m wrong. I knew that some states had secret ballots because we never learned which elector voted for rather than Kerry. So I thought we didn’t know results until Congress saw them.