Is there such a thing as the 'Williamsburg Doctrine'?

Is there such a thing as the ‘Williamsburg Doctrine’, or was there ever?

In a fictional book I’ve read recently ( Removal by Peter Murphy) this was used as a plot device to create a constitutional crisis during an impeachment process. In outline, it is an unofficial ‘policy’ set in place from 1965 or so, that when there is the possibility of a sitting president being removed from office (or dying etc…) and the Joint Chiefs consider the current vice president to be unworthy of assuming office (by being too liberal - a known pacifist in the case of the book) then they, the Joint Chiefs, have the power or responsibility to act to ensure a suitable successor is found rather than leave the country vulnerable in the hands of someone who may not share their strength or values.

It was clearly unconstitutional and seen as such by most players in the book, but as lots of other constitutional issues and historical additions were well handled and detailed in the book, I was curious to know if there was any historical basis for this particular idea? ( a quick google turns up nothing for me).


I suggest that there would be no official or even “unofficial” policy about committing treason and performing a coup.

It’s too easy, anyway. Where do you draw the line? The president is the wrong persuasion? Might have been born abroad? Is ordering unwise military actions? More likely, because he’s ordering budget cuts and half of you will be out of a job?

Who runs the white house is up to the administration and congress to decide. What’s clause 2? Refuse supoenas ordering you to testify in congress committees about the plot? Arrest any congressmen who vote for a law objecting to this, then dissolve Congress? (Technically, what, if you dump the administration the Speaker should take over). Refuse a direct order by thenext commander in chief dismissing you?

Do you seriously think more than half the population will placidly accept an overthrow of government, no matter what their opinion of it? Do you have enough troops to confront G8-protests and Occupy protests of massive proportions? Will the governors or police do what you say, or will you arrest them too? If you send a tank brigade to arrest the governor of California, let alone the White House, do you think 50% of your (volunteer) troops will obey an unlawful order? Shoot protestors? Armies often have these difficulties with a coup in a third world country. America is not there… yet.

The book describes it as a Cold War policy decision, taken in the smoky back rooms of Washington by the serious players of the day, as an insurance policy should a situation ever arise where the country might be considered in jeopardy due to a potentially ‘ineffectual leader’ - it was their patriotic duty to ensure the country was always safe. The 1965 year was obviously post-Kennedy assassination, and though there was no issue at the time with Johnston taking the reins, this was (in the book) discussed and implemented to allow flexibility should a situation arise where a VP might be considered too weak.

It would hardly be a stated public policy, but was wondering if it was an entirely fictional creation, or if it was based in some way on a factual meeting / agreement that, whilst it would never be acted upon now as it clearly it has no basis in the rule of law, was implemented at the height of Cold War paranoia. Has it been mentioned or alluded to in any other governmental histories?

For background, the situtaion in the book is that the impeached president is exceptionally popular and the people come out in the steets in force to insist on him staying in power, even though the senate have voted to impeach (69-31). The VP sets up a provisional government outside Washington and there are now two power bases, one (the former VP) with the backing of the Supreme Court, most of the armed forces etc… but the other (the removed P) with two of the joint chiefs, their branches of the military, an armed public crowd and nuclear weapons at their disposal.

No, there’s no doctrine or anything like that.

But if you’re looking for a historical basis, you might want to take a look at Business Plot. It was a supposed plot by corporate businessmen to overthrow FDR by financing a military coup.

Or better yet, read about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. We all know about the Tenure of Office Act but the Radical Republicans actually voted on Article XI first because they thought that had the best chance of conviction. The charge? Denying the validity of the 39th Congress’ ability to pass the Reconstruction Amendments because not every state was allowed to be represented for the vote. That was a real attempt at a coup.

(Why the spoiler in post #3?)

The House of Representatives votes to impeach; it is equivalent to idictment.
After impeachment the Senate conducts a trial which in the case of a President
is I think presided over by the Chief Justice.

If that procedure was followed then removal of the President from office would have been legal.

The spoiler was in case anyone wanted to read the book I was taking about in the OP and didn’t want to know how the plot panned out, but it was probably moot anyhow as you’d have to read it to know what it was you shouldn’t have read! :slight_smile:

There was no doubt in the book that the impeachment process was legal, but the now ex-president and his advisors were refusing to leave the White House under the illusion that the ‘will of the people’ dictated that they remain in power, and they were intimidating the Senate (with the use of armed Marines) into rescheduling another vote to ensure a more favourable outcome this time, allowing them to ‘legally’ stay in power. ( although this was also very questionable as the senate can only remove a sitting president, but hasn’t necessarily the power to reinstate).

Anyhow, it was fiction, but the part about the Williamsburg doctrine seemed, whilst illegal, treasonable and possibly far-fetched, plausible enough that it may have been considered at some stage as a necessary requirement by some. The rest of the book (talking about Johnston, Clinton, Andrew Jackson, even Obama) was historically accurate and so this part may also have had some basis in rumour or hearsay, so thought I’d ask.