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Alone at the Top

March 17, 2016

President Garfield died at 10:35 P.M. on September 19, 1881. Vice President Arthur was sworn in as his successor at 2:15 A.M. on the 20th. Much of Arthur’s time between receiving the news and taking the oath had been spent weeping. Arthur had the deepest sympathy for the late President and his family, but he also shed tears for himself. Just a few days earlier Arthur had stated to a friend: “The most frightful responsibility which ever devolved upon any one would be the casting of the Presidency upon me under the conditions which you and all my friends so well understand.”

According to the Succession Act of 1792, the President Pro Tempore was next in line, then the Speaker. Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution states: “The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such meeting shall be on the first Monday in December unless they shall by law appoint a different Day.” This was later changed, but in 1881 the new Congress had not yet selected its leaders. No one was in line after Arthur!

Rather than continue to dwell on his own problems Arthur immediately began caring for the country. He wrote a proclamation calling the Senate into special session in order to elect a President Pro Tempore. Arthur mailed this document to the White House. If anything happened to him before he returned to Washington, the proclamation would avert a Constitutional crisis.

Arthur accompanied Garfield’s body from Elberon, New Jersey to Washington, D.C. on September 21. Garfield was buried in Cleveland, Ohio on September 26.

After the funeral of his predecessor the new President needed to make some decisions about the Cabinet. On September 28 Julia Sand would write to offer her unsolicited but still appreciated advice.

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