Message to Congress Regarding Vacancies in the Office of Secretary
To the Senate and House of Representatives:
The sudden death of the Hon. William Windore, Secretary of the Treasury, in New York, on the evening of the 29th instant, has directed my attention to the present state of the law as to the filling of a vacancy occasioned by the death of the head of a Department.
I transmit herewith an opinion of the Attorney-General, from which it will be seen that under the statutes in force no officer in the Treasury Department or other person designated by me can exercise the duties of Secretary of the Treasury for a longer period than ten days. This limitation is, I am sure, unwise, and necessarily involves in such a case as that now presented undue haste and even indelicacy. The President should not be required to take up the question of the selection of a successor before the last offices of affection and respect have been paid to the dead. If the proprieties of an occasion as sad as that which now overshadows us are observed, possibly one-half of the brief time allowed is gone before, with due regard to the decencies of life, the President and those with whom he should advise can take up the consideration of the grave duty of selecting a head for one of the greatest Departments of the Government.
Hasty action by the Senate is also necessarily involved, and geographical limitations are practically imposed by the necessity of selecting some one who can reach the capital and take the necessary oath of office before the expiration of the ten days.
It may be a very proper restriction of the power of the President in this connection that he shall not designate for any great length of time a person to discharge these important duties who has not been confirmed by the Senate, but there would seem to be no reason why one of the assistant secretaries of the Department wherein the vacancy exists might not discharge the duties of Secretary until a successor is selected, confirmed, and qualified. The inconvenience of this limitation was made apparent at the time of the death of Secretary Folger. President Arthur in that case allowed one of the assistant secretaries, who had been designated to act in the absence of the Secretary, to continue in the discharge of such duties for ten days, then designated the same person to discharge the duties for a further term of ten days, and then made a temporary appointment as Secretary, in order to secure the consideration that he needed in filling this important place.
I recommend such a modification of the existing law as will permit the first or sole assistant, or, in the case of the Treasury Department, where the assistants are not graded, that one who may be designated by the President, to discharge the duties of the head of the Department until a successor is appointed and qualified.
Benjamin Harrison, Message to Congress Regarding Vacancies in the Office of Secretary Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/205473