Five Accidental Presidents in U.S. History
There are five people in U.S. history who became president but were never elected to the presidency in their own right. In all but one case, they were elected vice president and then became president following a president’s death. In chronological order they are…
John Tyler (Whig, 1841-1845)
Tyler was a former Virginia governor and the running mate of William Henry Harrison. After winning the 1840 election, Harrison gave the longest inauguration speech in history despite extremely cold and nasty weather. Harrison caught pneumonia and died after only about a month in office, the shortest-tenured president ever. Tyler thus became the first person to ascend to the presidency due to the death of a president. Tyler helped set a precedent by insisting he was a full-fledged president and not merely an acting one. He was nicknamed “his accidency” and received many death threats. Tyler was unable to accomplish much because of extremely poor relations with Congress. He loved to veto bills that Congress sent him. Even his fellow Whigs in Congress banished him from the party after he vetoed a bill that would have eliminated the central bank. Tyler’s main accomplishment was beginning the annexation of Texas. The Whigs replaced him with Henry Clay for the 1844 election, freeing Tyler to spend time with his many children (seventeen eventually) and young trophy wife Julia.
Millard Fillmore (Whig, 1850-1853)
Fillmore was the Vice President under Zachary Taylor, perhaps the most unlikely president in U.S. history. Taylor was a Mexican War hero who had no experience at all in politics and never even voted. He liked to dress in raggedy farmer clothes and spit tobacco juice on the White House carpet. This entertaining but wildly unqualified president ate some bad cherries during an outbreak of cholera in Washington DC. He became extremely ill and died a few weeks later, leaving Fillmore in the top spot. Fillmore is considered one of the most useless presidents in history by historians. His one claim to fame is that California became a state during his term. The Whigs dumped him for Winfield Scott in 1852.
Andrew Johnson (Democrat/National Union, 1865-1869)
Johnson became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He was a Democrat from Tennessee. Despite being a Republican, Lincoln choose Johnson as his running mate as part of a Union ticket. Johnson’s dubious claim to fame is he was the first president to be impeached. He came within one vote of being removed from office. The Radical Republicans, who dominated Congress, were horrified by Andrew Johnson’s mishandling of Reconstruction. Johnson restored the South’s old aristocracy and allowed them to treat the now free slaves as second class citizens. The Republicans tried to remove Johnson after he fired a cabinet member that had been confirmed by the Senate. Johnson survived impeachment but, like his two predecessors, was not even nominated in the next election, 1868.
Chester A. Arthur (Republican, 1881-1885)
Arthur became president after the assassination of James Garfield. President Garfield only lasted about four months in office, so Arthur had nearly a full term. Arthur liked to dress up in fancy clothes, drink liquor, and hold social events. Ironically, his main accomplishment was also his downfall. Arthur worked to reform the spoils system that was common in American politics at the time. This involved elected officials appointing their friends and allies to administration positions instead of candidates who were qualified. Arthur had been guilty of this early in his career, but worked to end it as president. Many of his old buddies didn’t appreciate his new views and backed other candidates in the 1884 primary election. Arthur was also in failing health at this point, and did not aggressively seek the nomination. He died only a few months after leaving office
Gerald Ford (Republican, 1974-1977)
Ford is the only person on this list who was not even elected vice president. He was a member of the House of Representatives from Michigan who was nominated and confirmed as Vice President during the Watergate scandal, after the resignation of Nixon VP Spiro Agnew. Ford then became president after Nixon’s resignation. He was initially embraced by the American people, but his popularity plummeted after he pardoned Nixon. In 1976, Ford did something none of his predecessors on this list accomplished by winning his party’s presidential nomination, although he had to survive a ferocious primary battle with rising star Ronald Reagan. Ford then entered a difficult general election campaign against Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. Ford suffered a narrow and bitter defeat.
An Uphill Battle
Becoming president after the death or resignation of your predecessor is not always doom and gloom. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson all went on to win election in their own right. There are also other vice presidents who were elected to the presidency after their predecessors finished their terms (John Adams, Martin Van Buren, George HW Bush). Still, life is often tough for these “accidental” presidents. They lack a mandate and often have difficult relations with Congress.
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