The Unfortunate 15: Incomplete Presidencies
Abdication, impeachment, death, and assassination are all reasons why 1/3 of all US Presidents never finished their tenure as holder of the highest office in the land. Nine of them died in office, while another seven either quit during their term, abdicated before their second term, or had their party turn on them when they were the incumbent. Their stories are embarrassing and sad, as well as laughable and downright interesting. Where the buck stops is often where the most powerful man in the free world gets bucked, forever immortalizing those who died, and forever chastising those who quit.
1. William Henry Harrison (president No. 9) – Died in office
Oddly enough, the longest stretch of presidents completing their terms in office is the first eight the US had, showing just how volatile the job is. The first president who didn’t complete their term in office is William Henry Harrison, who is one of those rare cases that is both sad and laughable. President #9, who was known as “Old Tippecanoe” for his role in defeating the Shawnee leader Tecumseh in 1811, served in Congress and as Governor of Indiana.
If you think today’s presidential campaigns are grotesque, remember that they all were pretty nasty. His opposition party referred to him as “No Sirrah,” which spelled backward is “Harrison” (and basically means he’s not a man), and said he preferred to drink hard cider in a log cabin than lead the country.
2. March 4, 1841 –to April 4, 1841
Harrison got his revenge when he adopted the images of log cabins and hard cider as his campaign slogans. Then, he was so happy that he won the presidency, he wrote and delivered the longest inaugural speech in US history. The only problem was that he was also proud of his new clothes, and refused to wear a hat, gloves, or even a coat.
For an hour and 40 minutes, he thundered away while a frigid March morning caused him to catch a cold that later developed into pneumonia. He was in office for exactly one month before he died, making him the shortest tenured president in US history.
3. John Tyler (president No.10) – Abdicated the presidency
The shortest-serving vice president in US history took over as President #10 upon Harrison’s death. Tyler may have finished Harrison’s term, but he makes the list because his tenure was finished while he was in office when his party turned on him.
There were signs early on that things weren’t going to work out, as Congress unprecedentedly refused to approve many of his cabinet appointments despite the fact that his own party was the majority. In fact, Tyler was the first president ever to have impeachment proceedings brought against him, and he only escaped the process by a vote of 127 to 83 in the House.
4. April 4, 1841, to March 4, 1845
The annexation of Texas became the nation’s hot-button issue in the election of 1844, and Tyler’s views were in opposition to those of his own Whig party. When he was denied the Whig’s nomination as a candidate for the 1844 presidential election, he went rogue and attempted to start his own political party so that he could still run.
Tyler effectively ran as a third-party candidate in 1844 and got absolutely crushed in the election. Texas did end up getting annexed, which satisfied Tyler to some degree, but it must’ve burned that the man chosen by the Whigs in his place (James Polk) won the election.
5. Zachary Taylor (president No. 12) – Died in office
President Taylor enjoys the dubious distinction of being the third shortest tenured president and that was to the chagrin of very few people. If ever there was a president that was more disinterested in being the president as Taylor, we surely don’t know about them, as the man never held office, or even voted until he was elected president.
The hallmark of his 16 months in office was the Compromise of 1850. Though it wasn’t completed until after his presidency, it managed to make everyone upset, no matter how they felt about slavery. At a time when the country needed a real leader, Taylor evoked indifference and largely left it to his cabinet to drive policy decisions.
6. March 4, 1849, to July 9, 1850
The day before he died, President Taylor is reported to have said, “I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death. I did not expect to encounter what has beset me since my elevation to the Presidency. God knows I have endeavored to fulfill what I conceived to be an honest duty. But I have been mistaken. My motives have been misconstrued, and my feelings most grossly outraged.”
And what was it that brought his demise? During a fundraising event for the Washington Monument, he ate too much-dried fruit and iced milk, which developed into a stomach ailment that ultimately killed him. Many theories abound as to his actual cause of death (his body was actually exhumed in 1991 to see if he was poisoned, a theory that testing debunked), and modern historians point to open sewers in the swamp that was the nation’s capital as somehow causing his digestion troubles.
7. Millard Fillmore (president No.13) – Abdicated the presidency
If you’ve been paying attention, you deduced that four out of five presidents in the 1840s and early 1850s either died or lost the support of their party. Millard Fillmore, like John Tyler, represents the latter. Now that we have a baseline set, you’ll start to notice some patterns develop in the unfortunate 15.
Fillmore did successfully get the Compromise of 1850 ratified, but as previously mentioned, it resulted in little satisfaction for anyone. With political tensions mounting over slavery and whether to allow new territories to become slave states, infighting in Congress eventually turned into open war in 1861.
8. July 9, 1950, to March 4, 1853
As a Whig, he previously enjoyed support in the North, but the Fugitive Slave Laws passed in the Compromise of 1850 turned them against him. Oddly, that meant the South saw him as their best chance to elect a sympathizer of slavery.
Fillmore tried to step aside during his party’s convention to let his aging Secretary of State Daniel Webster succeed him, but instead they tied, and General Winfield Scott stepped in and stole the Whig ticket. Scott proceeded to get creamed by Franklin Pierce, which probably didn’t matter much, because the next two presidents were in way-hay over their heads anyway.
9. Abraham Lincoln (president No.16) – Assassinated
Though President Lincoln was assassinated very early in his second term, he was the first president since Andrew Jackson (president #7) to get reelected and served the longest tenure in almost 30 years. Whether that fact is due to truculent times or bad leaders is a debate historians can grapple with for ages.
When President Lincoln entered office on March 4, 1861, seven southern states had succeeded from the Union and the provisional government of the new Confederacy had already elected a president. Just over a month later, on April 12th, opening proceedings of the Civil War commenced at Fort Sumter.
10. March 4, 1861, to April 15, 1865
Lincoln most certainly inherited a mess from inconsistent leadership by his predecessors, but he was the one who solved the slavery problem forever with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Fifteenth Amendment that followed. After the conclusion of the Civil War just five days earlier, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in the nation’s capital by a southern faithful named John Wilkes Booth.
Booth was tracked down and fatally shot in the neck on April 26th. It’s sad because Lincoln never got to see the world he created, and in his void, more chaos ensued. Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction was far easier on the South than his successor Andrew Johnson’s model. Oddly enough, Johnson would find trouble because he was seen as too soft on the South.
11. Andrew Johnson (president No.17) – Impeached & abdicated the presidency
What came before and after Lincoln shows us just what an anomaly he was. After his murder, he was replaced by a good enough man, but Johnson had a very difficult time navigating his policies through a terribly divided government and fractured political parties.
Johnson’s troubles started when he was at odds with the Union army’s occupation of the South, and as a result, his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton turned on and undermined him. Congress then passed legislation that took away Johnson’s authority over the army. Johnson vetoed the bill, and then Congress overrode him, and it was passed anyway.
12. April 15, 1865, to March 4, 1869
Johnson responded by trying to fire Stanton and issued orders to the army anyway. The House voted that this was illegal because it was in violation of recently passed legislation, and a trial in the Senate ensued with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. By the thinnest of margins, the Senate decided his actions were not illegal, and Johnson escaped being the only president to be impeached by a single vote (31 – 19).
President Johnson faced an uphill battle for reelection as no president who succeeded a deceased president managed to win. His only support came from the South, and in the Republican Convention of 1868, he received only four votes — all from Tennessee (where he had been military governor previously). The Republicans picked Grant as their man, and Johnson was forced to sit the election of 1868 out.
13. James Garfield (president No. 20) – Assassinated
President Garfield is the only president to be elected directly from the House of Representatives. He also has the distinction of having the second-shortest presidency so far, and his assassination by a narcissistic psychopath (who may have had syphilis too) is an interesting study.
Charles Guiteau, like President Garfield, was a Republican, except he represented a faction that detested moderates. He was seeking office around the time Garfield was elected and wrote a speech for the Republican National Convention in 1880. When Garfield became president, Guiteau fully expected to be rewarded for his very small role in getting Garfield elected.
14. March 4, 1881, to September 18, 1881
Guitueau was denied a consulship for a US delegation to France (he didn’t even speak French), and actually met with Garfield regarding his running for a senate seat, which was an election he lost. He then felt that the only way for his “stalwart” faction of the Republican party to be saved was to assassinate Garfield.
On July 2, 1881, after Guitueau bought a gun that he thought would look good in a museum, he found Garfield unguarded (deemed unnecessary despite Lincoln’s assassination) and shot him once in the arm, and once in the stomach through his back. For over two months, Garfield held on and then died on the evening of September 18, 1881. Scholars agree that if modern medical practices were in place (mainly antiseptics) he would’ve recovered from the wound in a matter of days. Guitueau was caught on the spot and later hung after a short trial where the insanity defense failed to spare him of his fate.
15. Chester A. Arthur (president No. 21) – Abdicated the presidency
Upon being captured at the train station, Guitueau is reported to have said “I did it. I will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President.” Well, he got his wish. Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President.
The only problem was that unbeknownst to Guitueau and the nation, Arthur had been diagnosed with fatal nephritis, which is rare and oftentimes fatal kidney disease. He was able to keep his ailment a secret until 1883 when the tremendous stresses of the job caused his outward appearance to fail him and the public could tell he was in bad health.
16. Sept.19, 1881 to March 4, 1885
President Arthur faithfully fulfilled his duties despite his declining health and even considered running for president in 1884. But the Republican party had other ideas (notice the portraits on the wall in the picture below), and just like Johnson before him, they chose to run with a different candidate.
The result was the election of Grover Cleveland, who was the first and only Democrat to be elected between 1884 and 1912 (though he would be elected twice in nonsuccessive terms). It’s just as well that Arthur lost, because less than nine months after leaving his office, he died from his ailment.
17. William McKinley (president No. 25) – Assassinated
To this point, previous examples have shown across the board that if the president doesn’t finish his term, it spells doom for the administration that follows. But that was not the case for President McKinley, whose successor was one of the most successful presidents in American history.
In 1899 President McKinley was in his third year in office, but his main problem, when confronted with the election of 1900, was choosing his vice president, as his previous one died of a heart ailment. Thankfully, he wisely chose Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate and easily won the election of 1900.
18. March 4, 1897, to September 14, 1901
Following a wave of assassinations by anarchists in Europe, a man named Leon Czolgosz wrapped a gun in a handkerchief and fired two bullets into McKinley’s stomach at the Exhibition fairgrounds in Buffalo, New York. The doctor was able to locate and extract one of the bullets, but not the other (he didn’t think to use one of the world’s first x-ray machines, which was being showcased at the fair). Just a few weeks earlier, McKinley had foregone an appointment to see a demonstration of a bullet-proof vest.
McKinley got better, and then suddenly took a turn for the worse when the bullet in his stomach caused gangrene to spread through his blood. He died in the early morning hours of September 14th. As for Czolgosz, he was tried for murder nine days later, sentenced to death three days after that, and executed via electric chair just over six weeks after the assassination.
19. Theodore Roosevelt (president No. 26) – Abdicated the presidency
President Roosevelt served an almost perfect presidency except for one very costly blunder. In his inauguration speech for his first term as an elected president, much to the shock of his family and those who knew him he announced, “Under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination.”
Even though his popularity as president indicated that he could have won a third term if he had pursued it, Roosevelt felt he should honor President Washington’s two-term precedent (President Coolidge effectively did the same thing except he never ran again), which he would very much live to regret.
20. Sept. 14, 1901, to March 4, 1909
Roosevelt tried to bow out gracefully and left his successor, William Taft, in charge while he set out on a safari in Africa. When he got back, he was outraged at President Taft for his poor handling of trade and labor issues, which threatened to divide the Republican party.
If that was Roosevelt’s concern, it certainly didn’t help when he tried to steal the Republican nomination for the election of 1912 from Taft, then formed his own Bull Moose party when it was clear he wouldn’t win. Roosevelt should’ve never abdicated his presidency, but at the time, he didn’t want to be seen as a dictator. History judged his presidency kindly though, leaving everyone wanting more.
21. Warren G. Harding (president No. 29) – Died in office
The mysterious case of President Harding has kept historians busy for the better part of a century trying to discern just what happened to president #29. Harding was enjoying his first term as president and gearing up for reelection when he embarked on a campaign trip called “The Voyage of Understanding.”
Early in 1923, the president contracted influenza, and afterwards, he was never really the same. While staying in a hotel in San Francisco during his trip, President Harding suddenly died. Initially, it was reported that he had a stroke, but evidence after the fact point to a heart attack, but this doesn’t nearly satisfy the issue.
22. March 4, 1921, to Aug. 2, 1923
Harding was a known philanderer and after his death, it was revealed he was a very corrupt politician. Rumors abound that his wife may have poisoned him, as she may have known about at least three mistresses, one of which was reportedly “the love of his life” and he may have had a love child with.
The Teapot Dome scandal also surfaced after his death, in which he accepted bribes (allegedly) to let private contractors retain rights to a federal oil reserve without allowing any bidding. One of his cabinet members was convicted in the subsequent case, which was the first time that happened in American history.
23. Franklin D. Roosevelt (president No. 32) – Died in office
FDR is the longest-serving president in US history (by far). He had won the election for an unprecedented fourth term, something that would have Theodore Roosevelt (his 5th cousin) and Calvin Coolidge rolling in their graves. Of course, neither one of them had to face the perils that confronted FDR’s presidency.
President Franklin Roosevelt took office at a time when the country was in the darkest pit of the Great Depression and made many efforts to dull the pain. By the election of 1940, the world was in even more trouble with the Nazi-menace sweeping through Europe gobbling up democracies like candy.
24. March 4, 1933, to April 12, 1945
The Democrats in 1940 felt that FDR was their only chance at winning, and FDR felt that he was the only man to deal with the threat of fascism. He was the first to break from Washington’s two term precedent, then did it again in 1944, citing a separate precedent by Lincoln to not, “switch horses in midstream.”
The demands of the presidency while presiding over the greatest conflict the world has ever known was too much for President Roosevelt. His health declined and everyone around him knew it. But ever faithful FDR stayed until the end and died of a brain hemorrhage on April 12, 1945 after remarking, “I have a terrific headache.”
25. John F. Kennedy (president No. 35) – Assassinated
John Wilkes Booth had a little bit of flare, but outside of that, every other assassin of an American president were very inconsequential people, and the case of Lee Harvey Oswald definitely fits the bill. President Kennedy entered the presidency that was characterized by social promise and dread from communism both at home and abroad.
Historians have examined Kennedy’s turn in office more than most, and many contend that proceedings would’ve been much different had he lived. We’ll never know, and instead many have focused their attention on arguably the most consequential assassination in the second half of the twentieth century.
26. March 4, 1961, to Nov. 22, 1963
During a stop in Dallas, a former Marine turned communist named Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy using a high-powered bolt action rifle. Oswald fled the scene and took refuge in a movie theater, then killed a police officer who attempted to arrest him.
Oswald was captured soon after and then was murdered two days later, taking all secrets with him. For decades, conspiracy theories abound saying that Oswald was part of a larger plot orchestrated by some higher power who used him as a patsy. In a 1993 book titled Case Closed, author Gerald Posner contended that Oswald acted alone, and the reason why conspiracy theories survive is that it is very difficult to accept that a weak chinned nobody could take down a titan and forever alter the course of history so drastically.
27. Lyndon Johnson (president No. 36) – Abdicated the presidency
LBJ was one of the most successful presidents that took power after the death of a sitting president (presidents Calvin Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt win that distinction). He served for barely over a year as president before he won the election of 1964 by one of the biggest margins in American history.
In the mid-1960s, President Johnson successfully signed into law landmark Civil Rights legislation gaining political momentum making waves around the country with his Great Society campaign against poverty. Racism was being met head on by progressive ideals, and poverty was on the run with his New Deal-style approach.
28. Nov. 22, 1963, to Jan. 20, 1969
LBJ might’ve gone down as one of the nations’ better presidents had it not been for his handling of the Vietnam conflict. When he instituted the draft to fill the ranks of American fighting men in Vietnam, civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. turned against him. The war also had the adverse effect of sucking vital funds from the Great Society toward the war effort, which doomed the initiative.
In November 1967 a barely known Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged Johnson’s nomination for president in the 1968 election. McCarthy earned 40% of the vote in a New Hampshire primary, validating fears from LBJ that his presidency was under attack. Everyone turned on him and he knew it, causing him to go on national television on the evening of March 31, 1968, to say, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
29. Richard Nixon (president No. 37) – Abdicated the presidency
President Nixon is like LBJ in the sense that both were vice presidents before being presidents, and both managed to lose their presidencies after spectacular election victories. But while President Johnson’s ambition got the better of him, President Nixon’s paranoia caused him to make some questionable decisions that to his downfall.
President Nixon was on a roll entering the election of 1972, and polls showed he was in the lead He made it appear as though his phased withdrawal of Vietnam was working, and he somehow opened up China to trade despite being one of the most fervent anti-communists of the Red Scare.
30. Jan. 20, 1969, to Aug. 9, 1974
President Nixon was known to tape his conversations and was so paranoid about his rivals that he ordered the Democrat National Committee to be bugged. When that failed to work, he sent five men to the Watergate Hotel to try again, and they were caught and arrested.
The president proceeded to fire his Attorney General and many justice officials resigned in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The Supreme Court investigated, and the House of Representatives brought charges. The House was unclear if they could indict a sitting president who was categorized as an “unindicted co-conspirator,” but Nixon didn’t wait around long enough for them to decide. After he turned over his own recordings of conversations that certainly would’ve led to his conviction, he left office on Aug. 9, 1974.