A look at nine accidental presidents

  • Written by Don C. White

History-Don-White-logo  We have had a total of nine accidental presidents.
  An accidental president occurs if a sitting president is impeached, dies in office or resigns.
  Two presidents were impeached by the House of Representatives but both were acquitted by the Senate. Eight presidents died in office — four of natural causes and four were assassinated. One president resigned from office in disgrace rather than face impeachment charges.
  All nine accidental presidents knew as sitting vice-presidents they were a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land. None of them were any more qualified to become president than the men they replaced. Training to be president begins minutes after the oath of office is administered.
  The following is a list of the nine accidental presidents with a brief comment of their time in office:

John Tyler
  John Tyler, No. 10 overall, was the first accidental president. He replaced William Henry Harrison who died on April 4, 1841, just 30 days after taking office. President Tyler finished the term and did not run again. One of his last acts was to sign bills admitting Texas and Florida as states.
  President Tyler died on Jan. 18, 1862 in Richmond, Va. before he could take his seat in the Confederate House. Could some consider him a traitor?

Millard Fillmore
  Millard Fillmore, our 13th president, served the remaining term of President Zachary Taylor. As president, Fillmore signed into law the Compromise of 1850 which helped delay the conflict over slavery. He was rejected by the Whig party to run for another term.

Andrew Johnson
  Andrew Johnson, No. 17, was sworn in on April 15, 1865 after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. President Johnson spent much time fighting Congress over reconstruction. In 1867 the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million dollars. In 1868 Johnson was impeached by the House, but was acquitted by one vote in the Senate.

Chester Arthur
  Chester Arthur, No. 21, was sworn in on Sept. 20, 1881 one day after the assassination of James A. Garfield. President Arthur signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Act, tariff reform legislation and the Edmonds Anti-Polygamy Bill aimed at the Mormons in Utah. He was defeated for the Republican nomination in 1884.

Theodore Roosevelt
  Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president, was sworn in on Sept. 14, 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley. He was elected to a full term in 1904. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for arbitrating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. He did not seek reelection in 1908, but in 1912 he left the GOP and ran on the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) ticket. He lost the election to Woodrow Wilson.

Calvin Coolidge
  John Calvin Coolidge, No. 30, was sworn in on August 3, 1923 after the death of Warren G. Harding. In 1924 Coolidge was elected, but did not run again in 1928. He sent U.S. Marines to Nicaragua in 1925 during that country’s civil war. He vetoed the McNary-Haugen farm bill in 1926 and in 1928 vetoed the relief measure.

Harry Truman
  Harry S. Truman, No. 23, was sworn in on April 12, 1945 following the sudden death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On May 7, 1945 Germany surrendered and after we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan surrendered in September, 1945.
  He was elected in the “political upset” of 1948. He sent U.S. troops to Korea in 1950. Then in 1951 he relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command. In 1952 Truman declined to seek reelection.

Lyndon B. Johnson
  Lyndon B. Johnson, our 36th president, was sworn in on Air Force One on Nov. 22, 1963 after the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In 1964 he was elected to a full term.
  He signed an $11.5 billion tax reduction bill and a major civil rights bill. He ordered the bombing of targets in North Vietnam in 1965. He started Medicare, the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965 and in 1966 the Department of Transportation was formed.

Gerald Ford
  Gerald R. Ford, No. 38, was sworn in on Aug. 8, 1974 as Richard M. Nixon winged his way to California in disgrace. On Oct. 10, 1973 vice president Spiro T. Agnew resigned from office and Gerald Ford was appointed to replace him. Among the first things that President Ford did was to appoint Nelson A. Rockefeller vice-president. Then he did something that many of us could not understand — he gave President Nixon a full and absolute pardon. In April 1975 South Vietnam surrendered to the Communists ending the war in Southeast Asia. In 1976 President Ford led the nation in celebrating the country’s 200th birthday. Later in 1976 he was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the presidential election.
  My choice for the top three accidental presidents in alphabetical order are: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.

Don C. White is a historian from Palos Hills.