The term system in American politics makes it fairly simple to measure how long a president stays in office – there are a lot of leaders who completed either one full term or two. Then there’s FDR, who managed to get elected to four terms because of unusual circumstances (impending war, ongoing war) and he will probably stay as the longest serving president forever, thanks to the two-term tradition. But what about the shortest? There are exactly ten presidents who failed to complete even one full term – find out who they are in our Top 10 Shortest-Lived Presidents.
10. John Tyler
Stepping in after William Henry Harrison’s death, John Tyler became the 10th President of the United States for 3 years, 11 months and 1 day. As the 9th President had been the first to die in office, there was some confusion over what happened next. Tyler, as Vice-President, assumed control but this move was never fully approved of by his Cabinet, with some members referring to him as “His Accidency“. Still, this set a precedent for Vice-Presidents taking over upon the death of an incumbent, which was eventually made law in 1967 with the 25th Amendment. He was never that popular and fell out with the party that elected him, the Whigs, as well as his own party, the Democrats. Towards the end of his presidency, he attempted to form a new party – the Democratic-Republicans – but that didn’t increase his popularity, and he dropped out of the race in favor of his eventual successor James K. Polk.
9. Andrew Johnson
You might think that assassination is a sure-fire way to appear on the shortest-lived list. Not necessarily – Lincoln was assassinated but he managed a full term and then some (1 month, 11 days to be exact) before being killed. But stepping into the role to complete the term of someone else who’s been assassinated seems to pretty much guarantee you won’t be there long enough to redecorate the Oval Office. Maybe it’s that a nation who are still mourning an assassinated president find it hard to warm to his successor. That was the fate of Andrew Johnson, who took over after Lincoln’s death in 1865 and lasted 3 years, 10 months and 21 days. He had only been sworn in as Vice-President a month before, in a ceremony that had descended into shambles, thanks to Johnson turning up hungover.
Alcohol was to be his saviour though – he was meant to die the same night as Lincoln, as part of the same plot, but his would-be assassin George Atzerodt got drunk and didn’t even try to kill him. But, although he survived the assassination plot and an impeachment he couldn’t survive to a second term and was replaced with Ulysses S. Grant on March 4th 1869. Johnson disliked his successor so much that he refused to go to the inauguration.
8. Chester A. Arthur
Another president that took over a dead man’s role. After James A. Garfield was shot in July 1881, Vice-President Arthur prepared to be sworn in following the tradition of Johnson and Tyler. However, Garfield didn’t actually die until September 19th so for the summer America remained effectively President-less. By the end of Garfield’s term – 3 years, 5 months and 14 days – Arthur was suffering with Brights’ Disease and his health was failing, so he didn’t seek re-election. However, he had succeeded in changing popular opinion about himself. One journalist put it like this: “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired … more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe”. He died the year after leaving office.
7. John F. Kennedy
Of course, the most famous assassination of all time did also lead to one of the shortest presidencies of all time. In November 1963, the young president was popular and expected to have a long run in office. As the world knows, those expectations were destroyed by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22nd. Kennedy was just 2 years, 10 months and 5 days into his first term and was only 46 at the time of his death. Although allegations have since emerged about his private life, he remains a popular president – in 2009, a C-SPAN survey of historians placed him as 6th best president of all time, with several from our list being deemed among the worst of all time. An impressive legacy for less than three years in office.
6. Millard Fillmore
And here’s one that was voted 37th out of 42 by C-SPAN, and who consistently comes close to the bottom in opinion polls. After Harrison’s death in office threw Congress into chaos, it suddenly became more common to die in office than to not. 11th President Polk survived just 3 months after leaving office, then his successor Zachary Taylor died suddenly in 1850 (there would be two more deaths in office before the 19th century was out, as well as Arthur’s death shortly after leaving, as discussed above). So it fell to Vice-President Fillmore to step in, and the entire cabinet instantly offered their resignations, thanks to Fillmore’s controversial support of the Compromise Bill. The Bill was passed, in five parts, including making California a free state and the Fugitive Slave Act, which decreed that all runaway slaves be returned to their masters. This act made Fillmore unpopular with the Whigs, and he failed to receive a nomination in the 1852 election, bringing his presidency to a close after just 2 years, 7 months and 24 days.
5. Gerald Ford
Of course, not all short terms are due to the previous president dying in office. Gerald Ford got his chance at the top job after Nixon resigned in 1974. His short tenure saw American withdrawal from Vietnam, the worst economy since the Depression and the pardoning of Nixon for Watergate. That’s a lot of things to go wrong in just 2 years, 5 months and 12 days. He was also entirely unelected – he had been given the vice-presidency on the back of another scandal and was still waiting to move into the vice-president’s house when he was told that the Watergate tapes were about to bring Nixon down. On taking office, he said “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers” but clearly the prayers weren’t strong enough, and he lost the election to Jimmy Carter. However, he has the distinction of being the shortest-serving president to not die in office, despite two attempts on his life.
4. Warren G. Harding
Harding occupies the place below Fillmore in the 2009 popularity survey, but actually many of his policies were quite progressive – he condemned lynchings, he supported suffrage and he implemented an 8-hour working day for miners and railroad workers. However, there were a number of scandals during his time and his government was full of his friends, who abused their power and made huge amounts of money taking bribes and dealing with bootleggers. Harding wanted to run for a second term but his health deteriorated during a tour of Canada and he died suddenly on August 2nd 1923 in San Francisco. He was 2 years, 4 months and 30 days into his presidency.
3. Zachary Taylor
As mentioned before, the mid 19th century was a hazardous time for presidents. 12th President Taylor took the presidency in 1849 after a 40-year military career that had seen him hailed as a national hero. It is generally believed that he would have vetoed the Compromise Bill that successor Fillmore pushed through, but it’s impossible to tell as Taylor died after 1 year, 4 months and 5 days of office. The cause was a stomach-related illness, apparently brought on when he ate cherries and iced-milk at a 4th of July celebration at the part-constructed Washington Monument. His doctors diagnosed a type of cholera but could not save him and he died on July 9th 1850. Rumors that he was assassinated by pro-slavery forces persist to this day.
2. James A. Garfield
Another 19th century president to die in office, this president spent almost as much time dying as he had actively running the country, leaving an 80-day gap that Chester A. Arthur refused to fill (as discussed above). He had only been in power for 120 days on July 2nd 1881 when he was shot twice by Charles Julius Guiteau, a deranged preacher who was angry at Garfield denying him a job. One of the bullets remained lodged inside Garfield’s body, and his doctor’s repeated attempts at finding it, often putting unsterilized hands into the wound, caused infections that led to his death in September. By the time he died, he had completed a term of just 200 days.
1. William Henry Harrison
But still, a 200-day term seems like a lifetime compared to the month completed by 9th president, William Henry Harrison. He became ill with pneumonia shortly after he took the presidency in 1841, and it was believed it was because he had delivered his 8,445-word inaugural address in the rain without a coat. He died on April 4th 1841, after 30 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes in office. Then his death sparked the crisis discussed above, where Vice-President Tyler took office but without everyone entirely agreeing to it. So, in a way he created the 25th Amendment and also gave rise to the Tippecanoe legend, where every president who is elected in a year divisible by 20 would die in office (three of its other victims appear on this list) . That’s not a bad legacy for a presidency that lasted just hours.