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.