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.