Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Dark Times in the White House: Recovery When Presidents Die in Office

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Dark Times in the White House: Recovery When Presidents Die in Office

Article excerpt

Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, nearly half a century has passed without the death of a sitting U.S. president. This has happened only once before in the nation's history of 44 commanders in chief. Slightly more than 50 years elapsed between April 30, 1790, when George Washington took the oath of office as the first president, and April 4, 1841, when the ninth, William Henry Harrison, became the first chief executive to die on the job. During the next 122 years, seven more presidents would die in office, and each of these national traumas would impact the country's history.


German statesman Otto von Bismarck once said, "God protects fools, drunks, and the United States of America." These two 50-year intervals without the death of a sitting president bear out that observation. In its first decades as a republic under the Constitution, the government was a fragile experiment testing what a democratic land should be and how it should function, and the winds of war and ideological conflict swept through the new nation in the wake of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The unsuccessful War of 1812 against Great Britain was followed by the first stirrings of the conflict over slavery, which was temporarily and shakily contained with the Missouri Compromise of 1821. Given those challenges, the new nation was indeed fortunate not to lose a president in office.

Just reciting the words Vietnam, Watergate, Arab oil embargo, Iran hostage crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11 should make Americans breathe a sigh of relief that no sitting president died during the last five decades. There were two attempted assassinations, on Gerald Ford in 1975 and on Ronald Reagan in 1981, and the national jitters that broke out after the second and far more serious of those attempts further underline how fortunate this respite from losing a serving president also has been.

Looking at the impact of such losses in the past underscores that good fortune and helps define American politics.

Opaque indicators

The first president to die in office, William Henry Harrison (Feb. 9, 1773-April 4, 1841), took sick immediately after his inauguration in bad weather and expired from complications of pneumonia just a month and a day into the four-year term. Harrison remains an enigma as chief executive not only because of the brevity of his time in office. Elected as a war hero (nicknamed "Tippecanoe" for winning that battle in 1811 against an Indian confederation) who did not take clear stands on current issues, he left few clues as to what he might have done in office.


Still, it seems doubtful that he would have followed the aggressive pro-Southern line of his successor, John Tyler (nicknamed "His Accidency"), to annex Texas as a slave state. This move accelerated the chain of events that led to the Civil War by upsetting the Missouri Compromise's balance between free and slave states and throwing open the question of extending territory seized from Mexico in the war sparked by Texas annexation. Imponderable as Harrison was as a living president, he wrought tremendous consequences through his death.

Insignificant courses

The second to die in office, Zachary Taylor, president No. 12, did not cut much of a figure in his year-and-a-quarter in the White House, and neither did his successor, Millard Fillmore. Like Harrison before him, Taylor was a military hero (nicknamed "Old Rough and Ready" from the war with Mexico). He was a strong nationalist, who, despite being a Southerner and slave owner, bristled at secessionist rumblings from his native region. He died of cholera at age 65 on July 9, 1850.

The succession of the milder-mannered Fillmore may possibly have eased the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which papered over the conflict about the extension of slavery but really only postponed an increasingly likely showdown over slavery and secession. …

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