Counting American Presidents

By Bailey, S. F. | Contemporary Review, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Counting American Presidents


Bailey, S. F., Contemporary Review


BILL Clinton is either the forty-first president of the United States, or the forty-second. It depends on how you count Grover Cleveland. Grover Cleveland, a Democrat born in 1837, was elected president and served from 1885 to 1889. He stood for election for a second term but was defeated by the Republican Benjamin Harrison, who served from 1889 to 1893. Cleveland, however, had not given up. He had another go, won, and then served from 1893 to 1897. If you list the presidents by entry to office then the list at the end of the last century runs Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland; and Clinton is the forty-second entry on the list. If you count by the number of persons who have occupied the office, which is the usual way, then Clinton is the forty-first person to do it. Grover Cleveland is, incidentally, the only president (so far all men) who has made a come-back and achieved a separate second term as president.

The first vice-president to succeed after the death in office of his president was John Tyler, born in 1790 and becoming president in 1841. His predecessor was the unfortunate William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who had the shortest period in office of any president. Major-General Harrison was sixty-eight when he was elected, and exceptionally garrulous with a fancy for making comparisons with Roman history. Daniel Webster vetted Harrison's inaugural speech and claimed he had cut out seventeen references to Roman proconsuls, but it still took two hours to deliver on a bitterly cold day on 4 March 1841; and it was delivered in the open by Harrison standing without hat, coat or gloves. Not surprisingly at his age he developed pneumonia and died exactly a month later on 4 April. It was a high price to pay for foolishness.

William Henry Harrison was the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison. The second president John Adams is the only one who fathered a presidential son: the sixth president, John Quincy Adams. Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt were distant cousins although FDR's wife Eleanor had been born a Roosevelt and she was the niece of Theodore.

There have been in all nine vice-presidents who succeeded to the office of president, four of them after their predecessor was assassinated, one after his predecessor abdicated, and four of them after their predecessor died more or less normally in office. Foolishness was a factor in at least one case. Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president, at the age of sixty-five laid the cornerstone of the Washington Memorial on a hot day in July 1850, over-exposed himself to the heat, ate milk ice and cherries, both of which he knew disagreed with him, and died of acute gastroenteritis a few days later. …

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