Thursday, April 25, 2019


"Now if you were to point your pistol at a king, the majesty of royalty you see, your hand would start to shake and all throughts of death and killing would be wiped from your mind as you would stand there in awe.....but a President? Why not shoot a President?"
--English Bob, Unforgiven

Every four years in the USA there's a presidential election and every time the same kind of discussions and comparisons arise.  What chance does this guy have, how many of that person have been elected.  I usually dig up info each time to see for myself, then forget.  So I figured I'd collect it all into one post for future reference and to settle some things for myself, and maybe others.

One of the favorite games people play is to look at the past and try to predict the future based on existing patterns.  In my opinion with the election of President Obama, all previous patterns and systems of prediction were utterly destroyed and no longer serve with any value, but its a tough thing to break with humans.  We were created and designed to see and recognize patterns even where there aren't any (that cloud looks like a lion!  That hanger looks like an octopus!).

So here's a breakdown of the presidents we've had and where they came from.  Overall, the United States has had 42 different men serve as presidents.  Grover Cleveland served twice in two different times (1885-1889 and 1893-1897) as 22nd and 24th terms of the presidency.  Before the Constitution was signed, there were 8 men who served as presidents before there was a United States of America, but they don't really count.

In addition there is an outlier: David Rice Atchison served as acting president for one day while the system waited for Zachary Taylor to arrive and be sworn in as president.  Travel back then wasn't as fast and reliable as it is today.

There have been 57 total four-year terms of the presidency in the United States, starting with George Washington in 1789. The presidency of William Henry Harrison, who died 31 days after taking office in 1841, was the shortest in American history. Franklin D. Roosevelt served the longest, over twelve years, before dying early in his fourth term in 1945.  Most presidents served one term, with FDR serving most of four terms.  After FDR, congress passed the 22nd amendment in 1951, limiting presidential service to two four-year terms.

Four US presidents have died in office of natural causes (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin D. Roosevelt), and four have been killed by assassins (Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy).

The main paths to become president are, in order of success:

Congress -  34
Governor - 17
Vice President - 14
Cabinet Office - 8
General - 9
Mayor - 3
Captain of Industry - 2

There have been a total of sixteen presidents who were Senators in their careers.  However only three have successfully gone from the Senate to the Presidency directly: Harding, Kennedy, and Obama.  Curiously two of them died in office, which if you believe in omens seemed like a bad one for President Obama.

The others served in other jobs or were out of office as Senator some years before successfully running for president.  Most of them are the little-known names like Pierce, Tyler, and Buchanan.  Five served more than one term, the rest were a single term or less (although Johnson served part of Kennedy's term and his own single term).

Andrew Johnson is the only president who then went back into congress, becoming a Senator after leaving office.  As the Senate nearly convicted him of abuse of power after he was impeached (for pardoning many confederates and how he controlled reconstruction by placing people into office in various southern states) I'm guessing that was an interesting reunion.

Eighteen men who had served in the House of Representatives have become president as well, including Abraham Lincoln.  Only one (James Garfield) moved directly from the House to the presidency (although Johnson became VP from the House then became president with Kennedy's death).

One man who was governor of a territory - Taft - (provisional governor of Cuba, and previously the Philippines after the Spanish-American War) has become president.  However, sixteen overall have become president after being governor: nine directly taking office of the presidency after being governor.  This is by far the most successful, direct path to the presidency in those terms.  The most recent governor to be president was George W Bush in 2000.

The first Vice President to assume the office of president due to the president leaving office prematurely was John Tyler in April of 1841 after the shortest term in office of any president.  Previous to that it was the law that the vice president became a sort of "caretaker" of the office until the election, but Tyler assumed full presidential duties and congress later made this law.

Overall, 14 different former vice presidents have become president of the United States.  However, only 2 took over that office immediately upon their president leaving office: Martin VanBuren in 1836 and George H W Bush in 1988.  All others either took office upon the premature end of a president's term, or after at least one other president served in office.  

Of those fourteen vice presidents who became president, five were due to a president leaving office prematurely, including Gerald Ford who took office when President Nixon resigned in 1974.  Of them, only two were successfully reelected: Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.  

That means that in reality, only eleven of the total forty-eight men who have served as vice president of the USA successfully turned the job into the presidency.  This isn't a very successful path to the job, over the years.

Overall, eight men served as Secretaries in various Cabinet offices under the president before themselves becoming President.  One was Secretary of War (Taft) and one was Secretary of Commerce (Hoover). Six of them were Secretaries of state, with three of them becoming president directly upon serving as Secretary of State (in a row: Madison, Monroe, and Adams).  However, the last president to have served as Secretary of State was James Buchanan in 1857 so its been a very long time since that was a step into office.  Hillary Clinton would have been the latest but she was defeated in 2016.

Nine men who were previously generals in the US military have become president: Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Pierce, Grant, Hays, Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, and Eisenhower.  Three (Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower) became a president immediately after serving as General in the military.  Overall twenty-two men who served in the US military have been president, a pretty large percentage of the overall total and the largest number in this list (the most common previous job is "Lawyer" with 26 examples, including men such as Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, and Lincoln).

Two men who have become president qualify in this category although several others probably could have done it such as Rockefeller or Carnegie.  Hoover became president in 1929 although he'd had political experience under Wilson, Coolidge, and Harding in various high offices under the presidency.  

Hoover's previous experience was that of a mining magnate and became famous after leading a charitable effort to feed starving people in Europe due to the devastation of WWI.  He spent millions of his own money and raised millions more in the effort, which started him on the path to public service.  The second is now president: Donald Trump, who took office in 2017 after having no political experience whatsoever.

EDIT: Mayor.  I left off a category which I should have included, that of mayor.  There have been three presidents who formerly were mayors, but none who were mayors immediately before becoming president.  Andrew Johnson was the first (Greeneville, Tennessee), then Grover Cleveland (Buffalo, New York), and finally Calvin Coolidge (Northampton, Massachusetts).  Its been 97 years since a mayor was president.

So there you have it, a quick and dirty breakdown of the presidents of the United States.  Now you can be armed when the discussion comes up.


JoelAT said...

Thanks for compiling this. Question though, you said 8 were president prior to the constitution being signed and that they don't matter; what do you mean?

Christopher R Taylor said...

Well they were president of the continental congress, in charge of the provisional government, but not really of the United States which didn't officially exist until 1783

More info

JoelAT said...

Gotcha, not Presidents of the Unite States than. Thank you for your response.