When President Barack Obama wakes up tomorrow , the U.S. will have gone 18,968 days without a president dying in office, surpassing the previous record that began when George Washington was inaugurated in 1789 and ended when William Henry Harrison died in 1841.
This should give us pause. The American political parties are beginning the slow process of determining who their presidential candidates should be. But the choice of vice-presidential candidates will be rushed through next summer in a flurry of political calculations. Our nation's history suggests that we should be more cautious.
Eight presidents have died in office, four from natural causes. Most of these presidential deaths resulted in significant changes in the direction of the country.
When Harrison died thirty-two days into his term, there were questions of succession that had to be settled. The Constitution specified that the powers of the presidency would "devolve on the Vice President," but there was no agreed upon understanding of that phrase. Did Vice President John Tyler fully gain the powers and duties of the presidency, including the title of president, and serve the entire remaining term? On the advice of Harrison's cabinet, Tyler decided to have himself sworn in as president, but soon shocked them by not emulating Harrison's practice of deferring to their votes in the cabinet. Meanwhile the Congress, after some debate, held a vote confirming that Tyler gained the full powers of office. But in five months he had angered his fellow Whig partisans by not fully supporting the Whig agenda and he was officially expelled from the party.
(The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, specifies that the vice president "shall become President" when taking office.)
The Tyler story illustrates one reason why presidents who ascend to the presidency frequently take the nation in new directions. Vice-presidential candidates are seldom chosen because of their similarities to the party's main candidate but rather because they have perceived differences that either create balance or appeal to more voters.
Thus, when the Whig Party chose slaveholding southerner Zachary Taylor for president in 1848, they paired him with New Yorker Millard Fillmore, who was perceived to be a moderate abolitionist. This proved to be consequential. Taylor surprised slaveholders by opposing the expansion of slavery into the southwest, but his death from gastric distress paved the way for Fillmore to accept the Compromise of 1850 which could potentially have permitted it.
Similarly, Andrew Johnson in 1864 became Abraham Lincoln's vice-president on that year's "National Union" party, largely because of his former affiliation with the Democratic Party and his Tennessee roots. But the sudden loss of Lincoln's leadership contributed to Johnson's inability to get along with the Congress, resulting in a loss of administration control over Reconstruction policy and eventually an impeachment trial for Johnson.
In 1880, presidential nominee James Garfield was part of the "half breed" faction of the Republicans who favored political reforms, so the party chose the anti-reform "stalwart" Chester Arthur as vice-president. The public outrage over the circumstances of Garfield's assassination forced Arthur to sign the Pendleton Act, a reform law that dramatically reduced the number of patronage political positions.
Geographic balance between the northeast and the Midwest was a primary motivation in the 1900 selection of Theodore Roosevelt to be William McKinley's vice president. While the two may have shared similar foreign policy views, Roosevelt's domestic policy ideas took the country in a direction unlikely to have been pursued by his assassinated predecessor.
Both geography and experience played a part in the 1960 selection of Lyndon B. Johnson as John F. Kennedy's running mate. There has been a long-standing debate about whether Kennedy would have pursued the same course as Johnson in Vietnam. But it is clear that Johnson's ability to move Congress to support his aggressive domestic agenda went well beyond what Kennedy would have likely achieved.
The sudden deaths of Warren Harding in 1923 from a heart attack and Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 from a stroke seem to be the exceptions. While Calvin Coolidge was not plagued by the corruption of Harding's cabinet, his administration was an inactive one that would have pleased his predecessor's call for "normalcy." And although Roosevelt and Harry Truman were extremely different personally, it is less clear where their policy decisions would have differed.
While the U.S. endures a long examination of possible presidential candidates, history suggests the wisdom of taking more care in the selection of the second name on the ballot.
Michael J. Towle is chair of the Department of Political Science at Mount St. Mary's University. His email is email@example.com.