The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected

The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected

D.G. Hewitt - June 14, 2018

Ever since the office of the President of the United States of America was established in the year 1789, it has been the dream of politicians of all party affiliations to hold the office. To date, 44 men have realized the dream. From George Washington to Donald Trump, a wide range of men, with varying outlooks and abilities, have served as President, each shaping the nation’s history – for better or for worse – in their own, unique way.

But not all of these 44 men (and yes, they have all been men) got to the top after standing for election as President. A select group got the top job by default. Circumstances beyond their control presented them with the opportunity to step up from Vice President to President. Some seized the opportunity with relish. Others were perhaps less reluctant to become the most powerful man in the country. And, while some made the most of their time in office, others left behind less notable legacies.

So here we have the nine men who assumed the office of President without having first been elected to the post:

The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected
Gerald Ford held the two highest offices without being elected to either. Wikimedia Commons.

Gerald Ford

Any list of the men who became President without being elected to the office must surely start with Gerald Ford. After all, this is the only man in American history to have not only assumed the role of Commander-in-Chief without winning an election but to have assumed the role of Vice President without having been given the nod by the Electoral College either. Despite this, he rarely seemed out of his depth in the roles entrusted to him and his time in both of the big two offices is, by and large, remembered favorably.

Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in July of 1913. As a young man, he committed himself to serving his country. So, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Ford, who was only fresh out of Yale Law School, signed up. He served in the Naval Reserve, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant commander, and, almost soon as the war was over, he went into politics.

For 25 years, Ford served as the Representative for Michigan’s 5th Congressional District. By all accounts, his time in the role was remarkable in that it was largely unremarkable. Ford was humble, modest and hardworking, turning down overtures to run for Senate or for the office of Governor of Michigan. He did, however, serve on the Warren Commission as it investigated the assassination of JFK, a role in which he came to the attention of the dead president’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Impressed by Ford’s abilities, Johnson invited him to become the Minority Leader in the House of Representatives. Ford accepted the post.

By 1973, Ford was traveling across the States so much that he vowed to his wife that he would soon resign and retire. But his life plans were scuppered by Spiro Agnew. The then Vice President shockingly resigned amid claims of tax evasion and money laundering. Senior figures in Congress strong-armed President Nixon to appoint Ford as his number two. He accepted and so, on December 6, 1973, Gerald Ford became Vice President of the United States without being elected to the office. But more was to come.

On August 1, 1974, Ford was informed that agents investigating the Watergate scandal had found the ‘smoking gun’ implicating Nixon in the affair. Just eight days later, Nixon resigned and Ford was sworn into the highest office in the land. Pointedly he stated to the American public: “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers.”

It was an office he would not hold for long. In the 1976 Presidential election, Ford (apparently reluctantly) agreed to run. Though he beat Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, he lost to the Democrat Jimmy Carter. He has gone down in the history books as a hardworking, largely honest and humble leader. However, in some eyes, his pardoning of Nixon will forever tarnish his record in office.

The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected
John Tyler holds the unique position of being the longest-serving non-elected president. The Times.

John Tyler

John Tyler may not even be in any ‘top 20 of most famous Presidents’ lists, but he nevertheless holds a unique place in American history books. The tenth President of the United States was the first man to hold the office without having been elected to it. What’s more, he served longer than any other President not elected to the office and his ascension to the top job has been copied by almost every other man put in the same position ever since.

That Tyler made it to the top of American politics is, in itself, not that surprising. After all, he was born, in March of 1790, into a wealthy and privileged family. His father roomed with Thomas Jefferson at college and, like him, Tyler studied law. Upon graduating, he soon set about realizing his own political ambitions. He was elected to represent Charles City County, Virginia, in the House of Delegates, a post he held for five successive one-year terms.

Following the War of 1812 – which the staunchly anti-British Tyler supported whole-heartedly – Tyler returned home to practice law before returning to state politics. By 1827, he had risen to become a Senator and then, by 1836, he was respected enough to be considered running for Vice President as a Whig. He would eventually win the office in 1841, stressing his commitment to defending and promoting the rights of the States. Notably, Tyler assumed that his new job would give him little to do. Within days of being sworn into office, he returned home, expecting to be left largely in peace.

Just over a month after he took the job, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia. Tyler stepped into the role, putting the rules of the Constitution into practice for the first time. Not everyone was impressed. Indeed, some of Tyler’s political opponents continued to address him as ‘Vice President’ or even ‘Acting President’. Caught between the Whigs and the Democrat factions, he struggled to achieve much at all domestically, though his foreign policy accomplishments are looked upon favorably by historians.

When his term of office came to an end in 1845, Tyler refused to run again. Instead he retired to a plantation in Virginia. Famously, his neighbors appointed him to a small, largely insignificant local political office in order to mock his fall from the top. But Tyler took the role every bit as seriously as he took the top job despite his old age. He died in January of 1862, though, thanks to his allegiance to the Confederacy, his passing was not officially recognized in Washington.

The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected
President Fillmore only ever served half a term in the top job, even if he wanted more. Wikimedia Commons.

Millard Fillmore

In the middle of the 19th century, the Whigs dominated American politics. However, their run of good fortune was to come to an end with the presidency of Millard Fillmore. One of the country’s lesser-known leaders, he ultimately failed to even win the support of his own party. That said, however, though his term in office was brief, Fillmore has been credited with making a few bold moves and even with changing the course of US history for the better.

Unlike many Presidents, Fillmore was not born into a political family. Instead, he was born in 1800 into poverty. His parents scraped a living as tenant farmers in New York State, though, through hard work and determination, young Millard made it through law school. Before long, he was making a name for himself in the Buffalo area and, in 1828, he was elected to the New York Assembly. Just four years later, he was in the House of Representatives, where he tied his flag to the Whig Party mast.

By 1848, Fillmore’s star had risen sufficiently high for him to receive the Vice Presidential nomination as the running mate for Zachary Taylor. The two men were far from political perfect matches – in fact, Taylor hardly ever spoke to his number two – but they won the election and Fillmore was sworn into the second-highest office in the land in March 1849. Just 15 months later, history came knocking. President Taylor died suddenly, Fillmore stepped into the top job.

According to most accounts, Fillmore’s presidency lacked a consistent vision, and the man himself certainly lacked leadership. Though he opposed slavery on a moral level, he didn’t see it as the government’s place to interfere here. Moreover, in choosing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, he has been judged to have been on the wrong side of history. In the end, he only served half a term; though he wanted to run again, his Whig colleagues refused to back him. He returned to his native Buffalo and dedicated himself to civic matters. He died in March 1874.

The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected
Andrew Johnson took over as President hours after Lincoln’s assassination. Wikimedia Commons.

Andrew Johnson

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is, without doubt, one of the defining moments in American history. And in more ways than one. Certainly, for Andrew Johnson, the shooting at Ford’s Theatre was a pivotal moment. It means that, as Lincoln’s Vice President, he stepped into the very top job at a moment when tensions between the North and the South were reaching fever pitch.

Johnson was one of the select few of the American political elite to have grown up in poverty. He was born in North Carolina in 1808 and was forced to make his own way in the world rather than rise up through family connections. He started out as an apprentice tailor, though he soon gave that up and went it alone. He married and opened a tailoring shop of his own in the town of Greenville, Tennessee. However, his true passions laid elsewhere. By the 1830s, he had become actively involved in local politics and had started making a name for himself as a great speaker and a canny debater.

Johnson rose to become a Member of the House of Representatives. Throughout the 1840s and then the 1850s, he championed the cause of the common man and even went so far as calling for all poor men to be given free farms. Then, his real moment came. At the height of the secession crisis, Johnson refused to give up his Senate seat, even when Tennessee seceded. This won him the admiration of the North, and of Lincoln in particular.

In 1862, President Lincoln appointed Johnson the Military Governor of Tennessee, tasking him with rebuilding the state. Then, even though he was a Southerner and a Democrat, Johnson was named as Lincoln’s running mate for the 1864 election. Less than two months later after the pair’s election victory, Lincoln was dead and Johnson was President. The new top man worked to complete his predecessor’s reconstruction of the states, and he even pardoned former opponents who would swear an oath of allegiance.

Before too long, however, the opposition of Radical Republicans won out. In March 1867, they succeeded in impeaching Johnson. Though he was tried and then acquitted by the Senate, his political career was all but over. He tried to run for President again, but fell at the first hurdle. Johnson died in 1875 in his native Tennessee. He will forever be remembered for being Lincoln’s VP – and for being the first President to be impeached.

The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected
Chester A. Arthur has gone down in history as one of America’s most forgettable Presidents. Wikimedia Commons.

Chester A. Arthur

Every so often – usually around election time – certain magazines and websites like to compile lists of the least consequential, and most forgettable Presidents of all time. While such lists often vary, they usually have one thing in common: the inclusion of Chester A. Arthur. That’s not to say he wasn’t a political animal. He was a career politician and pounced on the presidency when it came to him. History, however, has not judged him so favorably.

The man who was to become America’s 21st President was born to Irish immigrants in Fairfield, Vermont in 1881. His Baptist preacher father instilled in young Chester a strong work ethic and, after graduating from Union College in 1848, he took the bar and then went to work as a lawyer in New York City during the 1850s.

By 1881, he was respected and renowned enough in the Big Apple to be made the Collector of the Port of New York – a position granted to him by President Grant himself. Here, he exerted his authority over the Customs House, demanding nothing less than complete honesty from his thousands of workers. At the same time, however, rumors soon began to circulate. Apparently, Arthur liked to receive kickbacks.

It was party politics and internal scheming in the Republican party which saw Arthur offered the position of Vice President, an offer he, of course, accepted. Then, just six months into his Vice Presidency, President James Garfield was shot and killed. Arthur took on the top job. Contrary to expectations, he immediately set about addressing corruption and cronyism in Washington politics. Unsurprisingly, this won him few friends. However, he did achieve a few things of note during his time in office, most notably his passing of America’s first Immigration Act.

In the end, Chester’s Presidential bid was half-hearted, to say the least. Not only did he lack any notable political allies and popular support, he was in poor health suffering from kidney disease. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t win the 1884 election. He died just two years later. While he may not have won popular acclaim, he stands out as an example of a President – and an unelected one at that – successfully rising above partisan party politics.

The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected
President Theodore Roosevelt may not have been elected first time round, but seized his opportunity.

Theodore Roosevelt

Only a small number of Presidents who got the job without being elected went on to establish themselves as true American political greats. One of those was Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, while it was a stroke of fortune that got him into the big job in the first place, he made the absolute most of his ascension, and these days is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest leaders of all time.

When he was born in New York City in 1901, few would have imagined that Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was destined for great things. He was, by all accounts, a sickly child. However, he was determined to overcome this, embracing a tough, outdoor lifestyle despite his asthma. These early struggles made him adopt a tough, macho persona, one he would carry with him into adult life. What’s more, he was largely self-taught, with his homeschooling helping him earn a place at Harvard College and propelling him into a career as a historian and acclaimed popular writer.

By the 1890s, Roosevelt was politically active. His burgeoning career was interrupted by the Spanish-American War – in which he, of course, took part – but by 1898, he had won the election as Governor of New York. Just two years later, William McKinley invited Roosevelt to be his running mate in the 1900 election. The two men promised peace and prosperity for the United States – and they won by a landslide. Vice President Roosevelt was sworn in March 1901.

On September 6, 1901, President McKinley was shot twice by an anarchist and died. Roosevelt’s time had come. He became President at the age of just 42 – the youngest man to ever hold the office. He immediately set about implementing his vision for America: under his ‘Square Deal’, regulation would be eased, jobs created and National Parks opened. On the global stage, he also got busy promoting American naval power and brokering numerous deals, most of them advantageous to the US.

So popular were his domestic reforms with the American public that Roosevelt felt confident enough to run for office on his own terms in 1904. Again, he won by a landslide. His protégé William Howard Taft then won in 1904. Roosevelt toyed with the idea of a comeback in 1912 and even in 1919, though his fellow Republicans declined to back him. Even away from the White House, he pushed himself to the limit, exploring the Amazon and intervening in international diplomacy. He eventually died in 1919 at the age of just 61. Despite the circumstances in which he first gained the Presidency, he continues to be widely seen as one of the greatest men to have held the office.

The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected
President Calvin Coolidge took a hands-off approach to a Presidency he was never elected into.

Calvin Coolidge

On the evening of August 2, 1923, President Warren G. Harding spent the evening in a San Francisco hotel bed as his wife read to him. He was recuperating from serious illness, though his personal physicians were hopeful that the President would get better. All of a sudden, however, Harding collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was just 57 years old. Many miles away, Calvin Coolidge was woken from his sleep. At 2:30 in the morning, he was informed he was the President. His own father, a public notary, administered the oath of office.

While the manner of his appointment would have been a shock, Coolidge had arguably long been aiming for the very top job in American politics. Born in 1872, Coolidge was the son of a village shopkeeper. Despite his humble beginnings, hard work and intellect got him into Amherst College, from where he graduated with honors. From then on, it was a career in politics for young Calvin – and the only way was up.

After serving his time as a councilman for his native Northampton, Coolidge became the Republican Governor of Massachusetts. It was in this role where he first made his name. Clamping down hard on the Boston Police Strike of 1919 earned him a reputation as a tough guy and man of action. Buoyed by this, he was named as the Vice President, winning a joint ticket with Warren G. Harding. When Harding died all of a sudden, Coolidge stepped up and had the power he needed to put his conservative, small-government policies into action.

According to most accounts, President Coolidge’s lack of action made him very popular. He kept Federal power in check, letting the economy grow unhindered – and, some would say, unregulated. Moreover, his essential decency was a refreshing change from the personal scandals that had plagued President Harding’s time in office. Despite his popularity, Coolidge decided against standing again in the 1928 election. He served less than one full term, having never been elected as President. He died in 1933, just four years after stepping down, though he lived long enough to see the Great Depression hit the United States.

The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected
Harry Truman became President following the death of FDR – and immediately faced some tough choices.

Harry S. Truman

Harry Truman is one of the most famous – and most controversial – Presidents of the twentieth century. Certainly, he was the man in charge of some of the most momentous decisions in the nation’s history. All the more remarkable, then, that he made such decisions without having been elected to the highest office in the land.

The 33rd President of the United States was born in May 1884 in Lamar, Missouri. By all accounts, he enjoyed an idyllic childhood on the family farm. However, the youthful idyll was soon shattered. Despite suffering from relatively poor eyesight, in the final months of World War I, Wilson was sent to France to fight. By the end of the war, Truman had earned the rank of captain. More significantly, he had also developed special leadership skills – skills he would put to use in his political career.

Wilson was finally demobbed as a major in May 1919. He returned home to marry his sweetheart and, while he ran a shop for a short while, he soon was heading up the political ladder. He was first appointed to public office in 1922 and had made it to Senator by 1934. When World War II erupted, he was thrust onto the big stage. The Truman Committee, which he headed, was tasked with ensuring the efficiency of the US government’s wartime contracts. While his clampdown on waste certainly didn’t win him many friends, it did earn him influence and so, by 1945, he was appointed Vice President to FDR.

Given President Roosevelt’s ill health, Truman would have surely guessed he may be called upon to take on the top job. And that he was. Just three months into his fourth term – after an incredible 12 years in office – FDR died. Truman was boss and was sworn in on April 12, 1845. Within a matter of weeks, he was required to approve the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. His decision remains controversial to this day. What can’t be questioned is his post-war legacy. Truman was instrumental in establishing the United Nations, while the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan helped fund the rebuilding of Europe, keeping Communism at bay.

Truman stood for re-election in 1948 and, despite his approval ratings going as low as 36% at times, he came from behind to win. This time, he had the public backing to be President. However, while he oversaw economic prosperity at home, he became bogged down by the Korean War. In the end, his Presidency is viewed with mixed feelings, dividing supporters and critics. Truman died in 1972, aged 88.

The 9 Men who Became President Without Being Elected
LBJ was sworn in just two hours after JFK’s death. Wikimedia Commons.

Lyndon B. Johnson

In probably the most famous case of a Vice President stepping up to the Presidency without having been elected, Lyndon B. Johnson was famously sworn into office just minutes after it had been confirmed that President Kennedy had died from his gunshot wounds. Whether he carried on his predecessors’ good work, or whether he, in fact, derailed JFK’s plans for a new America continues to be the source of much fierce debate to this day.

The circumstances surrounding LBJ’s rise to the very top are, of course, well known. In November of 1963, President Kennedy was in Dallas, Texas, on the campaign trail, when he was assassinated. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a grizzly Texan, was appointed the 36th President of the United States. He swore the oath of office on board Air Force One, just two hours after his predecessor had passed away.

Johnson moved fast to take full control of his office. Convinced the American people needed to see a show of strength and decisiveness at such a time of tragedy, he immediately got to work. Within days, he had passed tax cuts and launched his so-called War on Poverty. And, within weeks, he took charge of efforts to pass the Civil Rights Bill.

When it came to re-election, Johnson was far from optimistic that the American people would vote for him in his own right. His fears were misplaced. He saw off the Democrat nomination of Barry Goldwater and started a second term, this time with the knowledge that the people wanted him, and not a youthful JFK, in the White House. As with many Presidents, his legacy is contested. According to his supporters, he was a civil rights pioneer and the architect of the visionary Great Society. To his critics, he merely took the glory from JFK in civil rights and, even worse, plunged America into the Vietnam War.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Presidential Biographies.”

“Former President Gerald Ford, nation’s 38th and only unelected President, dead at 93.” The Seattle Times, December 2006.

“Top 10 Forgettable Presidents”. Time Magazine.

“By the numbers: Second term presidents.” Caitlin Stark, CNN Politics, November 2012.

“Presidential Election Facts: U.S. Presidents Facts”.