A friend texted me yesterday. She’s visiting Washington, and wrote “How many Vice Presidents have become President? A friend was wondering in the National Portrait Gallery, and I figured you’d know off-hand.” Well, I did know, but it turns out the answer has changed fairly recently, so I figured it’s time to share with a wider audience.
The most common method for Vice Presidents to reach the Presidency is through succession. Four succeeded upon the deaths of the Presidents they’d been elected with:
- John Tyler, when William Henry Harrison died a month into his term, in April 1841.
- Millard Fillmore, upon Zachary Taylor’s death in 1850.
- Andrew Johnson, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865.
- Chester Arthur, when James Garfield finally succumbed to his assassin’s bullet (and his doctors’ ministrations) in September 1881.
Additionally, four other Vice Presidents succeeded to the Presidency, and then were later elected to their own terms as President:
- Theodore Roosevelt, who became the youngest President in history (aged 42) when William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901. TR then won the election of 1904.
- Calvin Coolidge, when Warren Harding died in 1923 (and Coolidge’s father administered the oath of office). Coolidge won his own term in 1924.
- Harry Truman, when Franklin Roosevelt died three months into his fourth term, in April 1945. Truman won the election of 1948, and was the last President eligible to run for a third term (though he chose not to).
- Lyndon Johnson, when John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Johnson was elected in 1964, and eligible to run in 1968 (he’d served less than half of Kennedy’s term), but opted not to.
Gerald Ford is the odd man out: the only Vice President to succeed to the Presidency when his predecessor—Richard Nixon—resigned in August 1974. Ford lost the election of 1976 to Jimmy Carter.
Finally, there are the Vice Presidents who were simply later elected President:
- John Adams, the first Vice President, who won the election of 1796 to become the second President.
- Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ Vice President, who then ran against Adams in 1800 and defeated him.
- Martin Van Buren, who was Andrew Jackson’s second Vice President, and then elected President himself in 1836.
- George H.W. Bush, the first sitting Vice President to be elected President in a century and a half, when he won the election of 1988 to succeed Ronald Reagan.
And, until recently, the only oddball on this list was Richard Nixon, who was Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President from 1953 to 1961, lost the election of 1960 to John Kennedy, and then won the Presidential election of 1968.
Nixon had been the only former Vice President to be elected President, until just recently, when Joe Biden—Barack Obama’s Vice President from 2009 to 2017—won the election of 2020.
So, that’s 15 Vice Presidents who also served as President. 15 of 49. The Vice Presidency is not nearly the Presidential stepping stone one might think. Actually, the most popular job for future Presidents is (no surprise) lawyer: 23 of the 45 Presidents have been lawyers. 21 were members of state legislatures, 19 were governors, 18 served in the House of Representatives, and 17 served in the Senate.