Joseph R. Biden Jr. has just been elected as the 46th President of the United States. Although Biden served in the Senate for 36 years, he is perhaps best known as Barack Obama’s Vice President from 2009-17. Biden will become the first former VP elected to the presidency in 32 years. The last time this occurred was in the 1988 election, when George H.W. Bush became president after serving as VP under Ronald Reagan from 1981-89. Biden will also become the first challenger to defeat an incumbent president since Bill Clinton bested Bush in the 1992 election. Even though it’s been decades since a former VP was elected president, there have been many former VPs who became US president. In fact, it’s one of the most common routes to the presidency. Let’s take a look at the 15 men who became President of the United States after being Vice President.
John Adams – Adams was the first Vice President in US history, serving under George Washington from 1789-97. He was President for one full term (1797-1801). Confusingly, at this time, the runner-up of the presidential election became the new VP, meaning that Adams became VP because he was the second most popular candidate after Washington. This also meant that when Adams finally became president, his toughest opponent, Thomas Jefferson, served as his VP. If this rule were still in effect today, it would mean that Donald Trump’s VP would be Hillary Clinton. Because of this rule, Adams also became the only president to be defeated by his own VP, losing to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election. The 1800 election is more significant for other reasons, though: it represented the first peaceful transfer of power in US history (Washington did not seek re-election after his second term). The “runner-up rule” for VP was discarded in 1804.
Thomas Jefferson – Jefferson is the only former VP to serve two full terms as president (1801-09), and the only one to directly defeat the president he had served under. Following the precedent set by George Washington, Jefferson declined to seek a third term. He is best known for the Louisiana Purchase, which exponentially expanded the size of the nation. Jefferson didn’t just expand the size of the country, though; he also greatly expanded the power of the president despite being a small-government advocate.
Martin Van Buren – Van Buren was VP during Andrew Jackson’s second term (1833-37). By this point, VPs were no longer the runners-up of the previous election, meaning Van Buren was Jackson’s ally, not his opponent. After Jackson declined to seek a third term, Van Buren was nominated for the presidency and served one full term (1837-41); following a catastrophic economic mess that Jackson had left behind, Van Buren was defeated by William Henry Harrison in the 1840 election.
John Tyler – Tyler served the remainder of William Henry Harrison’s term (1841-45) after Harrison’s death. His 31 day term as VP is the shortest in US history, just as Harrison’s 31 day term as president is the shortest in US history. After becoming president, Tyler was ousted by his own party, the Whigs, and was not nominated for another term (turns out it’s pretty hard to get nominated when you don’t have any party affiliation). Despite his unpopularity, Tyler established the precedent that if a president dies, the VP becomes full, legitimate president – not just an “interim” or “acting” president. While this this rule is second nature to us today, when Harrison died, it was entirely unclear what would happen next. Was Tyler a fully legitimate president? Was he a placeholder? Should there be a special election? Tyler’s staunch refusal to be known as “acting president,” and his insistence on serving the rest of Harrison’s term, set the tone for all future presidential successions.
Millard Fillmore – Fillmore served the remainder of Zachary Taylor’s term (1850-53) after Taylor’s death. Fillmore was a hardworking and intelligent self-made man, but many expected that he would be a weak president. Fillmore proved everyone wrong by firing Taylor’s entire cabinet and vehemently pursuing the Compromise of 1850. Fillmore’s independent streak did not win him many supporters, though, and he was not nominated for his own term. He was the final Whig president. He would later be nominated for president by obscure, minor parties, but was never again a serious contender for the presidency. Honest and reflective to a fault, Fillmore once famously declined an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, claiming he didn’t deserve the degree because he couldn’t read the Latin on the diploma.
Andrew Johnson – Johnson served the remainder of Abraham Lincoln’s term (1865-69) after Lincoln’s assassination. As VP, he held the unusual distinction of belonging to a different political party (Democratic) than his president (Republican), something that had not happened since the earliest days of the presidency. This was because Johnson had not joined the Confederacy and Lincoln wanted to present the image of unity by running with a southerner. As president, Johnson was deeply unpopular as a Democrat up against the Radical Republicans of Congress. He was impeached and was not nominated for another term.
Chester A. Arthur – A former machine politician, Arthur served the remainder of James Garfield’s term (1881-85) after Garfield’s assassination. Although many feared that Arthur’s administration would be corrupt, Arthur won widespread admiration for his efforts to end machine politics – the very system that had elevated him to power. Although Arthur had pleasantly surprised nearly everyone with his honesty, he was not viewed as a strong candidate for reelection. Arthur himself did not actively seek reelection, probably due to failing health, and was not nominated for another term. He died the following year.
Theodore Roosevelt – Roosevelt served the remainder of William McKinley’s term after McKinley’s assassination in 1901. At age 42, he is the youngest person to ever become president (this distinction is commonly given, inaccurately, to John F. Kennedy. Kennedy is the youngest to be elected president). In the 1904 election, TR became the first person to be nominated for another term after succeeding a president who had died in office: Tyler, Fillmore, Johnson, and Arthur had all failed to do this. He won the election, also becoming the first of that group to win a term in his own right. In all, TR served as president from 1901-09. Although Roosevelt had initially declined to seek a third term, he broke with tradition by running again in the 1912 election after being disappointed with the performance of his chosen successor, William H. Taft. Taft and Roosevelt both lost to Woodrow Wilson.
Calvin Coolidge – A poster-child for fiscally conservative, laissez-faire government, Coolidge served the remainder of Warren Harding’s term (1923-25) after Harding’s death. Like Roosevelt, Coolidge was nominated for another term and won, overseeing most of the Roaring Twenties, but from a very comfortable distance, of course. In total, Coolidge served as president from 1923-29, conveniently leaving office just before the stock market crash of 1929 that doomed his successor, Herbert Hoover.
Harry S. Truman – Truman was the third VP to serve under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Truman served the remainder of Roosevelt’s fourth term (1945-49). He was nominated for president in 1948, when he executed a historic come-from-behind victory and served his own full term from 1949-53. The 22nd Amendment was passed during Truman’s second term, which prevented any president from serving more than two full terms – a four-term presidency like FDR’s would never happen again. The amendment also stipulated that if a VP became president and served more than 2 years of his predecessor’s term, he would be eligible to run for another term, but not for a third. Confusingly, this rule did not apply to Truman; he was grandfathered in, meaning Truman actually was eligible to seek a third term. He considered running again, but ultimately decided not to. The atomic-bomb-dropping president remains an icon in my hometown, even lending his name to our major league sports complex.
Lyndon B. Johnson – Johnson became president after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, serving the remainder of Kennedy’s term (1963-65). Johnson was nominated for his own term and won, serving as president from 1963-69 in total. Because Johnson had served fewer than two years of Kennedy’s term, he was eligible for the 1968 election. Initially he tried to secure the nomination for another term, but soon withdrew, probably due to a myriad of factors: civil unrest at home, an unpopular war abroad, and declining health. Had Johnson run again and won, he would have lived through his final term by just two days.
Richard Nixon – Nixon had served as VP under Dwight Eisenhower from 1953-61, meaning he was actually VP before Johnson and could technically be placed earlier on this list. However, I’ve placed him after Johnson since he became president later. After serving for two terms as VP under Eisenhower, Nixon ran for president in the 1960 election, losing to Kennedy. Nixon finally won his bid for president in the 1968 election. The eight year gap between his vice presidency (ended 1961) and presidency (began 1969) is the longest of anyone on this list. Nixon was re-elected in a landslide in the 1972 election, but his second term was marred by the Watergate scandal. Facing possible impeachment, Nixon resigned in 1974. He is the only president to resign.
Gerald Ford – Ford is one of the most unusual cases in presidential and vice presidential history. Before Nixon resigned in 1974, his vice president, Spiro Agnew, was caught up in scandals of his own and resigned. Nixon appointed Ford to replace Agnew, which became highly significant when Nixon himself decided to resign. As VP, Ford ascended to the presidency and served the remainder of Nixon’s second term (1974-77). This means that Ford is the only person to serve as US president without being elected to the office in any capacity – not even as vice president. He was nominated for his own term in the 1976 election, but lost to Jimmy Carter. His term is the shortest in US history among presidents who did not die in office. Ford was also the third straight president who had previously served as VP, following Johnson and Nixon.
George H.W. Bush – The senior president Bush had been Ronald Reagan’s VP from 1981-89 and won his own term as president in the 1988 election. He became the first incumbent VP to succeed to the presidency by election (not by death or resignation) since Van Buren succeeded Jackson in 1837. Despite historically high popularity following the lopsided outcome of the Gulf War, Bush ultimately lost his bid for reelection to Bill Clinton. Bush’s son of the same name served as president from 2001-09.
Joe Biden – 32 years after George H.W. Bush became president, we will have a former VP as president. Biden, a long-serving senator and former VP, has just been elected the 46th president of the United States. Biden began his political career in the early 1970s and it’s been a long road to the top. He served 36 years in the Senate, making serious bids for the presidency in 1988 and 2008. He was chosen as Barack Obama’s VP, serving in that capacity from 2009-17. Although he was frequently floated as a possible candidate for president in the 2016 election, much like how Bush had succeeded Reagan, Biden decided not to run. In 2020, he defeated President Trump and is set to become the 46th president on January 20, 2021. Biden will be the oldest president at the time of his inauguration – he will be 78 years old on January 20, 2021, easily surpassing Trump (70), Reagan (69), and Harrison (68). He will also be the oldest US president in any capacity, as Reagan was 77 when he left office and Trump will be 74. Biden’s vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, will set several records in her own right. She will be the first female VP, the first African-American VP, and the first Indian-American VP in US history. She will be the first VP with significant non-European ancestry since Charles Curtis, the Native American who was Hoover’s VP and came from the Kaw Tribe in Kansas.
VP-to-President Trivia and Records:
Two of the four presidents depicted on Mt. Rushmore are former VPs (Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt).
Longest streak of presidents who had served as VP: 3 (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, 1963-1977)
Youngest former VP to become president: Theodore Roosevelt, 42
Oldest former VP to become president: Joe Biden, 78 (Biden turns 78 on November 20, 2020 and is set to be sworn in as 46th president on January 20, 2021)
First former VP to become president: John Adams, 1797
Latest former VP to become president: Joe Biden (set for 2021), previously George H.W. Bush (1989)
Longest time between presidents who had been VP: 28 years (1809-1837, 1993-2021)
Only former VP to serve two full terms as president: Thomas Jefferson
VPs who became president due to their predecessor’s death: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson
Presidents with VP experience who were not nominated for another term: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur
Presidents with VP experience who won terms in their own right: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, Joe Biden
Only VP to become president due to their predecessor’s resignation: Gerald Ford
Presidents with VP experience whose children became president: John Adams (John Quincy Adams), George H.W. Bush (George W. Bush)
Longest gap between vice presidency and presidency: Richard Nixon, 8 years
Incumbent vice presidents who were elected president: Martin Van Buren (1836 election), George H.W. Bush (1988 election)
Presidents with VP experience who were impeached: Andrew Johnson (Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached)
Presidents who had served as VP under the “runner-up rule”: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson
Only president to be defeated by his own VP: John Adams, defeated by Thomas Jefferson
Presidents who had been VP for a president of another party: Thomas Jefferson (a Democratic-Republican under Federalist John Adams), Andrew Johnson (a Democrat under Republican Abraham Lincoln)
Presidents with VP experience who had no political party: John Tyler (expelled from Whig Party)
Best Facial Hair Among VPs who Became President: Chester A. Arthur, and you cannot convince me otherwise.