America has had 43 men serve as President of the United States over the past 224 years since George Washington was inaugurated in 1789. Ten of those Presidents, however, served less than one full term in office.
Of those ten, two served less than a year each—William Henry Harrison, one month; and James A. Garfield, six and a half months.
Of those ten, five served between 16 months and 34 months in office—Zachary Taylor, 16 months; Warren G. Harding, 29 months; Gerald Ford, 29 and a half months; Millard Fillmore, 32 months; and John F. Kennedy, 34 months.
The remaining three Presidents served more than three years, but less than four, as successors to the Presidency during the term—Chester Alan Arthur, 41 and a half months; Andrew Johnson, 46 and a half months; and John Tyler, 47 months.
Five of these ten Presidents died in office—Harrison, Taylor, Garfield, Harding, and Kennedy, with Harrison, Taylor and Harding dying of natural causes, and Garfield and Kennedy being assassinated.
One President succeeded after the resignation of the sitting President, Ford after Richard Nixon left office facing an impeachment trial due to the Watergate Scandal.
Five of these Presidents finished the term of the previous President—Tyler, Fillmore, Johnson,. Arthur, and Ford, and none were elected to the White House.
Which of these Presidents made a difference?
John Tyler brought about the acquisition of Texas during his time in office, along with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty with Great Britain, dealing with Canadian boundary issues.
Millard Fillmore brought about the delay of the Civil War by his agreement to sign the Compromise of 1850, and sent Commodore Matthew Perry to open up Japan to the Western world, although by the time Perry made contact with Japan, Franklin Pierce had become President.
Chester Alan Arthur signed into law the first Civil Service Reform bill for the federal government, the Pendleton Act.
Warren G. Harding pardoned Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs from prison for having violated the Espionage and Sedition Acts during World War I; and an important treaty, the Washington Naval Agreements, was negotiated by his Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the 1930s.
John F. Kennedy was the most accomplished, responsible for actions promoting civil rights; negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; promoting the Peace Corps; advancing the US Space program to land a man on the moon; and avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, which undermined his popularity, but is now seen as having been the correct action to move the country away from the Watergate Scandal; resolved the Magaguez Affair with Cambodia, with the successful return of the hostages of that US Navy ship by direct action of the US Marines; and appointed long time Associate Justice John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, a great influence on the Court for 35 years.
The three shortest term Presidents had little impact, with only Garfield regarded as a major loss, since his education and his accomplishments, both politically and intellectually, made him seem a person who might have had a dramatic effect on the Presidency, had he lived to serve a full term.
The leading tragedy of these ten “less than one term” Presidents clearly was Andrew Johnson, who pursued a confrontational policy with Congress, showed intense racism in his approach to the issue of how African Americans should be treated in the post Civil War South, and faced impeachment and trial (which was unjust), but was caused to a great extent by his horrible relationship with the Republican majority in both houses of Congress.
If one was to rank where these ten Presidents belong in ratings in history, one just needs to look at the C-Span poll of 42 Presidents by 64 scholars, conducted in 2009 as George W. Bush left office.
What we find is the following rankings:
Of course, listing Harrison and even Garfield may seem silly to many, since their tenure in office was so short, but it is interesting that Garfield’s potential and promise as a possible full term President is the idea now being promoted by scholars, who see him as a particularly tragic loss.
In the long run, it is clear that Kennedy and Ford will always stand out as the two best “less than one term” Presidents, with Garfield’s potential also significant, and otherwise, Tyler, Fillmore and Arthur having the greatest impact in their times. Harrison and Taylor had little impact, mostly remembered for their military exploits as President. Harding is still regarded as the worst President of the 20th century, particularly because of the massive political scandals in his administration, and Johnson is just seen as a total disaster, only standing above hapless full term President James Buchanan, so Harding and Johnson are seen as “failures”!
So this is the analysis of our ten “less than one term” Presidents!