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Seven Presidents Served In the 20 Years Before the Civil War

The Challenge of Keeping the United States Together Proved Impossible

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In the 20 years before the Civil War a seven men served presidential terms ranging from difficult to disastrous. Two Whig presidents died in office, and five others only managed to serve a single term.

American was expanding, and in the 1840s it fought a successful, though controversial, war with Mexico. But it was a very rough time to serve as president, as the nation was slowly coming apart, split by the enormous issue of slavery.

William Henry Harrison, 1841

William Henry Harrison
Library of Congress

William Henry Harrison was an elderly candidate who had become known as an Indian fighter in his youth, before and during the War of 1812. He was the victor in the election of 1840, following an election campaign known for slogans and songs and not much substance.

Harrison's claim to fame was that he gave the worst inaugural address in American history, on March 4, 1841. He spoke outdoors for two hours in bad weather, caught a cold which eventually turned into pneumonia, and died a month later. He served the shortest term of any American president.

John Tyler, 1841-1845

John Tyler
Library of Congress

John Tyler became the first vice president to ascend to the presidency upon the death of a president. And that almost did not happen, as the Constitution seemed to be unclear about what would happen if a president died.

When Tyler was informed by the cabinet of William Henry Harrison that he would not inherit the full powers of the job, he resisted their grab at power. And the "Tyler precedent" became the way vice presidents became president for many years.

Tyler, though elected as a Whig, offended many in the party, and only served one term as president.

James K. Polk, 1845-1849

James K. Polk
Library of Congress

James K. Polk became the first dark horse candidate for president when the Democratic convention in 1844 became deadlocked and the two favorites, Lewis Cass and former president Martin Van Buren, could not win. Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot of the convention, and was surprised to learn, a week later, that he was his party's nominee for president.

Polk won the election of 1844, and served one term in the White House.

Zachary Taylor, 1849-1850

Zachary Taylor
Library of Congress

Zachary Taylor was a hero of the Mexican War who was nominated by the Whig Party as its candidate in the election of 1848.

The dominant issue of the era was slavery, and whether it would spread to western territories. Taylor was moderate on the issue, and his administration set the stage for the Compromise of 1850.

In July 1850 Taylor became ill with a digestive ailment, and he died after serving a year and and four months as president.

Millard Fillmore, 1850-1853

Millard Fillmore
Library of Congress

Millard Fillmore became president following the death of Zachary Taylor, and it was Fillmore who signed into law the bills that became known as the Compromise of 1850.

After serving out Taylor's term in office, Fillmore did not receive his party's nomination for another term. He did later join the Know-Nothing Party, and ran a disastrous campaign for president under their banner in 1856.

Franklin Pierce, 1853-1857

Franklin Pierce
Library of Congress

The Whigs nominated another Mexican War hero, General Winfield Scott, as their candidate in 1852 at an epic brokered convention. And the Democrats nominated dark horse candidate Franklin Pierce, a New Englander with southern sympathies. During his term in office the divide over slavery intensified, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 was a source of great controversy.

Pierce was not renominated by the Democrats in 1856, and he returned to New Hampshire where he spent a sad and somewhat scandalous retirement.

James Buchanan, 1857-1861

James Buchanan
Library of Congress

James Buchanan of Pennsylvania had served in various capacities in government for decades by the time he was nominated by the Democratic Party in 1856. He was elected, and fell ill at the time of his inaugural and it was widely suspected that he had been poisoned as part of an unsuccessful assassination plot.

Buchanan's time in the White House was marked by great difficulty, as the country was coming apart. The raid by John Brown intensified the great divide over slavery, and when Lincoln's election prompted some of the slave states to secede from the Union, Buchanan was ineffective at keeping the Union together.

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