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5 Other Americans Who Were Kinda, Sorta President

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Here are four men and a woman who weren't really president, but were really close. 

1. John Hanson - 1781-1782

You may not know that America was not originally a constitutional democracy, but a confederation (which meant the states were sovereign entities) from 1776 until the Constitution was ratified in 1789. And while the individual states were free to run things however they chose within their own borders, they still decided that there would be a national one-house ruling body (with very limited power) called the Congress of the Confederation.

During the eight years that the Congress existed, eight men (one each year) held the title of President of the Continental Congress, essentially the highest seat in the land. It wasn’t anywhere near the same thing as the current Presidential office, as is frequently alleged (it was far less powerful and had far different duties), but it was the closest thing they had to such an office. Thus, the first official “president” of the United States was John Hanson, a delegate from Maryland (who was not black, as a modern urban legend alleges).

Further Presidents of the Continental Congress from 1782 onward were Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock (yes, that John Hancock), Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur St. Clair, and Cyrus Griffin.

2. David Rice Atchison - 1849-1849

David Rice Atchison was only ever officially one kind of president: President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate. But, for one day in 1849, he may have been something more. Zachary Taylor, taking the reins from President James Polk, was to be inaugurated on March 4, 1849. Taylor, however, refused to be inaugurated on a Sunday and asked to delay until Monday, the 5th. Millard Fillmore, his vice president, was also not able to be inaugurated that day.

Thus, under the rules of succession at that time (which were not the same as the ones we have today), David Rice Atchison would have been president for that single day, though no one took that particularly seriously. Atchison was known to make jokes about it from time to time.

Or maybe something even weirder happened: Officially, Atchison’s job as President pro tempore had actually expired when the final session of Congress under Polk was adjourned (although Atchison was once again nominated to the position when Congress resumed). So it’s also very possible that, technically speaking, no one at all was president for that one day in March-- the first and only time since 1789.

3. Benjamin Franklin Wade - 1868-1868

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson stepped into the role of president, which meant it was up to him to decide how to handle Reconstruction. Johnson opted to take the moderate approach that Lincoln had started, providing amnesty for southern states so as not to deepen the already-existing wounds between the north and the south.

This raised the ire of a group known as the “Radical Republicans,” who wanted ex-Confederate states to be punished and freed slaves to be given more protections under law. So, when Johnson made moves to remove Radical Republican and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton from office, the Radical Republicans in Congress passed a law preventing the president from removing a cabinet member from office without senate approval. When Johnson did it anyway (replacing Stanton with Lorenzo Thomas), the Radical Republicans seized on it and impeached Johnson.

During Johnson’s trial, some legal scholars argued that he should be removed from duty until the trial was completed. Since Johnson had no vice president, this would have made Benjamin Franklin Wade-- a Radical Republican, one of the judges of Johnson’s trial, and President pro tempore of the Senate—the acting president, though Johnson was never officially relieved of his duty, so it ended up being merely legal speculation.

In fact, had Johnson been found guilty, Wade would have instantly become president. Some writers at the time actually suggested that the strong dislike that fellow politicians and other powerful people had for Wade was one of the many reasons that Johnson was eventually acquitted.

4. Edith Wilson - 1919-1921

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In 1919, during Woodrow Wilson’s second term, he came down with a severe case of the flu which, combined with his existing hypertension and unwillingness to rest and recover, eventually led to him having a massive stroke in October of that year. It left him paralyzed and blind on the left side of his body, heavily incapacitating him.

Yet, instead of resigning, his wife and doctors started a cover-up of his condition that went on for over a year. President Wilson was never to be in the same room with his cabinet members, vice president, or any visitors. Instead, Edith, his wife, acted as his steward, bringing important items directly to him and assigning the rest to various department heads and other cabinet members. Although President Wilson was back to making occasional appearances and remarks within a few months, his health status was still closely guarded.

While Edith claimed that her husband made the final decision on all the matters she brought to his attention, many presidential scholars have since asserted that this was likely not true and that Edith probably consulted the president little due to his poor health. So, it seems quite likely that, for about a year and a half, Edith Wilson was, essentially, the unofficial President of the United States.

5. Dick Cheney - 2002-2002, 2007-2007

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In 1967, Congress passed the twenty-fifth amendment to the United States Constitution, which finally set down specific, official presidential succession laws in the event that the president is not dead, but unable to perform his duty. (Woodrow Wilson’s case was specifically mentioned.)

Since that time, this power has only been used by two presidents, and only one of the two vice presidents never went on to be elected to the office himself: Dick Cheney. (The other was George H. W. Bush, who was briefly made acting president under Ronald Reagan.)

On June 29, 2002, President George W. Bush underwent a regularly scheduled colonoscopy and had to be anaesthetized for the procedure. So, from 7:09 am to 9:24 am EDT, Dick Cheney was officially Acting President of the United States of America. Five years later, on July 21, 2007, during President Bush’s five-year checkup, the twenty-fifth amendment was again invoked from 7:16 am to 9:21 am EDT.

Since Dick Cheney didn’t run for the presidency (and doesn’t seem likely to do so), he is, to date, the only man to have ever officially acted as president (for four hours and twenty minutes) without later holding the office himself.

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James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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Did William Henry Harrison Really Die of Pneumonia?
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Whether you learned it in school, or through a jaunty musical number on The Simpsons, the sad tale of William Henry Harrison is one of the more unique in American history. Before being elected the ninth President of the United States in 1840, Harrison was known as a military hero who led his troops to victory against an attack from the Native American confederacy in 1811, later known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. His heroics extended into the War of 1812, when he recovered Detroit from the British and won the Battle of Thames.

Military notoriety has often given way to a road into politics, especially in the 19th century. Harrison was soon elected a senator for Ohio, and then eventually became president after beating incumbent president Martin van Buren in 1840. At 67 years old, Harrison took office as the oldest president to ever be elected—a record that would stand until Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 at 69 years old. Despite the cold, rainy weather in Washington D.C. on inauguration day, Harrison stood in front of the masses without his overcoat, hat, and gloves, and gave an 8445-word speech that would last almost two hours. Three weeks later, Harrison complained of fatigue and of a cold, which later turned into what doctors called pneumonia. On April 4, 1841—exactly one month after taking office—Harrison was dead.

The historical narrative virtually wrote itself: Harrison, after being improperly dressed for the weather, got pneumonia and would go down as a cautionary tale (or a punch line) and as having the shortest presidency on record. But was it really pneumonia that killed him? Harrison's own doctor, Thomas Miller, was skeptical. He wrote:

“The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”

While revisiting the case a few years ago, writer Jane McHugh and Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine came up with a new diagnosis after looking at the evidence through the lens of modern medicine: enteric fever, also known as typhoid fever. They detailed their findings in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases [PDF] and for The New York Times.

Before 1850, Washington D.C.'s sewage was dumped in a marsh just seven blocks upstream from the executive mansion's water supply. McHugh and Mackowiak hypothesize that Harrison was exposed to bacteria—namely Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi—which could cause enteric fever. Harrison also apparently had a history of severe indigestion, which could have made him more susceptible to such intestinal distress. While treating Harrison, Miller also administered opium and enemas, both of which would cause more harm than good to someone in Harrison's condition.

Harrison would not have been the only person to be afflicted with a gastrointestinal illness while occupying the presidency in this time period. Both James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, according to McHugh and Mackowiak, suffered through severe gastroenteritis, and the duo theorizes it was the same enteric fever as Harrison's. Polk recovered, while Taylor died in office of his illness, less than 10 years after Harrison's death.

Though Harrison's insistence on soldiering through his lengthy, bitterly cold inauguration while dressed in his finest spring wear wasn't a high point in presidential common sense, there's plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that it didn't contribute to the shortest presidency in American history.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Richard Nixon
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Keystone/Getty Images

Often maligned but rarely boring, Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the nation’s 37th president and the first to resign from office. Although his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal tends to overshadow much of his life, there was more to Nixon than his political impropriety. Check out some facts about his early law enforcement aspirations, why he got criticized for commenting on Charles Manson, and his infamous encounter with Robocop.

1. HE WAS A QUAKER.

Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers have roots in 17th century England and promoted pacifism and spiritual equality among genders at a time those thoughts were not in fashion. When Nixon’s father, Frank, married Quaker Hannah Milhous, he joined a Quaker congregation and the couple raised their children as Quakers. Nixon’s religious faith allowed him an exemption from serving in World War II, but he waived it to enter the Navy. Later, when he was facing impeachment for his role in Watergate, Quakers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis apparently didn’t like the affiliation with the outcast president, petitioning for him to be removed from office months before he resigned.

2. HE WANTED TO JOIN THE FBI.

A photograph of Richard Nixon's 1937 FBI application
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine Nixon’s mannered disposition fitting comfortably in the stiff-necked legion of G-men that populated J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A little over a month before graduating from law school, Nixon applied to the Bureau in 1937, when he was just 24. After an in-person interview and physical, Nixon waited for a response. He never got one. Later, when Nixon was in office as vice president and queried Hoover about why he had not been accepted, Hoover told him it had been due to budget cuts.

3. HE WROTE LOVE NOTES TO HIS WIFE-TO-BE.

Nixon met his wife, Patricia, while the two appeared in a 1938 Whittier Community Players theater production titled The Dark Tower. Nixon set about courting her, writing letters that seemed uncharacteristically maudlin for the future president. He wrote: “And when the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves, as he did then, that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee – my dearest heart.” The two married in 1940.

4. A DOG HELPED SAVE HIS POLITICAL CAREER.

A family portrait of the Nixons and their dog, Checkers
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Controversy dogged Nixon early on. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower considered dropping Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate after allegations surfaced that Nixon was benefiting from a trust fund filled by his supporters to help offset his political and personal expenses. Going on radio and television to address the issue, Nixon cleverly slipped in an anecdote about his 6-year-old daughter being in love with a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been “donated” by a campaign supporter. Believing that any man who loved dogs couldn’t be all bad, the public sentiment turned and he remained on the ticket.

“It was labeled as the ‘Checkers speech,’ as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career," Nixon later wrote. "Many of the critics glided over the fact that the fund was thoroughly explained, my personal finances laid bare, and an admittedly emotional but honest appeal made for public support."

5. HE LITERALLY MADE THE MORNINGS DARKER.

In 1973, to save fuel during an energy crisis, Nixon signed a law that mandated that daylight saving would be in effect year-round starting on January 6, 1974. But kids wound up waiting for their school buses in pitch-black conditions, and there was a fear they might get hit by traffic—so the idea was scrapped in 1975.

6. HE HAD A BOWLING ALLEY INSTALLED UNDER THE WHITE HOUSE.

Richard Nixon in the bowling alley at the White House in 1971
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nixon, an avid bowler, was pleased to see that the love of bowling that inspired Harry Truman to build lanes in the White House in 1947 was still going strong when he took office in 1969. That alley was moved in 1955, and Nixon actually ordered that a new lane be built underground under the North Portico entrance and favored the new location because it was more private than the lanes that were open to other staffers. Nixon reportedly bowled a respectable 232.

7. HE WANTED THE SECRET SERVICE TO WEAR UNIFORMS.

The president’s security detail is usually dressed for business: Suits, ties, and sunglasses are the normal attire for many agents, while those patrolling the White House grounds wear police-style uniforms. When Nixon took office, however, he wanted his men to resemble the palace guards he had seen in other countries. The Service assigned to his personal detail wore white double-breasted tunics and hats that vaguely resembled the Empire’s underlings in a Star Wars film. After he was criticized by the press, Nixon abandoned the idea and the outfits were eventually donated to a high school marching band.

8. HE ALMOST MESSED UP CHARLES MANSON’S MURDER TRIAL.

Richard Nixon frowns during a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

Nixon’s first year in office coincided with the national obsession over cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, some of whom had gone on a murder spree in 1969 that left actress Sharon Tate and several others dead. During Manson’s trial in August 1970, Nixon proclaimed Manson “was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Manson’s lawyers moved for a mistrial based on Nixon’s comments. The president quickly retracted his statement, with a spokesperson suggesting he neglected to include the word “allegedly.”

9. HE MET ROBOCOP.

In 1987, Nixon attended a national board meeting for the Boys Club of America. Also on hand to fete organizers and kids was a guy dressed as Robocop. (The unknown actor was definitely not Peter Weller, star of the 1987 feature, and the ill-fitting costume was definitely not the original.) For years, an image of the meeting circulated on the internet without context before a crack sleuth determined it had been snapped for Billboard magazine.

10. HIS MEETING WITH ELVIS MADE NATIONAL ARCHIVES HISTORY.

Richard Nixon greets Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970
National Archives/Getty Images

On December 21, 1970, Nixon greeted one of the more colorful characters to ever enter the White House: Elvis Presley. The singer apparently wanted a badge or other token of law enforcement; as the King was high on fighting the war on drugs at the time. (Unfortunately, Presley had drug issues of his own that may have contributed to his death in 1977.) A photo of the meeting between the two is (as of 2015) the most requested image in the National Archives, outpacing requests for the moon landing, the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights.

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