5 Other Americans Who Were Kinda, Sorta President

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These 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 25th 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 25th 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.

Could You Keep Up With Theodore Roosevelt's Ruthlessly Efficient Daily Routine?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An avid outdoorsman, politician, and quote machine, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was never one to sit idle. The 26th president of the United States (1901 to 1909) regarded the calendar as something to be conquered and fulfilled, never squandered. He employed a number of routines to help him achieve his goals during his presidency and beyond, and each was ruthlessly efficient—particularly when he was on the campaign trail.

In his role as running mate to presidential candidate William McKinley in 1900, Roosevelt adhered to a strict schedule that packed more into one day than some people accomplish in a week. In his book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, author Edmund Morris detailed Roosevelt's activities:

7:00 a.m. Breakfast

7:30 a.m. A speech

8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work

9:00 a.m. A speech

10:00 a.m. Dictating letters

11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines

11:30 a.m. A speech

12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work

12:30 p.m. A speech

1:00 p.m. Lunch

1:30 p.m. A speech

2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott

3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams

3:45 p.m. A speech

4:00 p.m. Meeting the press

4:30 p.m. Reading

5:00 p.m. A speech

6:00 p.m. Reading

7:00 p.m. Supper

8-10 p.m. Speaking

11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his car

12:00 a.m. To bed

Clearly, Roosevelt had an effective strategy for fulfilling the obligations of his working life while still making time for reading in order to enrich his intellect. The habits grew out of his experience at Harvard, where he balanced his schoolwork with athletic pursuits and other interests. Roosevelt devoted fragments of each day to study and refused to entertain any interruptions. Studying or reading for even half an hour with an appropriate amount of focused intensity, he believed, was more beneficial than sitting for twice as long while distracted by friends, food, or daydreaming.

When he became president following the assassination of McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt's responsibilities grew exponentially, but he remained insistent on a highly organized approach to the day. During one week in February 1903, Roosevelt took up to eight meetings in an hour, averaging 7.5 minutes to conduct whatever business was on the table. During this time, he was also posing for his official presidential portrait by artist John Singer Sargent. Rather than sit for one or two marathon sessions, Roosevelt agreed to pose for just one half-hour a day. On Sunday, he cleared his schedule to unwind and keep up with correspondence.

The ability to concentrate has only gotten harder in an era of screens and buzzing phones, and you might think Roosevelt had it comparatively easier. It might help to remember that, in 1912, he was shot by a would-be assassin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin just before going on stage to give a scheduled speech. He managed to complete the 84-minute speech with a bullet lodged in his ribs. For Roosevelt, nothing was going to interfere with the day's routine.

Think you know everything there is to know about T.R.? Test your knowledge with our quiz, "Did Theodore Roosevelt Do That?"

Can a Person Refuse a Presidential Pardon?

Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Presidential pardons have been in the news, which has led to an onslaught of questions about just how far a president's pardoning powers extend—and what would happen if the person being offered the pardon declined it altogether? Is such a thing even possible, or does the pardoned individual in question have no choice in the matter? Believe it or not, it's an issue that has come up a few times over the past two centuries—and the answer isn't exactly a clear-cut one.

To fully answer the question, first an important distinction has to be made between commutation and pardoning. Both are part of the pardoning powers given to the president, but differ in levels. Speaking to ABC News, Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University, explained that "Pardon is an 'executive forgiveness of crime'; commutation is an ‘executive lowering of the penalty.'" And the answer to the question depends on that distinction.

UNITED STATES V. WILSON

In 1833 the Supreme Court heard the case of the United States v. George Wilson. On May 27, 1830, Wilson and co-conspirator James Porter were both sentenced to death after being convicted of robbing a U.S. postal worker and putting the carrier’s life in jeopardy. While Porter was executed just over a month later, on July 2, 1830, Wilson managed to escape the sentence. President Andrew Jackson decided to pardon Wilson for the death penalty charge on the understanding that he had yet to be sentenced for other crimes (for which he was looking at a minimum of 20 years). For some reason Wilson waived the pardon, possibly because of confusion about what case he was being tried for at the time and what cases the pardon was for.

In 1833, the Supreme Court ultimately weighed in on the issue, ruling “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” (Strangely, the details of whether or not Wilson was ever executed are lost to time.)

BURDICK V. UNITED STATES

This right of refusal was affirmed in 1915. George Burdick, city editor of the New York Tribune, refused to testify regarding sources for articles on alleged custom fraud by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights [PDF]. President Woodrow Wilson then gave a pardon to Burdick, protecting him from any charge he may incriminate himself of during his testimony. The idea behind the pardon was to force Burdick to testify, under the theory that he could no longer be convicted for any acts he may reveal. But Burdick rejected the pardon, continued to invoke his rights, and was found guilty of contempt.

The Supreme Court ruled that Burdick was within his rights to refuse the pardon and as such he did not lose his Fifth Amendment rights.

BIDDLE V. PEROVICH

A 1927 ruling added a new wrinkle to the pardoning issue. In 1905, Vuco Perovich was sentenced to hang for murder, which President Taft commuted to life imprisonment a few years later. Perovich was then transferred from Alaska to Washington, and later to Leavenworth. Perovich eventually filed an application for writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his commutation was done without his consent. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that "the convict’s consent is not required."

This ruling has led decades of legal scholars to wonder if the Perovich ruling overturned these earlier cases, with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. arguing “Whether these words sound the death knell of the acceptance doctrine is perhaps doubtful. They seem clearly to indicate that by substantiating a commutation order for a deed of pardon, a President can always have his way in such matters, provided the substituted penalty is authorized by law and does not in common understanding exceed the original penalty" [PDF].

In other words: You may be able to refuse a pardon, but you would not be able to refuse a commutation.

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