5 Other Americans Who Were Kinda, Sorta President


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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On This Day in 1933, FDR Gave His First Fireside Chat
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On March 12, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first "fireside chat" on the radio. It was just eight days after his inauguration. He began: "I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking." Citizens across the nation tuned in to listen.

During the depths of the Great Depression, FDR took to the airwaves to explain to Americans why there had been a recent, ahem, "bank holiday." After a series of bank failures, FDR closed all U.S. banks on March 6, to prevent them from failing as panicked citizens tried to withdraw their holdings. While the banks were closed, a program of federal deposit insurance was created in order to insure the stability of the banks when they reopened.

So imagine, if you will, that your bank has been closed for six days, banks are failing left and right, and the newly-inaugurated president gets on the radio to talk about the situation. You would likely listen, and you'd want a really solid answer. That's just what Americans got.

It was a stunning moment, a roughly 13-minute speech in which the American president spoke directly to the people and asked them to understand how banks work. As an extension of that understanding, he asked people to trust what he and Congress were doing to resolve the problem. While the chat didn't solve the country's financial problems overnight, it did create a remarkable sense of connection between FDR and the citizenry, and it helped prevent a complete collapse of the banking system.

FDR's "fireside chats" (the phrase was coined by press secretary Stephen Early, conveying the intimacy of communication) were among the best examples of a president using mass media to bring a time-sensitive message to the American people. He would go on to do 29 more chats over the course of his long presidency.

So if you've never heard that first "fireside chat," take a few minutes and listen. Here it is with slightly cleaned-up audio:

If you're not into audio, just read the transcript. The text is a model of clear communication.

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The Only 4 Private Citizens to Lie in Honor at the U.S. Capitol
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Billy Graham, the most famous Christian preacher of the past century, died in his home on February 21 at age 99. As a noted spiritual advisor of U.S. presidents, he held a special position of influence in American history. Now, he's being granted another privilege extended to very few Americans: This week, his body will lay in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

From February 28 to March 1, members of the public will be invited to visit the Capitol and pay their respects to the late reverend. It's an honor that has been bestowed upon only 33 Americans since the tradition began with Henry Clay in 1852. Of the distinguished citizens who have "lain in state," 11 were U.S. presidents. Several elected officials and military officials have also been commemorated under the rotunda, but only three private citizens—and with Graham, four—have their names among their ranks.

The first two private citizens to lie in honor were Capitol Police officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson. Both were killed in the line of duty during the Capitol shooting incident in 1998.

The third private citizen to receive the distinction was Rosa Parks. She died in 2005, 50 years after refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger, thus helping set the civil rights movement in motion. So far, she's the only woman whose body has lain in honor at the U.S. Capitol.

Congress chooses which individuals get to receive the honor, either by passing a resolution or having congressional leadership obtain permission from the surviving family. When Graham's body arrives at the Capitol this week, it will be displayed on the same platform used to support Lincoln's body and that of every person (except the two police officers) who has lain in the rotunda since 1865.