When Vice Presidents Become President

December 21, 2021
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In nearly 240 years of American presidential history, nine vice presidents have ascended to the presidency upon the death or resignation of a sitting president. Two of them, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman, stand out for becoming formidable presidents in their own right. We have curated a selection of manuscripts from our Collection in which both men address the weighty responsibilities of taking on the presidency, as well as the compounding stress of the unexpected nature of their rise to the office.

In Theodore Roosevelt’s case, President William McKinley had been shot and critically injured. Three days later, on September 9, 1901, Roosevelt wrote that he was “assured not only that he [McKinley] will recover, but that his recovery will be so speedy that in a very short time he will be able to resume his duties.” But by September 14th, McKinley had died. That same day, Roosevelt remarked on his new job as president as a task about as “heavy and painful  that can befall any man.” 

Harry Truman had an unlikely rise to the vice presidency, and then the presidency. At the 1944  Democratic National Convention, Truman was selected to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president in a hotly debated and last-minute nomination. Shortly before his nomination, a St. Louis reporter suggested that should Truman become vice president, it was very possible that he would ascend the presidency. “Hell, I don’t want to be president,” he remarked, before giving the reporter a history lesson of the misfortunes of all vice presidents who had assumed the presidency. Notably, he didn’t mention Theodore Roosevelt.  On April 12th, 1945, FDR suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, and Truman became president. He was immediately aware of the  “terrible responsibilities” that were now his to carry.  

Explore this Collection for more parallels between how the two men shouldered their new and heavy responsibilities.


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