Seven Presidents Served In the 20 Years Before the Civil War

The Challenge of Keeping the United States Together Proved Impossible

Engraved portrait of Millard Fillmore
Millard Fillmore. Getty Images

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

America 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.

It could be argued that the two decades preceding the Civil War were a low point for the American presidency. Some of the men serving in the office had dubious qualifications. Others had served commendably in other posts yet found themselves swamped by the controversies of the day.

Perhaps it's understandable that the men who served in the 20 years before Lincoln would be overshadowed in the public mind. To be fair, some of them are interesting characters. But Americans of the modern era would probably find it difficult to place most of them. And not many Americans would be able to place them, by memory, in the correct order that they occupied the White House.

Meet the presidents who struggled with the office between 1841 and 1861:

William Henry Harrison, 1841

William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison. Library of Congress/Public Domain

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.

One of Harrison's claims 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 and caught a cold which eventually turned into pneumonia.

His other claim to fame, of course, is that he died a month later. He served the shortest term of any American president, accomplishing nothing in office beyond securing his place in presidential trivia.

John Tyler, 1841-1845

John Tyler
John Tyler. Library of Congress/Public Domain

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. He returned to Virginia, and early in the Civil War he was elected to the Confederacy's Congress. He died before he could take his seat, but his allegiance to Virginia brought him a dubious distinction: he was the only president whose death was not marked with a period of mourning in Washington, D.C.

James K. Polk, 1845-1849

James K. Polk
James K. Polk. Library of Congress/Public Domain

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. He was perhaps the most successful president of the era, as he sought to increase the size of the nation. And he got the United States involved in the Mexican War, which allowed the nation to increase its territory.

Zachary Taylor, 1849-1850

Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor. Library of Congress/Public Domain

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 the institution of 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 four months as president.

Millard Fillmore, 1850-1853

Millard Fillmore
Millard Fillmore. Library of Congress/Public Domain

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
Franklin Pierce. Library of Congress/Public Domain

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 the issue of 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
James Buchanan. Library of Congress/Public Domain

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 the issue of slavery, and when Lincoln's election prompted some of the pro-slavery states to secede from the Union, Buchanan was ineffective at keeping the Union together.

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McNamara, Robert. "Seven Presidents Served In the 20 Years Before the Civil War." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Seven Presidents Served In the 20 Years Before the Civil War. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Seven Presidents Served In the 20 Years Before the Civil War." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).