These 11 People Came Close to Being President of the United States …Historians/History
Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015).
Lafayette Foster: The forgotten leader who almost became president
If history had been different, there could have been 11 “Might Have Been” Presidents of the United States between 1865 and 1975, many of them unknown to the general public, and even those who are history buffs.
When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, had he not decided to have Andrew Johnson as his second term Vice President, Lincoln’s successor in the White House would have been first term Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, who had served as a Congressman and Senator from Maine, briefly as Governor, and later would serve again in the US Senate and as Minister to Spain.
If Andrew Johnson had been assassinated in 1865, as part of the conspiracy against Abraham Lincoln hatched by John Wilkes Booth, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Lafayette Foster of Connecticut, would have become President. Foster also served later on the Connecticut Supreme Court.
When William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by Leon Czolgosz, his Vice President and successor was Theodore Roosevelt. However, if McKinley’s first Vice President, Garret Hobart of New Jersey, had not died in office in 1899, he likely would have remained Vice President and become President upon McKinley’s death. Hobart had served in New Jersey state government in both houses of the legislature, and had been both Speaker of the state House and President of the state Senate. So had Hobart survived, Theodore Roosevelt might never have been President, and possibly, the concept of a “Progressive Era” might not have occurred.
When Theodore Roosevelt came under indirect threat in 1903 at his home in Oyster Bay, New York from Henry Weilbrenner, the person next in line had TR been harmed, was Secretary of State John Hay, who had served as a secretary to Abraham Lincoln in the White House; an editor of the New York Tribune for six years; and Ambassador to Great Britain. Hay, one of the most important Secretaries of State in American history, was in that position under President William McKinley, as well as TR; and he negotiated the treaty ending the Spanish American War, and developed the Open Door policy toward China, as well as the Panama Canal agreements.
If Franklin D. Roosevelt had been the victim of an assassination attempt in 1933 by Giuseppe Zangara, John Nance Garner, former Speaker of the House from Texas, and Vice President-elect, would have become President. Garner served in the US House of Representatives for 30 years before becoming Vice President. If that had occurred, FDR would never have taken the oath of office as President, and the “New Deal” that he promoted might never have occurred.
If Harry Truman had been harmed by possible threats from the Zionist Stern Gang in 1947, with the Presidential Succession Act being changed that year, there were two potential successors. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who had been a five star general in World War II, and would promote the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, was the first potential successor.
Speaker of the House Joseph William Martin, Jr. of Massachusetts became the next in line after the change in the Presidential Succession law in mid 1947, and he was Speaker in 1947-1949 and in 1953-1955. He also served as House Minority Leader in 1939-1947, 1949-1953, and 1955-1959. Altogether, he served in the US House of Representatives for 42 years from 1925-1967.
When Harry Truman was more directly threatened by Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo in 1950, his Vice President was Alben Barkley of Kentucky. Barkley had served in the US House of Representatives from 1913-1927, and in the US Senate from 1929-1949. Barkley was Senate Majority Leader from 1937-1947, and Minority Leader from 1947-1949. Additionally, Barkley had been considered a possible Presidential candidate and for a position on the US Supreme Court. Briefly, he sought the Presidency in 1952, and returned to the Senate again from 1955-1956.
Many political observers think that had Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy not been assassinated in June 1968 by Sirhan Sirhan, that he would have been the Democratic Party nominee for President that year, instead of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, and that he would have been elected President over Richard Nixon. RFK had served as Attorney General under his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and as Senator from New York from 1965 until his passing in 1968.
Had President Richard Nixon been harmed by Arthur Bremer in 1972, before Bremer shot Governor George Wallace of Alabama, paralyzing him for life, then Vice President Spiro Agnew of Maryland, would have been President. Agnew had been Baltimore County Executive and Maryland Governor before becoming Vice President. Agnew would have succeeded to the Presidency before Americans learned of criminal activities that forced him to resign in October 1973, being replaced in the Vice Presidency by Congressman Gerald R. Ford of Michigan.
Finally, had President Gerald Ford been harmed by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme or Sara Jane Moore in California in September 1975, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller would have succeeded to the Presidency. Chosen Vice President by the 25th Amendment, Rockefeller had been the long time New York Governor from 1959-1973, and had been a regular seeker of the Presidency in 1960, 1964, and 1968.
Five of these 11 individuals, based on their public records of performance, were well-prepared to serve as president if fate had put them there, including John Hay, George C. Marshall, Alben Barkley, Robert F. Kennedy, and Nelson Rockefeller
Some believe that Hannibal Hamlin and Garret Hobart might have been effective in office. Harder to predict is Lafayette Foster, arguably the most obscure of the 11 potential successors, but seemingly acceptable in an emergency to become President.
There are more definite beliefs that John Nance Garner, Joseph William Martin, Jr, and Spiro T. Agnew would not have been good choices to be President, although one can never know how the responsibilities of the Presidency affect anyone who is thrust into that position by tragedy. (See Chet Arthur, the tainted party hack who turned in a reasonably competent performance when he was elevated to the top office upon the assassination of President Garfield.)
What seems clear from this brief survey is that if history had been different, we might never have had Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the Presidency, which would have transformed American history in a dramatic manner. What this teaches us is that history is not inevitable. Invisible forces and contingencies play a major role, and who is placed in various situations close to leadership can change the course of history, sometimes in a positive way, and other times in a negative direction.
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