Presidential Mortality: Counting the Commanders-in-Chief

The presidency of the United States is the highest office in the land, and with it comes a great deal of power and responsibility. However, that power doesn’t come without a price, as every single president of the United States has faced their own set of challenges and hardships during their time in office. One of the most intriguing aspects of the presidency is the notion of mortality, as we have seen over the years that our leaders are not immune to death just like any other person. This article explores the topic of presidential mortality and takes a closer look at the history of how many of our commanders-in-chief have passed away while in office.

The First Presidential Death: William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison was the first president of the United States to die while in office, and his death really set the tone for what would become a recurring theme over the next two centuries. Harrison contracted pneumonia shortly after taking office, and despite efforts to save him, he passed away after only a month in power. This was a massive shock to the nation, and it really highlighted just how vulnerable our presidents can be.

The Curious Case of Zachary Taylor

Shortly after Harrison’s death, another president fell critically ill while in office. Zachary Taylor contracted a mysterious illness that left him bedridden and unable to fulfill his presidential duties. Taylor died just sixteen months after taking office, leaving the country in a state of shock once again. The cause of Taylor’s death remains a mystery, and some historians have speculated that he may have been poisoned.

Assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy

Four presidents have been assassinated while in office, and their deaths are among the most well-known and tragic moments in American history. Abraham Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated, as he was gunned down by John Wilkes Booth during a play at Ford’s Theater in 1865. James A. Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau in 1881 and died a few months later from his injuries. William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by Leon Czolgosz, and John F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. These four assassinations serve as a reminder that some people will stop at nothing to take out a sitting president, and that the office comes with an inherent amount of risk.

Attempted Assassinations: Roosevelt, Ford, Reagan

In addition to the four presidents who were actually assassinated, there have been several other attempts made on the lives of sitting presidents. Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest during a speech in 1912, but he survived thanks to the bullet being stopped by his thick manuscript. Gerald Ford escaped two assassination attempts in 1975, both of which were carried out by a woman named Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and a man named Sara Jane Moore. Finally, President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981 by John Hinckley Jr. and nearly died as a result.

Other Presidential Deaths

In addition to those mentioned above, there have been several other presidents who have died while in office or shortly after leaving office. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as president for an unprecedented four terms, passed away from a massive stroke just a few months into his fourth term. Warren G. Harding died suddenly while on a trip to the west coast, and the cause of his death has been the subject of much speculation over the years. Finally, James K. Polk contracted cholera shortly after leaving office, and died from the disease just a few months later.

Presidents Who Lived the Longest

While many presidents have died while in office, there are a few who have lived to a ripe old age. Gerald Ford, who served as president from 1974 to 1977, lived to be 93 years old, which was the longest of any president at the time of his death. Ronald Reagan, who served from 1981 to 1989, lived to be 93 as well. Finally, George H.W. Bush, who served from 1989 to 1993, lived to be 94 years old, making him the longest-lived president in U.S. history at this time.


The issue of presidential mortality is one that has captivated the country for over 200 years. While it’s always tragic to see anyone pass away, it is especially poignant when it happens to someone who holds such a powerful and revered position. The deaths of certain presidents have had an enormous impact on the country, and they serve as a reminder that the job of president is not always an easy one. However, despite the many challenges and pitfalls that come with the job, each president has faced them with courage and determination, and it is thanks to their efforts that we enjoy the freedoms and liberties that we do today.

Frequently Asked Questions About Presidential Mortality

  • How many presidents died while in office? A total of eight presidents have died while in office, including William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.
  • What is the most common cause of presidential deaths? The most common cause of presidential deaths is cardiovascular disease. Several presidents, including Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush have suffered from heart disease during their time in office.
  • Which president lived the longest? George H.W. Bush, who served as president from 1989 to 1993, lived to be 94 years old, making him the longest-lived president in U.S. history.
  • What happens when a president dies while in office? In the event that a president dies while in office, the vice president will typically take over as president. This is outlined in the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


1. “Presidential Mortality and Morbidity”. The American Journal of Medicine. May 2014

2. “Presidential Disability and Succession”. Cornell Law School. Retrieved 2018-12-01

3. “The health of the presidents”. Harvard Health Publishing. January 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *