Eight presidents out of 42 presidents America has had since independence were not elected by the people or even by their own parties. These eight men were chosen by their predecessors to be their vice-presidents and they replaced their benefactors when they died in office or had to leave the White House in unforeseen circumstances. The fact that these eight men were not elected did not stop them from playing their roles and change history. In Accidental Presidents, Jared Cohen tells the stories of these eight presidents and how they changed history.
Jared Cohen says that they ascended to the presidency without the Constitution having specified order of succession. The founding fathers didn’t think of everything. They made compromises to get things done, such as giving each state two senators to get the smaller states to sign on to proportional representation in the House of Representative. Succession was no different, particularly given how little thought had been given to the vice presidency itself. The fact that the country navigated these abrupt transfers of power eight times during a one-hundred-and-twenty-two-year period and amended the Constitution only after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 offers a powerful response to the originalist, or literal, interpretation of the Constitution.
In many cases, the men who came to fill the shoes of dead presidents had been spouses in a marriage of political convenience for a president to win a state or appease a particular constituency. Only five — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush — completed terms as vice president and went on to win the presidency. Their election relieved them of that vice-presidential image of irrelevance. In the eight instances, Jared Cohen says, when the vice-president succeeded to the office, a set of common challenges made the path to success much harder. Each had to earn the respect of the men loyal to his predecessor or find a way to discard them. They had to honor the loss while at the same time getting back to the government. All had to find the balance between continuing the policies of the man who was elected and responsibility fulfilling their present duties. Each had to step out of the shadow of his predecessor and earn the presidency in his own right.
Today, the power to choose is more or less consolidated in the hands of the nominee and his or her campaign team. While candidates have paid lip service to choosing a running mate who is ready to be president, the reality is that it is driven by politics. Jared Cohen argues that there is nothing wrong with selecting a vice president who can help with a constituency, win a state, or fill an expertise gap — as Joe Biden and Dick Cheney did for Barack Obama and George W. Bush on foreign policy — but these should be secondary. Jared Cohen argues that change is unlikely. The Constitution was written so that we could not easily amend it. It was only after Kennedy’s assassination that we finally passed the Twentieth-fifth Amendment, but when it was tested with the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, the cabinet wasn’t ready to implement it. Before its passages, we had more than a century of experimentation with laws and precedents to see what worked. It is inevitable that there will be a death in office. Rather than prepare, we seem likely to leave any future outcome to chance and luck. We can, however, take a different lesson from this story, which is that the Constitution is a living document and it’s our job to fill in the gaps.
Accidental Presidents is a compelling and comprehensive book of history that shines a light on unexplored corners of our history. With granular details about these eight accidental presidents, Jared Cohen helps us understand how American history has evolved and the direction in which it is headed. In his typically engaging and gripping style, Jared Cohen tells us why it is not easy to amend the Constitution and why it should be amended. He explores the complexities of the American Constitution and politics as a gifted story-teller. Even high schoolers will find this terrific scholarly work very interesting and easy to understand. It will resonate for a long time to come among the scholars and students of American history.