When we think of a president of the United States, we think of one each term. In reality, on inauguration years, there are actually two…the outgoing president, and the incoming president. Of course, if the president has won a second term, there would actually be only one in that inauguration cycle. That is the common fact of presidential inaugurations, but could there be three? The answer is actually, yes. There have been two times in history when there were three presidents in one year. I suppose that potentially there could be more than this, but the reasons would almost be too awful to contemplate.
On September 20, 1881, Chester Arthur became one of those two “third” presidents, when he was inaugurated that day, becoming the third person to serve as president in that year. The year 1881 began with Republican Rutherford B Hayes in office. Hayes had just completed his first and only term as president, and with the inauguration of James A Garfield, Hayes had officially turned over the reins of government to the new president, who happened to be a close friend of his, in March 1881. Then, the unthinkable happened, when just four months into his term, on July 2, Garfield was shot by an assassin named Charles Guiteau. Guiteau said that he killed Garfield because he refused to grant Guiteau a political appointment. The attack left Garfield with wounds to his back and abdomen. He struggled to recover throughout the summer. Though it appeared he would pull through in early September, Garfield deteriorated by mid-September and finally died on September 19th. An autopsy report revealed that the internal bullet wound contributed to an aneurism that ultimately killed Garfield.
On September 20, 1881…the next day, Vice President Chester Arthur was sworn in as president, making him the third man to be sworn in as president in 1881. Garfield’s assassin then actually had the nerve to write to the new president from jail, and actually taking credit for vaulting Arthur into the White House. While President Arthur was president, not everyone felt like he was a good president. Former President Hayes, said of the Arthur administration, that it was best known for “liquor, snobbery and worse.” Of course, Hayes could have been angry about not being elected to a second term, or he could have been making an honest evaluation. that may be a good subject for a future story. Either way, Chester Arthur served only one term from 1881 to 1885.
While this was a very unusual year, it was not the first time this had happened. It was actually the second time in American history that three men served as president in one year. A similar situation occurred in 1841, when Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler all held the office, but that is a different story for another day.