Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > From The Senate to the Presidency: Many Try, Few Succeed

Jan 29, 2021

From The Senate to the Presidency: Many Try, Few Succeed

tags: presidential history,US Senate

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.


When one investigates the history of the 59 presidential elections from 1789 through 2020, it is quite surprising to realize that the distinguished institution of the US Senate has not been a major factor in elections of presidents.

Only 17 presidents out of 45 have served in the US Senate, and only 15 were actually elected president, with John Tyler and Andrew Johnson succeeding to the office of president from the vice presidency.

Only the last seven presidents who served in the Senate were elected under the 17th Amendment popular vote requirement, since 1913 (Warren G. Harding, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, Joe Biden).

Only three presidents were directly elected from the Senate to the White House (Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama).

Only two presidents were elected president after serving in the Senate and also as vice president and being out of public office (Richard Nixon, Joe Biden).

Only four presidents served at least ten years in the Senate on the way to the White House (James Buchanan (10 plus); Harry Truman (10); Lyndon B. Johnson (12); and Joe Biden (36).

Six Senators who served ten years or fewer in the Senate served in that body much earlier than when they were elected president (James Monroe, finishing in 1794 and in the presidency in 1817); John Quincy Adams, 1808 and 1825); Martin Van Buren (1828 and 1837); William Henry Harrison (1828 and 1841); Franklin Pierce (1842 and 1853); and James Buchanan (1845 and 1857).

The following eight presidents served five years or fewer in the upper chamber: James Monroe, John  Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Barack Obama.

It is clear that only four presidents who served in the Senate had distinguished careers in that body.

James Buchanan (1834-1845), who was significant enough that he started to purse the presidency and did so every four years from 1844 to 1856, when he was nominated and elected, after a distinguished career, including being in the House of Representatives and being House Judiciary Committee Chairman in one term; ambassador to the United Kingdom and Russia; and James K. Polk’s Secretary of State. (1845-1849).

Harry Truman (1935-1945), who gained prominence during World War II as the head of the Truman Committee investigating waste and profiteering in the defense buildup for World War II, and was chosen to be the vice presidential nominee in 1944, and succeeded to the presidency 82 days into the fourth term of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lyndon B. Johnson (1949-1961) who became Senate Majority Whip after two years, Senate Minority Leader after four years, and Senate Majority Leader for the next six years, after having served in the House of Representatives for twelve years.  Johnson is acknowledged as the most formidable and significant Senate Majority Leader in American history, followed by three unhappy years as vice president under John F. Kennedy, and then serving five years and two months as an extremely activist president, setting records for accomplishments in domestic affairs, even more than his idol, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And then, the “star” in years of service and leadership is our new president, Joe Biden (1973-2009), the only Senator who became president to have more years of service in the upper chamber than Lyndon B. Johnson,  triple the number of years of Johnson, 12 to 36 years, which would have been longer if Biden had not accepted the vice presidency under Barack Obama.  Biden became a major figure in the Senate, serving as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman from 1987-1995, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman from 2001-2003 and 2007-2009.  At this writing, Biden has the distinction of having been the 18th longest serving US Senator in American history, and the 6th youngest Senator ever to take the oath of office, having been elected a couple of weeks before his 30th birthday.

In the long run of history, therefore, LBJ and Biden will stand out as easily the most distinguished in their Senate careers, but with Johnson only making it to the White House from the vice presidency originally, and Biden having two failed attempts in 1988 and 2008, and only reaching the pinnacle of the presidency after being out of office for four years, and becoming president at the most advanced age (78) of any president.

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