How We Remember Heads Of State That Die In Office

William Henry Harrison

It is interesting to note how quickly the tone in the media changed when it was announced that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had coronavirus. For a man who has received more brickbats than bouquets from the British and American media – both for his handling of the virus and before that – , the suddenly sympathetic coverage he has obtained might seem a little surprising. Indeed, an editorial for the New York Times just two days ago was titled, “Boris Johnson is not cut out for this crisis (1).” After it was announced that he had tested positive, the New York Times and indeed most of the British media have limited themselves strictly to reporting on the factual information regarding not only his condition, but him personally. Moreover, the “goodwill” expressed by Johnson’s main adversaries, Jeremy Corbyn (Labour) and Ian Blackford (Scottish National), have come together to form a significantly more positive – or at least less hostile – image of Boris Johnson in the press and, in consequence, the public eye. Indeed, Bloomberg News reported that,  “ [polls] found personal ratings for Boris Johnson — himself now diagnosed with coronavirus — that have not been seen for a British Prime Minister since the early days of Tony Blair’s premiership in 1997. (2)”

Looking at the history of heads of state who have fallen ill, or died, can give us a better understanding of the current situation in Britain, which is certain to repeat itself elsewhere. Furthermore, it can even give an insight into how Boris Johnson will be remembered in the future. As with most things, this varies by county, so we can examine both what can be expected of the U.S, and Britain itself. 

The United States has had quite a few examples of presidents who have died in office, William Henry Harrison most famously catching either a cold or cholera and dying within 30 days of taking office. Historical analysis of his presidency is, however, obviously limited. More important examples are those of John F. Kennedy and James Garfield. In particular, Garfield, who served as president from March to September 1881, dying from an infection caused by a bullet-wound, bears some resemblance to Boris Johnson. Running on a campaign of moderate economic reform and radical changes to the bureaucracy, neither of which he lived long enough to see passed. Nevertheless, much like Kennedy would later be credited with the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, Garfield was praised by historians for his stance as a far-sighted reformer and largely credited with later changes, in spite of how little he was able to accomplish during the time he was actually in office. Furthermore, those American presidents who died in office after leading extremely controversial administrations, namely James Polk and William McKinlley, have been held in either beningin obscurity by historians, or had only the most positive effects of their tenure emphasized. 

Assasination Of James Garfield

The United Kingdom has had a different experience with its own Prime Ministers dying in office. This is largely due to the fact that only Spencer Percival, who was assassinated, ever held the distinction of having done so His reputation was much enhanced by his death, given the mass discontent caused by his total-war style measures against Napoleonic France. Indeed, for a long time he was hailed as a sort of martyr against foreign radicalism, before being largely forgotten, which in any case resulted in him having a far better reputation than he would have had otherwise. This being said, there was one other Prime Minister who effectively died in office, being forced to resign due to ill health and dying of a heart attack a week later. Henry Campbell-Bannerman, much like Boris, came to power through a series of byzantine maneuvers in Parliament, and after leading a minority government to the greatest victory of any party in a generation, laid out a plan for massive reform of the British economy and foreign relations. Unlike James Garfield, however, few historians ever mention Campbell-Bannerman. His Liberal Party opponents were much more effective at taking credit for his reforms, and his importance was further obscured by the outbreak of a period of mass instability and violence from 1914 to 1945, only six years after his death.

Postcard Of Campbell-Bannerman, Shortly After His Death

In the end, we can extrapolate from this analysis two conclusions: Firstly, there is an inherent quality to sickness in heads of government or state, and a possibility of incapacity to continue in office which that implies, that makes positive re-evaluation of politicians more desirable to contemporary commentators and historians alike. Secondly, the legacy of Boris Johnson, as Prime Minister who could be forced out of office due to incapacity by disease, will depend on events that occur after he leaves office. If the incoming global recession does result in a period of instability comparable to that of 1914-45, then Boris runs the risk of becoming a new and unfairly forgotten,  Campbell-Bannerman. If indeed the economic consequences of the coronavirus are mild, then he is likely to be more akin to James Garfield. Either way, Boris Johnson can, for now, take some relief in the more positive press that he is getting. 


1. Russell, Jenni. “Boris Johnson Is Not Cut Out for This Crisis.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Mar. 2020.

2. Singh, Matt. “One Battle Boris Johnson Is Clearly Winning.”, Bloomberg, 28 Mar. 2020

How Ancient Rome Handled a Great Crisis

At the moment, nations all around the globe face the true test of their political, economic and social systems. It is this times of crisis that will define a generation.

It is almost a cliche at this point, that we should look at the true merit of people and institutions, not in their golden age, but in their times of struggle. To note how they manage to survive and perceiver when others don’t.

The cliche might be overstated, but it is not less true. As Sir Winston Churchill understood during the darkest days of british history, the summer of 1940, as the French Republic had just capitulated to the German war machine.

Churchill said the following on 18 June 1940 to the House of Commons: “… if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour”. Churchill understood that if was not the long 19th century of British prosperity that would define the British people’s history, but the great overwhelming struggle they faced in 1940.

However the civilization that embodies this principale the best, is perhaps not the British but the ancient Romans. The Roman Republic and Empire experienced a great deal of colossal crisis throughout its existence. However their ability lied in persivience. Through civil wars, plagues, invading Carthaginians, the “Eternal City” still stood.

As the ancient king Pyrrhus of Epirus is supposed to have said “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”. Rome could, like no other state, persevere through a crisis. However why was this possible, and can it teach us anything about the crisis we experience today?


Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus Roman Statesman and Dictator. 518 -430 BC

One of the most infamous examples of Roman crisis management is the appointment of Dictators.

After Rome had overthrown its kings in the 6th century BC, a republican government was established. The system was created to prevent one individual from obtaining to much power. Therefore the political top was split in two. Now two Consuls would lead the Republic. Both with the ability of cancelling each other out and with a 1 year governing term.

However this system proved less efficient in times of military conflict and other emergencies. For that reason the Romans created a temporary absolute political position, called a Dictator. The Senate would appoint the Dictator, but after that he would not have to comply to them. He would also pick a Co-Dictator called a “Master of Horse”, but the Co-Dictator would still ultimately be a subordinate to the Dictator. Keeping all political power with one man and cutting all possible bureaucratic bottlenecks that might arrive.

Dictators also did not have to fear retribution for their actions after the crisis had passed since they were exerted as soon as their term was over. A Dictator served for 6 months, or shorter depended on how long the crisis would last.

Rome’s political system can for many centuries of its existence be seen as a mix of democracy and monarchy. Attempting to take the best of having a democratic system, while avoid the problems democracy creates in great crisis.


The Death of Paulus Aemilius at the Battle of Cannae

Some might say that size doesn’t matter, but when we are talking about empires it truly does. The Roman Empire was one of the largest in history, and it ruled over vast territories from the British Isles to Iraq.

This of course gave Rome a advantage, since it had access to almost endless resources. Including large amounts of grain from Egypt , metals from Spain and slaves from North Africa. Rome could therefore also divert resources from less affected areas to prevent larger damage, in times of crisis.

Italy itself was also rich in men and resources which in the early days of the Republic gave Rome a massive advantage over Pyrrhus and Hannibal. Since Rome could lose battle after battle and legion after legion, but still had the ability to field a new one. While their enemies slowly got worn down.

However what gave Rome’s size its greatest strength, was something different. It was its decentralized structure. The Empire could experience a great crisis in a Spanish province however the Middle Eastern provinces would remain unaffected. This provided the Empire with an enormous amount of stability and made sure that the imperial center would rarely get shaken by these local crisis throughout the Empire.

It also worked the other way around. So when a bloody political conflict was raging in the city of Rome, the imperial provinces would often work unaffected.


Roman God Neptune

A colossal part of Rome’s ability to survive crisis also laid in its ability to steal or adapt other civilizations ideas, technologies and skills.

This is perhaps most clear when looking at the Roman gods. Jupiter reminds one of Zeus while Poseidon reminds one a great deal of Neptune. That’s no coincidence, because when the Romans arrived in Greece they greatly admired the Greek city states, and sought to emulate them as much as possible.

However the Romans did not only plagiarize, they often sought to built on the already established ideas. As they did with Greek warships, which they greatly advanced on through the ages. By building on the original Greek designs.

The Roman army, highly regarded as the source of its stability and power, was in large part the product of other civilizations. Ideas from Greece, North Africa, Anatolia and Persia influenced the Roman army, and made it into the ancient worlds finest military machine.

So when a crisis struck Rome, they would seek to learn from that experience by adapting the best part of their enemies advantage. When the next battle, economic crisis or natural disaster would arrive, Rome would be more capable of overcoming it.

Ancient Rome and Today

Coronavirus check at Italian Airport

Therefor the three lessons that Ancient Rome can teach us today is avoid political gridlocks and bottlenecks at all costs, don’t let the political center be rocked and learn from those with better ideas.

How Will the Coronavirus Be Looked Back Upon?

History is riddled with pandemics. Among the building of the Pyramids, the Renaissance, and the Crusades are the Spanish Flu, Smallpox, and the Plague. And as mighty as humans think we are, we never are prepared. Viruses are unpredictable and various – they come, as the Coronavirus has, at random periods and with frightening speed. They send nations into panic and economies into ruin. Right now, it seems we’re living history. But how will our history be told? How will the Coronavirus be written about in the history textbooks of future generations?

In the information age, history is much broader and detailed than it could have ever been. With the advent of the internet, through video, texts, emails, articles, etc, everything that happens is set in stone. The right to be forgotten, whether we like it or not, simply doesn’t exist. And although it’s of no question that everything happening right now is recorded, it is impossible to consume absolutely all of it. No matter how life-changing and devastating it may be, people in the future will have to perceive the Coronavirus in mere summary. 

Most of what we learn of history is synopsis. Napoleon marched through Russia, Brutus killed Caesar, Columbus brought Smallpox to the Americas. Of course, for the people involved, these circumstances were of massive and unfathomable consequence. Napoleon’s conquests spurred widespread European political discussion and sparked fear for many regular households; not to mention the hundreds of thousands of young men stripped from their livelihoods to fight in the ensuing conflict. Caesar’s death led to a multitude of bloody civil wars and the end of the Roman Republic, killing and displacing many innocent civilians. But mention of these details in history books is scarce, if existent. Although the coronavirus is bitingly real and terrifying now, it is unlikely that it will occupy much space in the culture or discussion of future generations. 

And that’s an unfortunate fact. Because the Coronavirus pandemic is an instance which serves as damning evidence to the phrase “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. Pandemics are unpredictable, yes. The Spanish Flu killed tens of millions worldwide, the Broad Street Cholera outbreak ravaged the metropolitan center of London, and the Black Death took the lives of 1/3rd of Europeans, only to be ended with the invention of quarantine. Viruses evolve – it appears impossible to ever be prepared for such a sudden and mystifying event as a pandemic. But in the age of modern medicine and ultra-preparedness, the global reaction to Coronavirus is woeful.

The world economy has tanked, supermarket shelves are barren and restaurants are closed. Even in medically superlative nations like the United States, preventative measures have been limited to the mere suggestion of quarantine and basic hygiene, a suggestion which came too late to stop the disease from spreading across the country. Even worse, reliable information about the virus is difficult to come by. President Trump is (for the first time in many news cycles) stumbling and indecisive, often contradicting the explanations of Dr. Anthony Fauci – America’s top expert on infectious disease. Chinese media is spreading dangerously anti-foreign rhetoric to shift any blame away from itself, Americans are panicking and countries, hell even states, can’t come to any semblance of consensus regarding safety procedure or jurisdiction.

But the Coronavirus has brought positive changes, however small, as well. In the increasingly hostile and polarized political environment of the United States, it is refreshing to see Republican senators and governors adopting traditionally democratic ideas such as universal basic income and financial aid to deal with the economic stress brought by the pandemic. And the (albeit anecdotal) accidental environmental effects of widespread quarantine are evidence that pollutive human activity is surprisingly reversible. The newly-uncovered blues of Chinese skies and Venetian waters symbolize an inspiring hope in the constant fight against Global Warming. Furthermore, it is almost astounding to see countries practicing mutually beneficial foreign aid – non-toxic diplomacy is now hard at work in the age of Trumpian isolationism. 

But these changes are temporary. After the dust of Coronavirus settles, we could easily witness the resurgence of the political maelstrom of the 2020 elections, which has been largely set aside for the time being. When populations begin to leave their homes again and travel, now-clear skies and canals will surely be re-polluted. And it’s just our luck that while the positive effects of Coronavirus are temporary, the negative effects may not be so. Despite worldwide efforts to support suffering businesses, it is unclear whether the economy will truly recover, at least in the near future. And China’s anti-American propaganda, which is dangerously reminiscent of North Korean rhetoric, destroys the last remaining hope of preserving a healthy and strategic relationship with the communist nation. Not to mention the thousands of Coronavirus casualties, causing irreversible damage to families and communities all over the globe. 

The coronavirus pandemic will not be remembered fondly. Most likely it will be summarized, as it should be, as evidence of a world unprepared, politically charged, misinformed, and frighteningly fragile in the face of unexpected disaster. We can only hope that our story is learned from and never repeated.