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 Does US Elections Work During a Crisis

The United States have been in an election since early 2019 and is in the midst of picking the Democratic Party’s candidate to run against Republican president Donald Trump. This has meant rallies, town halls and polling stations for well over a year now.

However something has disrupted this process. The sudden mass arrival of COVID-19 on the US mainland. No longer can people meet in mass gatherings as an election like this demands.

Talk has even been made of President Trump’s ability to completely cancel the election and postpone it.

This begs a crucial question. If this turns into a larger health, economic and political crisis what will happen to the US election. Set to continue until the final election day in november.

To figure this out we can look at how previous national crisis in the US impacted presidential elections.

9/11 terrorist attacks 2001

Statue of liberty in front a smoking Manhattan September 11. 2001

The 9/11 terrorist attacks are a much different crisis than the one facing America currently. However like all crisis and elections they depend greatly on how the present leadership handles the crisis. 9/11 is a good example of how the president’s actions affect a reelection.

The september 11. terrorist attacks on the twin towers occurred on the exact same date as a municipal primary election was set to take place in New York. However the state legislature passed an emergency bill in order to postpone the election by two weeks. Giving us an example of what a crisis might directly do to a election.

It was also reported in 2004 that some parts of the Bush administration were talking about postponing the federal election in case of a another terrorist attack on US soil. However that idea fizzled away and was eventually given up on. However it shows the possible massive effects of a great crisis on US soil.

It was widely reported, in the aftermath of Bush’s election win in 2004 that the reason for President Bush´s win, was his handling of the 9/11 crisis and the following war on terror. Showing himself in the eyes of many as a strong and capable leader in face of a great national crisis. Therefor the crisis of 9/11 can be said to have had a direct political effect on the election, giving Bush 4 more years in office. As it might also have, positive or negatively, as President Trump’s handling of the crisis become apparent.

1918 pandemic

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, 1918

The world is a much different place more than 100 years after the 1918 pandemic. The pandemic in itself is also very different. The election in 2020 is also very different than the one americans faced in 1918. However this is perhaps the crisis in american history that resembles the current crisis most.

During the 1918 election, some incumbents were criticized for campaigning throughout the country, and not being in Washington to deal with the crisis. Therefore many politicians chose to communicate with voters through letters or press releases instead. One 1918 candidate even campaigned by greeting voters from his car, and drove around to voters.

The response to the virus varied greatly from area to area, however qurateenes, like today, were in effect in many places. In some areas local officials and campaigns made deals to open primary polling places and for speeches by the candidates to be given in front, as to boost the candidates changes. In an attempt to use the crisis for political gain, as we might very well also see today.

The national quarantine was lifted for 5 days before the election in november and politicians were allowed to campaign in those last days. However after the election infections and deaths climbed rapidly, even though voter turnout was very low.

Wars 1776 to 2020

A destroyed Japanese H8K flying boat is examined by men of the US Army – October 24, 1943

The United States have been involved in a fair share of wars since the American Revolution. The war of 1812, the US Civil war, WW1, WW2 and Vietnam. Just to name a few. In common for them all is that no matter how close or far the fighting was from the continental US, presidential elections kept on.

However these wartime election did not come without problems. One of the largest, being how soldiers could vote while being on the battlefront. It became a large issue during the US Civil War and fears about voter fraud plagued the debate. However eventually military suffrage was implemented. The controversy did not stop there though as endless debate was had about the effects this had upon the elections.

History and today

Donald Trump during his 2016 election campaign

So if history teaches us anything, it is that the election will likely not be cancelled. As America has seen a variety of different crisis before, but elections have kept on.

However what will likely happen is that the election will not occur without problems and conflict. Like 9/11 the crisis will impact voters view of the president because of his handling of the crisis. Like the 1918 pandemic more people might contract the virus when voting. Like America’s wars a logistical nightmare might arrive as people will have to vote from home in much greater numbers.