Special Report

Each President’s Path to the Oval Office

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

James Polk (1795-1849)
> Term: 1845-1849
> Party affiliation: Democratic
> Notable occupation: Lawyer, governor

James Polk aligned himself with the forces of Jackson and rose to political prominence in his native North Carolina. Sensing the nation’s thirst for expansion in the run-up to the 1844 election, Polk backed annexation of Texas and expansion into the Oregon territory. He also wanted to add California to the Union.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Zachary Taylor (1784-1850)
> Term: 1849-1850
> Party affiliation: Whig
> Notable occupation: Soldier

Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War, appealed to northerners because of his military record and homespun demeanor, and he was acceptable to the South because he owned slaves.

Source: iip-photo-archive / Flickr

Millard Fillmore (1800-1874)
> Term: 1850-1853
> Party affiliation: Whig
> Notable occupation: Lawyer, congressman

Millard Fillmore was an unremarkable upstate New York politician working closely with the Whig Party. He was elected to the House of Representatives, became vice president under Taylor during a tumultuous time in American history as the North and South were at loggerheads over the extension of slavery to new states and territories. Fillmore became president when Taylor died in office.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Franklin Pierce (1804-1869)
> Term: 1853-1857
> Party affiliation: Democratic
> Notable occupation: Lawyer, diplomat

Franklin Pierce, son of a governor of New Hampshire, served that state for two terms in the House of Representatives and one term in the Senate. While in Washington, he befriended southern politicians and expressed some sympathy for the southern cause. He left Washington, D.C. in 1842 to return to his private law practice. As the nation was fracturing along sectional lines, the Democrats sought a candidate who could appeal to the North and South. Pierce was backed by New Englanders and southern delegates and became the quintessential dark horse presidential candidate at the 1852 Democratic national convention.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

James Buchanan (1791-1868)
> Term: 1857-1861
> Party affiliation: Democratic
> Notable occupation: Lawyer, diplomat

James Buchanan had a long and respected career as an American statesman before he became president. By the time he was elected president in 1856, he had over 40 years of experience. Jackson appointed him as an envoy to Russia. He served as secretary of state under Polk, and as minister to Great Britain under Pierce.