By Don Allen
I was asked a question a while ago about the Presidency of the United States and how it works. Specifically this (paraphrased anyway):
President Donald Trump is the 44th person to hold the office of President of the United States. And yet he is called the 45th President. Why?
The reason for this is both simple and complicated, and when I explained it to the customer it took a moment for them to completely understand. So, I figured a quick blog post about it would be interesting.
The reason why Pres. Trump is known as the 45th President of the United States, when only 44 different men (including Trump) have held the position, is all due to Pres. Grover Cleveland, who was the 22nd AND 24th President.
Cleveland was elected the 22nd President in 1884, serving his first term from 1885-1889. While he ran for another term in 1888, he lost to Benjamin Harrison, who became the 23rd President and served from 1889-1893.
So far, so simple.
Cleveland ran again in 1892, and this time defeated Harrison, serving his second term from 1893-1897. He is the only person to be elected president to two non-consecutive terms, and herein lies the numbering problem. Because every other president who was elected to multiple terms before Cleveland did so consecutively, the numbering was straightforward. It was numbered by the individual, not the presidential term. So George Washington wasn’t the 1st and 2nd President, he was the 1st who served two terms. Andrew Johnson wasn’t the 16th President when he succeeded Abraham Lincoln months into Lincoln’s second term, he was the 17th even though he hadn’t won (and wouldn’t win) a presidential election.
Cleveland’s second term however presented a conundrum. If he was considered the 22nd President only, i.e. numbered solely on being the 22nd distinct individual to have held the office, the Presidential numbering timeline would look like this when you add in Cleveland’s second successor as President, William McKinley:
22nd President- Cleveland
23rd President- Harrison
22nd President- Cleveland
24th President- McKinley
See the problem? In this telling, the 22nd President was both before and after the 23rd, and the 24th President, McKinley, followed the 22nd. Logically this doesn’t make any sense. But, at the same, you couldn’t completely change the numbering to count only the Presidential term, because then Washington WOULD have been the 1st and 2nd Presidents, Abraham Lincoln would have been the 19th President (and the 20th), not the 16th, and so on. This would throw off the entire century of numbering and historical reckoning. So, what was to be done?
Well, the answer became to regard Cleveland as both the 22nd and 24th President. It’s purely a logistical decision. Rather than re-work every Presidents number in the pecking order, literally changing a century of history, it was simply easier to number Cleveland twice.
And if for some reason you need to know how many individuals have been President, just subtract one from the current President’s number:
Donald Trump, 45th President, minus one = 44th person who has been President.