When delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 reflected on the question of the age of a president, the big concern was not that the incumbent was too old, but too young.
“George Mason was the main proponent of the age criteria for elective federal office, and his views were enshrined in the Constitution, over the objections of James Wilson,” said John Seery, professor of government in memory of George Irving Thompson and professor of politics at Pomona College and author of the book Too young to run. “Rather than pleading positively for the superior wisdom and maturity of the elders, Mason mocked the ‘deficit of young politicians’ whose political views at age 21 would be’ too crass and wrong to deserve. influence on public measures. ‘
“A generational smear, not an argument, won the day.”
Consequently, Article II of the US Constitution specifies a minimum age – 35 – but does not set a maximum. In many cases, this has allowed voters to elect presidents in their sixties and even sixties, an age when many ordinary citizens have retired.
WATCH: ‘The Presidents’ on HISTORY Vault
For some observers, the lack of an age limit for the country’s highest office increases the risk of having a president who is not up to the rigors of the job. “I’m concerned about age-related dementia, which work can speed up given the pressure of the office,” says Gary J. Schmitt, resident researcher in strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “But I’m also concerned about the higher percentage of risk of death during our tenure, which means we’ll be voting for a candidate but picking someone else that we haven’t considered as seriously.
If President Franklin Roosevelt had died while Henry A. Wallace was vice president instead of Harry Truman, for example, “US history would probably have taken a whole different turn,” Schmitt notes.
Even so, with few exceptions, most older American presidents appear to have been remarkably vigorous and capable. Here is a list of the seven who were the oldest when they left office.
Born on February 6, 1911, the nation’s 40th president was 77 years old and 349 days old at the end of his second term in January 1989. During his campaign in 1980, Reagan attempted to end questions about his age by promising that ‘he would resign if the White House doctor ever detected signs of mental deterioration.
Once in office, Reagan was found to be remarkably resilient and survived an assassination attempt in 1981, as well as surgery in 1985 to remove a cancerous polyp in his large intestine. Reagan has always seemed to portray robust health, in part because he regularly exercised with weights and enjoyed horseback riding and doing manual labor on his ranch in California. Reagan was able to humorously dismiss concerns about age, once joking in a 1984 debate saying, “I am not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience for political gain.”
READ MORE: How Gorbachev and Reagan’s friendship helped unfreeze the Cold War
Born June 14, 1946, Trump was already 70 years old when he won an upset Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton. By January 2021, the 45th president will be 74 years and 200 days old. Trump, who reportedly avoided exercise other than golf because he thinks it’s unhealthy and only sleeps four or five hours a night, recently boasted in an interview about his ability to remember a five-word sequence on a test designed to spot cognitive decline.
Born October 14, 1890, the 34th President was 70 years and 98 days old when he left the White House in January 1961. The hero of World War II was a regular exerciser who weighed only seven pounds heavier than when he was graduate of West Point, according to biographer Jean Edward Smith. Nevertheless, he almost did not come out of his first term.
In 1955, while on vacation in Denver, Eisenhower awoke with chest pains. Initially, his doctor did not realize the severity of his condition, and hours passed before a cardiologist was summoned from a nearby military hospital to do an EKG on him, which revealed that the 64-year-old president had suffered a heart attack. Eisenhower had to spend six weeks recovering in hospital, but despite his poor health his popularity was so great that he was easily re-elected the following fall.
READ MORE: How General Eisenhower turned a humiliating World War II defeat into a winning military strategy
Born March 15, 1767, the 7th President was 69 years and 354 days old when he completed his second term in March 1837. Although “Old Hickory” had a reputation for being a rugged former soldier and a man of the outdoors, by the time he reached the White House he had already spent years dealing with a variety of ailments.
According to biographer HW Brands, samples of his hair reveal he had lead poisoning from old gunshot wounds. Jackson also battled chronic diarrhea from illnesses he contracted while fighting Indians in the 1810s. His smoking and chewing tobacco habits also did not improve his health, and according to biographer Sean Wilentz, Jackson at times became so ill during his two terms that it seemed he would not survive.
Jackson managed to reach the end of his term, but upon his return to the Hermitage, his plantation in Tennessee, the white-haired ex-president was physically exhausted and suffered from blinding headaches, insomnia, pain. severe in the side and a chronic cough.
READ MORE: How Andrew Jackson started a populist wave to become America’s first ‘foreign’ president
Born April 23, 1791, the 15th President was 69 years and 315 days old when his sole term ended in March 1861. Buchanan was 50 pounds overweight and his hair had already turned white when he took office in 1857, but her health deteriorated even faster under the pressure of work, according to biographer Jean H. Baker.
Buchanan had a hard time remembering the orders he gave, and he became so physically and mentally exhausted that he was unable to get up on some days, and had his advisers come to his upstairs library. from the White House to meet him. He also suffered from hand tremors.
Considering the health issues he struggled with, it’s probably no surprise that he failed in his one term alone to heal the rift between slave and free states that led to the Civil War.
READ MORE: Why is James Buchanan considered one of America’s worst presidents?
Harry S. Truman
Born May 8, 1884, the 33rd President was 68 years and 257 days old when he stepped down in January 1953. Truman, who came to the presidency on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, was a diligent exerciser, who even in his sixties. walked 1.5 miles each day at the same vigorous pace of 120 steps per minute that he had used while marching in the United States Army.
“He was in good shape,” William Seale, historian and editor of the White House Historical Association, told CNN in 2016. But the effort to rule the country during the brutal Korean War and Truman’s habit of working 18 hours a day and ignoring illnesses, he almost reached it. In the summer of 1952, he became so ill that he had to be hospitalized and doctors discovered that he was simultaneously suffering from three different bacterial infections. As an article on the National Archives website notes, the severity of her illness has been kept from the public.
READ MORE: When Harry Truman pushed for universal health care
George HW Bush
Born on June 12, 1924, the 41st President had reached the age of 68 years and 222 days when he left office in January 1993. After a long career in government which included a stint as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and eight years as vice president, Bush had plenty of mileage on his tires by the time he reached the Oval Office. But a life of exercise had kept the former Yale University baseball star remarkably fit for a man in his sixties.
Bush was a regular runner who frequently invited reporters along to his races, former White House correspondent Kevin Merida later recalled in an article for sports website The Undefeated. Bush has had stumbles that some have interpreted as signs of fatigue and lack of contact, including a time when he checked his watch during a debate in 1992 and then struggled to answer the question. a member of the public on how the recession had affected him.
Although he lost the election, historians have come to appreciate his accomplishments as president, including his handling of the end of the Cold War.
READ MORE: George HW Bush’s role in World War II was among the most dangerous
Presidents live longer than most men
It is a common belief that the stress of being president tends to accelerate the aging of a person. But a 2011 study by S. Jay Olshansky, professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that American presidents – at least those who weren’t killed by assassins – in fact tended to live longer than other American men who were their contemporaries.