Youngest and oldest presidents in U.S. history
Though the U.S. president holds the highest, most powerful office in the world, the Founding Fathers laid out very few requirements for someone to win the job. To become President of the United States, you must be a natural-born citizen (not a naturalized immigrant) who has lived here for 14 years and is at least 35 years old. There are no experience requirements, as evidenced by the fact that President Trump and several other presidents from the 1800s didn't hold political office before taking the White House.
It's unclear exactly why the founders set 35 as the minimum age limit—some historians think it was to avoid foreign influence in the executive or to keep families from creating huge political dynasties. However, with the 2020 election just around the corner, a new question has emerged: can someone be too old to run for president?
There's no constitutional cap on the president's age but as human lifespans continue to lengthen, it becomes an even more important question. The 2020 Democratic primary field boasts three current candidates who would be 70 or older on Inauguration Day and in 2016, both major party nominees were in their late 60s. At the same time, a number of candidates in this cycle are in their 30s and 40s, making them some of the youngest presidents should they be elected.
Polls show the majority of Americans wouldn't vote for someone over 75 but at the same time, most tend to prefer candidates with experience in elected office, which takes time to accumulate (though according to Pew, those numbers have slipped especially among Republicans). Though it's a huge topic of conversation this election cycle, age and experience have always played a role in American presidential politics. To explore exactly what that role looks like, Stacker ordered all 45 presidents from youngest to oldest and took a deep dive into their biographies to see how age and experience shaped each president's time in office.
Read on to see which young presidents came to office by accident (or not) and tried to change the country, and discover which president's wife secretly became commander-in-chief after health issues nearly ended his presidency early.
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#45. Theodore Roosevelt
- Age at inauguration: 42 years, 322 days
- Order of presidency: 26
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt's relative youth didn't help or hinder his ascent to the presidency, largely because America's youngest inaugurated president wasn't technically elected. He was selected as William McKinley's running mate for his 1900 reelection campaign after McKinley's previous VP passed away, in part because of his popularity as a war hero and his strong progressive credentials as governor of New York; he ascended to the presidency after McKinley was assassinated in 1901. However, his youth and vigor have become a central part of how Roosevelt is remembered today, with his past as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War and love for athletics an important part of how he's remembered.
#44. John F. Kennedy
- Age at inauguration: 43 years, 236 days
- Order of presidency: 35
The election of 1960 pitted youth against youth (at least in presidential terms) with 43-year-old Democrat John F. Kennedy going up against 47-year-old Republican Richard Nixon (who would ultimately win office when he was about a decade older). The two participated in the first televised presidential debate and despite the relative closeness of their age, Nixon looked pale and washed out next to the youthful, vibrant Democratic candidate on TV screens across America. The election was incredibly close and some credit JFK's ultimate victory in the election to his performance in the debates, which proved to voters he wasn't too young to take on the presidency but that he had the energy to drive real change.
#43. Bill Clinton
- Age at inauguration: 46 years, 154 days
- Order of presidency: 42
Bill Clinton used his youth as an asset in their 1992 campaign for the White House; trying to win over the youth vote, Clinton appeared on MTV and took questions from a young audience and famously played the saxophone on the “Arsenio Hall Show.” Though Clinton's age proved beneficial to him on the presidential campaign, he hadn't always benefited from entering politics at such a young age. As Arkansas' youngest governor, he made several policy stumbles during his time in office that led voters to believe him too inexperienced for the job, and voters ousted him after just one term.
#42. Ulysses S. Grant
- Age at inauguration: 46 years, 311 days
- Order of presidency: 18
President during the bulk of the Reconstruction from the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was a war hero that many Americans hoped would bring the youth and energy he brought to the battlefield to the Radical Republican agenda for rebuilding the fractured nation. History, however, has not reflected kindly upon his two terms in office. Grant's political inexperience outweighed his success as a general and he often ceded control to the legislative branch, allowing Congress to set the agenda.
#41. Barack Obama
- Age at inauguration: 47 years, 169 days
- Order of presidency: 44
Barack Obama took the 2008 Democratic primary by storm, beating out older, more experienced establishment candidates like Joe Biden, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton by emphasizing the need for change from the unpopular Republican president George W. Bush who was presiding over a devastating economic recession. Obama fended off claims he was inexperienced in part by appointing many of his former campaign opponents, including Biden as his vice president and Clinton as his Secretary of State. After eight years in office, however, Obama left office not to comments about his relative youth but rather how much his time in the White House had visibly aged him.
#40. Grover Cleveland
- Age at inauguration: 47 years, 351 days
- Order of presidency: 22
The only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, Grover Cleveland inadvertently became a rising star of the Democratic Party in the late 1800s. Before taking on the presidency for the first time in 1884, he was asked to run for mayor of Buffalo by a friend and later took on the New York political machine to gain a reputation as a reformer. His age proved to be a significant factor not in his political life but his personal one; the press took him to town for marrying his 21-year-old ward two years into his first term.
#39. Franklin Pierce
- Age at inauguration: 48 years, 101 days
- Order of presidency: 14
Franklin Pierce isn't regarded by modern historians as a great president, in large part because of his advocacy for slavery despite being a Northerner and generally hastening the country to the Civil War. His youth wasn't particularly to blame; Pierce was a relatively experienced politician and had served in the New Hampshire legislature as well as both chambers of Congress. Rather, the death of his young son just before Pierce assumed office left him “nervously exhausted” from the start and his support of slavery won him few allies.
#38. James A. Garfield
- Age at inauguration: 49 years, 105 days
- Order of presidency: 20
James Garfield won the closest popular vote election in history, beating out his Democratic opponent, General Winfield Scott Hancock, by less than 10,000 votes. Age paid little role in the competition between Garfield and Hancock, with the election mostly coming down to differing opinions over a tariff. Garfield's age wasn't able to affect much of his legislative agenda either, as he was assassinated four months into his presidency by a man who was upset at not receiving a job in his administration.
#37. James K. Polk
- Age at inauguration: 49 years, 123 days
- Order of presidency: 11
Though he was the youngest president to hold office until the 20th century, Polk opted to serve only a single term. It was a busy one though, as he oversaw the Mexican–American War and some of the largest territorial expansions since the Louisiana Purchase, including the annexation of Texas. He's consistently ranked by historians as one of the best presidents due to his spirited and vigorous involvement in the war as well as his fevered drive for expansion and, as a wartime president, helped define the role of president as commander in chief of the military.
#36. Millard Fillmore
- Age at inauguration: 50 years, 183 days
- Order of presidency: 13
Millard Fillmore ascended to the presidency after the death of Zachary Taylor, having been selected to the vice presidency to balance Taylor's ownership of slaves with his personal opposition to slavery. His presidency was most characterized by his support of the controversial Compromise of 1850 which increased tensions between the North and South, and he didn't receive the Whig nomination after finishing Taylor's term in part because of it. His relative youth allowed him to play a role in politics, receiving the 1856 nomination for the nativist Know-Nothing Party, but after his defeat in that election, Fillmore almost entirely retired from politics.