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15 Surprising Previous Careers of Our Presidents

February 2nd, 2011

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With so many presidents having had a previous career as lawyers and legal professionals (a whopping 24 out of 44) or military leaders before they entered the political realm, it can be easy to forget that others have held a wide range of careers before entering the White House. From working in fields to entertaining audiences at the movies, the variety of careers held by these leaders just goes to show that anyone with the ambition, intelligence and charisma can be President if they set their mind to it– no matter where they started out in life.

  1. Jimmy Carter, Peanut Farmer. Before his years in the White House, this down-to-earth leader worked as a peanut farmer after returning home from a tour of duty in the Navy. It is perhaps this humble profession (though Carter was quite a successful farmer) in connection with his commitment to faith that led him to take such an interest in human rights, peace and diplomacy throughout his presidency.
  2. Ronald Reagan, Actor. With many actors and entertainers stepping into the political arena these days, it is perhaps less shocking that this actor turned a career on the silver screen into eight years in the White House. During his theatrical run, Reagan appeared in over fifty films, was president of the SAG and become a spokesman for GE — a move that helped to jumpstart his interest in politics.
  3. Lyndon Johnson, Teacher. Fresh out of college, a young LBJ found work in education, briefly as a principal and then as a public speaking teacher. His work as a teacher actually formed the basis for his entry into politics, as he moved from teaching to Director of National Youth Administration in Texas, and finally into the House of Representatives. Educational initiatives were always a focus during his presidency.
  4. Herbert Hoover, Engineer. You might already have a connection in your head between President Hoover and engineering because of the famous dam named after him. In his career before the presidency, Hoover worked in mining engineering, and by all accounts was quite successful at it, traveling the world to consult and speak. It was this love of the practice that motivated lawmakers to name the dam after him.
  5. Warren Harding, Newspaper Publisher and Editor. After graduating from college, Harding worked as a teacher and an insurance man before finding a job he truly loved – working as a newspaperman. He purchased a failing periodical, worked hard to turn it around and eventually built it into a fairly successful paper, though perhaps with detriment to his health. The stress of the job caused him exhaustion and nervous fatigue. It was not until after his presidency that he sold the paper, at a profit of over half a million dollars.
  6. Andrew Johnson, Tailor. Apprenticed to a tailor at age 10, Johnson spent most of his early years working in a tailor's shop, learning how to sew and mend clothes. He, in fact, had no formal education and taught himself to read and write and was later tutored by his wife. Later in his career, Johnson's tailor shop became a meeting place for politically-minded men where they would debate the issues of the day.
  7. Abraham Lincoln, Postmaster. Abraham Lincoln held many jobs in his years before the presidency, and while he was ultimately to become a lawyer like many other presidential candidates, he worked as a postmaster for a time under President Andrew Jackson in New Salem, Illinois. It was this job that allowed him to develop the connections with people in the community and surrounding areas. It also improved his education, which was a big help when he finally decided to be an elected official.
  8. John F. Kennedy, Journalist. Much of what most people known about JFK centers around his assassination and short but popular presidency. While some may know of his career in the armed forces, fewer still know of his work as a writer before he entered the political arena. After he returned from service in WWII, Kennedy worked as a journalist, a career he loved and might have stuck with if it had his father not placed so much pressure on him to enter politics.
  9. Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of Columbia University. When people think of former careers for Eisenhower, most remember his work in the armed forces as the U.S. Army Chief of staff and the brains behind D-Day. Yet the military wasn't Eisenhower's only pre-presidential career. After WWII, Eisenhower returned home and became president of Columbia University, a match that wasn't perfect, but motivated Eisenhower to take the job on two separate occasions.
  10. Harry Truman, Men's Clothing Retailer. Harry Truman held many jobs before he became president, working as a clerk, railroad timekeeper and farmer before opening up a haberdashery after returning home from the army. Truman was the only president of the 20th century not to attend college, though his lack of higher education did not hold him back from being president. He may have benefited from some lessons in business, as his clothing store went bankrupt only during the lean years of the 20's.
  11. James Garfield, School Teacher and Minister. Garfield is best remembered, tragically so, for his assassination a mere 200 days after being sworn into office, so many may not know much about his life before the presidency. While Garfield was eventually to find his calling in law and politics, after college be preached at the Franklin Circle Christian Church but disliked it greatly and decided to be a teacher instead. He taught classical languages for a couple of years before taking and passing the Bar Exam.
  12. Chester Arthur, Tax Collector. Arthur, like so many presidents before him, graduated from college with a degree in law. While he was a lawyer by education, that was not always his vocation. During the Civil War, he was the Quartermaster General, and in the post-war period he was appointed tax collector of the Port of New York. During his seven years in this position, he was responsible for collecting a whopping 75% of the US's income from tariffs on imports and exports.
  13. Grover Cleveland, Sheriff. After having a career in law for some time, Cleveland decided to run for the office of Sheriff in Erie County and was elected by a popular vote, his first real foray into politics. While Cleveland felt a need to address rampant corruption during his time in office, he took the job largely for the increase and pay and the free time it would allow him.
  14. Theodore Roosevelt, Rancher. A Rough Rider, war hero and the nation's youngest president, Roosevelt is known as a larger-than-life political figure today. He perhaps honed some of his bravado and Wild West antics in his former career as a rancher. His love of the west and the outdoors no doubt played a role in later legislation he pushed for more National Parks.
  15. Woodrow Wilson, Professor and President of Princeton. Before becoming a politician, Woodrow Wilson was an academic through and through. He graduated from Princeton, University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins, eventually earning himself a PhD and teaching political science at Princeton. A popular professor, he was rapidly promoted to President, a position that gave him the exposure and connections he needed to mount his later political career.

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