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What Did US Presidents Do Before Assuming Office?

After 32 years working as a chemist for a major pharmaceutical company, Melvin has finally retired. He is an avid reader.

What did they do before becoming president?

What did they do before becoming president?

How many times have you seen, heard, or read about the U.S. presidents in the news? Do you sometimes wonder what these guys did in the early years before becoming president of the United States of America? They had to start somewhere, and something had to happen in their lives that ultimately put them on the path to becoming the most powerful person in the country.

Here I made an attempt to list some “before they became president” activities of the popular presidents as well some lesser-known ones. After all, 44 men have served as president of the United States since the early years when this country had only 13 states.


George Washington (1789–1797)

The obvious place to start is with the first person to become president of the United States, George Washington. He is often called the father of our nation since he was the first of many presidents to follow. He was a surveyor, and he helped survey the Shenandoah Valley in the western part of Virginia when he was 16. He was also a planter since he owned several slaves.

Before becoming the first US president, Washington was elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress in 1775. After his military career, Washington became more active in laying the foundation for the young struggling nation by pushing for a Constitutional Convention. The creation of the United States Constitution was finalized, and after it was ratified, the Electoral College unanimously elected Washington as the first president of the United States.


Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809)

Jefferson was the 3rd of 10 children born in Albermarle, Virginia. At the young age of 14, he inherited 5,000 acres of land on a hill in Charlottesville, Virginia, when his father died. It is here where he built his famous resident and slave plantation, Monticello. He owned over 600 slaves there. He was fluent in French and Greek, and he played the violin.

After college, Jefferson became a prominent lawyer in the region as he handled cases for the elite society there. Jefferson held several political positions before he was elected president. He was a Virginia State Legislator, Minister to France, Governor of Virginia, and Secretary of State.

Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865)

Lincoln was the son of a frontiersman. His background was very different from his predecessors; he basically taught himself everything from mathematics to law while working on the farm and splitting rails for fences. Later, he kept a store while living in Salem, Illinois, and served in the army during the Black Hawk War of 1832.

He obtained the rank of Captain while serving. He also served on the Illinois Circuit Court as a lawyer and was later elected state legislator for the State of Illinois. He remained a legislator until he was elected the 16th president in 1860.


Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877)

Grant was the son of an Ohio tanner and worked as a clerk in his father’s tanning business. He attended West Point Academy against his will and graduated in the middle of the class. While at West Point, he set a long jump record that stood for 25 years. Grant originally wanted to be a professor of mathematics instead of pursuing a career in the military.

After graduating from West Point, he returned to work with his father until the Governor of Ohio appointed him at the outbreak of the Civil War to lead a regiment. President Lincoln later gave him the rank of General-in-Chief in 1864 for his significant accomplishments in the war. He would become the 18th president 4 years after the war ended due to his popularity.

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Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909)

Before becoming the 26th president, Roosevelt was once a Deputy Sheriff in Dakota before accepting a position as Commissioner of the New York City Police. Later, he was elected Governor of New York, and he was also Commissioner of Civil Service there.

Roosevelt was a very busy man. He founded the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Long Island Bird Club. He gained additional political experience as Assistant Secretary of Navy and later as vice president under William McKinley. He became president after the assassination of McKinley.

Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921)

Wilson’s path to US presidency started when he was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. He received a doctorate in History and Political Science while there, and he would become the only president to have a Ph.D. He was a football coach at Wesleyan University and later joined Princeton’s faculty as a professor of jurisprudence and political economics. He later became the president of Princeton University for eight years and moved into politics when he became Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913.

Herbert Hoover (1929–1933)

Hoover started his career as a geologist and as a mining engineer for a Chinese company. He was China’s leading engineer at the time. While in China and other countries abroad, Hoover got involved with efforts to provide food for Belgium after it was taken over by the German army.

He was later appointed the head of the U.S. Food Administration because of his humanitarian experience. This experience ultimately put him in a position to be appointed Secretary of Commerce by President Harding. He was Secretary of the Treasury before being elected the 31st president of the United States. He is the first and only president to be elected while being a cabinet member.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945)

Roosevelt followed in the same footsteps of his cousin Theodore to become president. He entered politics at the local level and eventually worked his way politically to the state level. He became a New York State Senator in 1910 and resigned three years later to accept the position of Assistant Secretary of Navy. Franklin Roosevelt also moved up the political ladder just like his cousin, Theodore, to become Governor of New York. Franklin did not become vice president like his cousin, but in the end he became the 32nd president of the United State despite his adulterous life.

Harry S. Truman (1945–1953)

After graduating from high school, Truman worked as a timekeeper on the Sante Fe Railroad and spent his nights in hobo camps near the rail lines. Later, he worked as a mail clerk for a local newspaper company. Truman later joined the army after 12 years as a farmer and became captain of field artillery.

In 1940, he was elected as Grandmaster of the Masons of Missouri. He stepped into the political arena as County Commissioner in Missouri and later became a U.S. senator. He was nominated as vice president in 1944 and won it in a lopsided victory. Truman became the 33rd president after 3 months as vice president after Franklin Roosevelt suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961)

Eisenhower is the modern time president with the most military background. He was the Supreme Commander of the Allied troops during World War I. Before joining the military, Eisenhower was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses group. At that time, the group was called Student Bible. He was a football player at West Point and would later serve as the junior varsity football coach there and as a football coach at St. Louis College.

After the war, Eisenhower became president of Columbia University and later became the first Supreme Commander of NATO. Eisenhower became the 34th president of the United States after retiring from his position as President of Columbia University.


Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–1969)

Johnson started his path to presidency as a teacher and, later, as a principal of a school for Mexican children in Texas. He was also a teacher of public speaking at a high school in Texas. He also served as Texas Director of Youth Administration. He did have some military experience as a commissioned officer in the Navy Reserve. Johnson served as a senator and vice president, and then he became president after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974)

Nixon was Lieutenant Commander in the Navy in his early years. He started his political career as a congressman and as a senator for the state of California. Nixon became vice president and later the 37th president. He was forced to resign after the Watergate Scandal was leaked to the news.

Gerald R. Ford (1974–1977)

Gerald Ford came into the world as Leslie Lynch King Jr. As a boy, Ford became an Eagle Scout and received two awards from the Boy Scout organization, the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award and the Silver Buffalo Award. He was a linebacker and center on the University of Michigan football team. He was offered several football spots from the National Football League (NFL) but declined them to become a football coach and a boxing coach at Yale.

Ford also had military experience as a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve. His political experience included positions as a congressman, House Minority, and vice president. He eventually became the 38th president of the United States.

As you can clearly see, some of the presidents had humble beginnings before they reached the highest office in the land. Some did not have a college education. Some became president by a change of events and others simply took the direct path to the presidency by engaging in politics early in their life. What it all comes down to is that no matter what your background is, anyone can become president if they make the right moves in their career path.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2010 Melvin Porter

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