Non-Lawyer Careers of U.S. Presidents
| TBS Staff
Are you ready to discover your college program?
Though nowhere in the Constitution does it say the Commander-in-Chief must have been trained and worked as a lawyer, 26 of the 43 men who have served as President have practiced law, if only for a short bit (Woodrow Wilson). Even a few more former Presidents studied law at some point, but either did not acquire a degree or never practiced.
However, studying and practicing law is not a prerequisite to running the country. In this article, we take a look at what the 17 Presidents who weren't lawyers did, in their studies and professionally, before their time as POTUS, organizing them chronologically by their time in office.
Note: 43 People have served as President of the United States. This includes Barack Obama, currently serving his second term. Barack Obama is most often listed as the 44th President, this is because Grover Cleveland is counted as both the 22nd and 24th President---he was elected, then lost, then won again four years later.
Surveyor/Military George Washington
Life : February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799
In office : April 30, 1789 – March 4, 1797
Besides being the first President of the United States, George Washington was the U.S. Army's first general.
Before becoming a soldier, Washington had earned his living as a land surveyor. At the age of 17, Washington earned the coveted position of Surveyor General of Virginia. In this role, he was the first official surveyor in the Colonies, and helped to promote thousands of acres to convince families to move to Virginia. Washington's skill as a surveyor aided him during his military career as well. During his participation in the French and Indian Wars, Washington oversaw the construction of roads and a chain of forts covering over 400 miles.
Washington entered military service in 1753 at the age of 21 as an adjutant in the colonial Virginia militia. He then went on to serve as a field commander. Washington saw action in numerous engagements during this period, was cited for bravery, and rose to the rank of Colonel.
After retiring from the Virginia militia, Washington entered the Virginia Assembly in 1769, from which position he became deeply involved in the growing crisis with the British authorities.
In 1775 Washington was recalled to military service when he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed Continental Army. With the rank of Full General, Washington was tasked with gaining the thirteen colonies their freedom from British rule. After a string of victories (Boston, Trenton, Saratoga), even more defeats (Long Island, Brandywine, Germantown), the trying winter at Valley Forge, and the final victory at Yorktown in 1781, Washington accomplished his goal.
After becoming President, Washington remained actively involved in surveying matters. He was especially concerned about the accuracy of maps available to the Continental Army, and so created the office of Geographer to the Army.
Military William Henry Harrison
Life : February 9, 1773 – April 4, 1841
In office : March 4, 1841 – April 4, 1841
William Henry Harrison never intended to become the ninth President of the United States, just like he never intended to become the doctor that his father insisted he become. Harrison left medical school in 1791, within weeks of his father's death. A meeting with Governor Henry Lee of Virginia led to a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Army, 1st Infantry Regiment. At just 18 years old, Harrison was assigned to Cincinnati in the Northwest Territory, where the army was engaged in the Northwest Indian War.
In 1798, Harrison retired from the Army, seeing it as a dead end career, and in 1800 he was named Governor of the Indiana territory, a position he held for twelve years. During this period, Harrison secured a great deal of land in the area from the Native Americans inhabiting it through exploiting their communal approach to territory and low tolerance to alcohol. His practices would contribute to rising tensions with major Native American Chief Tecumseh, and the development of the War of 1812.
In 1811, he earned the nickname “Old Tippecanoe” when he led U.S. Forces against the Native Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe. One year later, Harrison was made a general in the War of 1812. Most notably, he was present at the Battle of the Thames, which ended hostilities in the region and resulted in the death of Tecumseh.
Harrison would go on to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, after which Harrison was elected President in 1841 at age 68, though he died from complications of pneumonia only 32 days into his administration. He continues to hold the shortest tenure in presidential history.
Military Zachary Taylor
Life : November 24, 1784 – July 9, 1850
In office : March 5, 1849 - July 9, 1850.
After growing up in a prominent Kentucky farming family, Zachary Taylor spent a long career in the military before entering into politics. Taylor was commissioned into the U.S. Army as an officer in 1808; by the War of 1812, Taylor had distinguished himself as a captain. Twenty years later, Taylor entered the Black Hawk War as a colonel. During the Second Seminole War, Taylor gained national attention and the new nickname “Old Rough and Ready.”
In 1845, President James K. Polk sent Taylor west to the Rio Grande in anticipation of a potential battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas-Mexico border. War broke out the next year, and Taylor led American troops to victory in a series of battles, including the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Monterey. With retirement looming, Taylor was convinced by the Whig Party to lead their ticket for the Presidential election.
Despite a vague set of political beliefs (claiming that he was both a Whig and a Jeffersonian-Democrat; being a slave owner who was not clearly opposed to a bill that would ban slavery in the Western territories), Taylor's military fame and status as a hero of the Mexican-American War helped him get elected to the White House as the 12th President of the United States. Taylor's first priority as President was preserving the Union. He died 17 months into his term, and was unable to make any progress on the issue.
Tailor Andrew Johnson
Life : December 29, 1808 – July 31, 1875
In office : April 15, 1865 – March 3, 1869
Born into poverty in Raleigh, North Carolina, Andrew Johnson helped to support his widowed mother by becoming apprenticed to a tailor named James Selby. At the age of 15, Johnson and his older brother ran away from Selby and Raleigh, and bounced around the South working as tailors, with a bounty for their capture placed on their heads by Selby. Johnson eventually settled in Greeneville, Tennessee, where he continued his tailoring business and married the daughter of a local shoemaker.
When Johnson entered politics, he served as Alderman and Mayor of Greenville, Tennessee before making his way to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843. Politically, Johnson was a Democrat who was both pro-union and pro-slavery, and was strongly opposed to secession. Johnson struggled to keep Tennessee in the Union after the establishment of the Confederacy. He could not return to Tennessee and did not resign his seat in the U.S., for which he was branded as a traitor, his property confiscated, and his wife and two daughters were run out of the state.
President Abraham Lincoln appointed Johnson as Military Governor of Tennessee, and in 1864, as Lincoln was up for re-election, Johnson was chosen as Lincoln's Vice President. Johnson acceded the office of President on April 15, 1865 after Lincoln's assassination. As President, Johnson strongly favored restoring the Union. His plans did not give protection to former slaves, which was controversial. Johnson became the first President to be impeached by the House, though the Senate acquitted him by only one vote.
Military Ulysses S. Grant
Life : April 27, 1822 – July 23, 1885
In office : March 4, 1869 – March 4, 1877
Besides being the 18th U.S. President, the name Ulysses S. Grant is permanently associated with the Civil War. Grant graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1843 and seems to have always planned on a military career. He initially retired from the military after serving in the Mexican-American War, but financial struggles encouraged him to rejoin the Army when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He led the Union Army to a number of major victories, including battles at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. His reputation as an aggressive commander earned him the promotion of Lieutenant General and Commander of all Union forces in early 1864. In 1866, he was named General of the Armies. Historians have written extensively about Grant's military prowess, and many of his strategies are still featured in military textbooks.
When the Civil War ended, Grant led the Army's supervision of reconstruction in the former Confederate states. He was elected President in 1868, during which time he stabilized the country during Reconstruction, prosecuted the KKK, enforced civil and voting rights laws, and built the Republican Party in the South.
Teacher James A. Garfield
Life : November 19, 1831 – September 19, 1881
In office : March 4, 1881 – September 19, 1881
James A. Garfield grew up humbly on an Ohio farm. In order to help his widowed mother, Garfield spent his youth working a variety of jobs, including working as a teacher, a carpenter's assistant, and a job on a canal boat. After graduating from Williams College in 1856, Garfield returned to Hiram Ohio and continued to work as a teacher, but did not see education as his ultimate career choice. Garfield began to move toward politics and was elected to the state senate on the Republican ticket, serving until 1861. Though he never practiced law, Garfield passed the Ohio bar exam that same year, after studying law on his own.
In April 1861, with the bombing of Fort Sumter, Garfield was moved to take part in the Civil War. Garfield joined as a Major General in the Union Army, and fought at a number of battles, including Middle Creek, Shiloh, and Chickamauga.
Garfield continued his career in politics almost immediately after the end of the Civil War. He served nine terms in the House of Representatives, and has been the only sitting House member to ever be elected President. Garfield served less than one year as U.S. President before he was assassinated in 1881.
Military Theodore Roosevelt
Life : October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919
In office : September 14, 1901 – March 3, 1909
Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President and the leading force of the Progressive Era, had a varied career prior to his Presidency. After graduating from Harvard University, Roosevelt experienced short stints as an author, cattle farmer, frontier sheriff, and the leader of the Reform Faction of Republicans in New York. He also entered Columbia Law School, but dropped out shortly after in order to pursue politics, being elected to the New York state assembly in 1881. In 1886, he ran in the election for Mayor of New York City, though he lost. In 1888, Roosevelt would be appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission by then-President Benjamin Harrison.
In 1895, Roosevelt became President of the New York City Police commissioners and headed off a major reform of the NYPD. In 1897, newly elected President William McKinley appointed Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but Roosevelt would soon resign his position as the Spanish-American War broke out, in order to join the Rough Riders. Roosevelt returned to the United States a war hero and, taking full advantage of his new reputation, he was promptly elected governor of New York. Because he refused to play the political games of the Republican party, Roosevelt was made to replace the (recently deceased) Vice President of the time, Garret Hobart in 1901 (in order to get him out of the way). Soon after, Roosevelt would accede the Presidency after the assassination of President McKinley.
Despite his varied resume, military life continued to appeal to Roosevelt. After his tenure as 26th President of the United States, Roosevelt offered his military services during World War I because he was frustrated with President Woodrow Wilson's lack of interest in joining the war against Germany. Roosevelt's offer was never taken up on.
Newspaper Warren Harding
Life : November 2, 1865 – August 2, 1923
In office : March 4, 1921 – August 2, 1923
Warren Harding was born in Blooming Grove, Ohio, but grew up in Caledonia, Ohio, where his father acquired The Argus, the local weekly newspaper; from this, Harding learned a great deal about the newspaper business as a child. At the age of 14, Harding enrolled in Ohio Central College, and earned a B.S in 1882, after which he briefly pursued a career in teaching, studying law, and selling insurance. When he was 19 years old, he purchased the failing newspaper The Marion Star. Eventually, Harding's newspaper became one of the most successful in the entire country.
Things changed for Harding in 1884, when he used the paper's railroad pass to attend the Republican National Convention. In 1899 Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate, followed by a term as Lieutenant Governor. After losing a bid for Governor in 1910, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914 before finally becoming the 29th President of the United States, dying only two years later from a heart attack in his sleep.
Engineer Herbert Hoover
Life : August 10, 1874 – October 20, 1964
In office : March 4, 1929 – March 4, 1933
After earning a degree in geology from Stanford, Herbert Hoover traveled the world as a mining engineer and began what would become a very successful career in Australia in 1897, later moving to China, where he lived until 1902. Hoover was adept in speaking multiple languages, which he would later use in the White House to speak to his wife, Lou, when they wished to be secretive (Mandarin Chinese being their favorite). Lou, incidentally, was the only female geology student when Hoover was at Stanford. Hoover worked his way up the ranks as a mining engineer, opening his own mining consulting business in 1908, amassing a fortune by 1914.
In 1917 he was appointed head of the U.S. Food Administration by President Woodrow Wilson, a position that was followed by that of U.S. Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. In 1928, Hoover was elected the 31st President of the United States.
Farmer/Military Harry S. Truman
Life : May 8, 1884 – December 26, 1972
In office : April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953
Harry Truman wanted to attend West Point, but his poor eyesight prevented him. Truman also wanted to attend a four-year college, but financial troubles got in the way, so he went to a business college, before soon dropping out, and finding work in the mailroom of a newspaper, for a construction company, and as a bank clerk, before returning to the family farm in 1906, where he would spend much of the next decade. In 1905 Truman joined the National Guard, and tried to make it as an owner and operator of a small mining company in 1914. In 1917, as the U.S. entered WWI, Truman rejoined his National Guard unit.
In 1918, Truman's regiment shipped out to France, where he saw five months in combat. Truman returned to his home state after the war and opened up a haberdashery (a men's clothing store) in downtown Kansas City. The store experienced initial success, but failed to survive the Depression of 1921. With a number of debts to pay, Truman decided to turn to politics, and in 1922 was elected County Court Judge of Jackson County's eastern district. After roles as Presiding Judge of the County Court, U.S. Senator, and Vice President to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman became the 33rd President of the United States after the death of Roosevelt in 1945.
Military Dwight D. Eisenhower
Life : October 14, 1890 – March 28, 1969
In office : January 20, 1953 – January 20, 1961
Despite his Mennonite mother opposing war as a religious pacifist, and despite his superiors at West Point believing he wouldn't amount to much, Dwight D. Eisenhower, our 34th President, is likely the most famous American president to have served in the military. During World War II, Eisenhower was a Five-Star General and served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe. He was responsible for planning and supervising the invasions of North Africa (Operation Torch), France, and Germany from the Western Front. After the war ended, Eisenhower was made the very first Supreme Commander of NATO and served as Army Chief of Staff under President Truman.
In 1952, Eisenhower entered the presidential race in order to oppose the non-interventionism (in the conflict in Korea) of Senator Robert A. Taft. Eisenhower won in a landslide victory, and spent his time as President keeping pressure on the Soviet Union. Throughout his entire administration, Eisenhower's military experience proved an important asset. He threatened China with the use of nuclear weapons in order to conclude the Korean War (despite having advised President Truman against their use on Japan in WWII), reduced funding for conventional military forces in his New Look policy, ordered coups in Iran and Guatemala, and refused to send soldiers to help France in Vietnam, among other things.
Military John F. Kennedy
Life : May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963
In office : January 20, 1961 – November 22, 1963
Though disqualified from the Army in 1941 due to chronic lower back problems, John F. Kennedy enjoyed a successful military career before becoming the 35th President of the United States. Kennedy was born into a wealthy, politically-connected, Irish-Catholic in Boston. Kennedy attended Harvard and studied government, with a particular interest in international affairs, and attended graduate school at Stanford to study business, before leaving in early 1941.
Thanks to the influence of his father, Kennedy was able to join the Navy during World War II, and voluntarily entered the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center in Rhode Island. His first command was that of a PT-101, a patrol torpedo boat used for training, though it wasn't long before he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. On August 2, 1943 when his PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy and his surviving crew members decided to fight rather than surrender. As the men swam towards a small island nearby, Kennedy towed a badly burned crew member through the water with a life jacket strapped between his teeth, causing him to re-injure his back. Kennedy was relieved of active duty in 1944 due to his injury, and began a short career as a special correspondent for Hearst Newspapers.
When Kennedy's elder brother Joe was killed in World War II, the political expectations held by the affluent Kennedy family fell to John. Kennedy was first elected as a U.S. Representative in 1946, and served for six years. He was elected President in 1961, and was assassinated in 1963.
Teacher Lyndon B. Johnson
Life : August 27, 1908 – January 22, 1973
In office : November 22, 1963 – January 20, 1969
In 1924, after High school, Lyndon B. Johnson was unable to get into college, and drifted about with his friends, traveling out to California, working odd jobs, and eventually falling into drinking, fighting, and getting arrested. In 1927, Johnson reconsidered his focus on a career in teaching, and began to work his way through Southwest Texas State Teachers' College, finally graduating in 1930. One of his first teaching jobs was at the segregated Welhausen School in Cotulla, Texas, where he taught Hispanic children on a meager salary. Later, he took a job teaching public speaking at Sam Houston High School in Houston, Texas.
In 1931 Johnson became an aide to U.S. Congressman Richard Kleberg of Corpus Christi. Later Johnson would return to Texas and, when Congressman James Buchanan died, Johnson moved to occupy the position. Johnson ran a failed campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1941, but eventually won the position in 1949; both campaigns were marked with fraudulent activity. Working his way up through the ranks, Johnson became Vice President to Kennedy in 1961, before acceding the Presidency in 1963 following Kennedy's assassination.
Though his teaching career was brief, Johnson's experience at Cotulla was influential to his later policies, evident in his signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965.
Farmer Jimmy Carter (James Earl Carter, Jr.)
Life : born October 1, 1924
In office : January 20, 1977 – January 20, 1981
Raised in Plains, Georgia, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter initially started out towards a military career. He was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1943, and served deployments in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. When his father Earl died in 1953, Carter returned to Georgia and took over the family peanut farm. He did so while living with his family in housing subsidized for the poor. The first harvest failed due to a bad drought, but Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, took classes on agriculture and accounting, and they ended up breaking even their first year. Eventually, the farm became quite successful.
Beginning in 1963, Carter followed in his father's footsteps yet again by entering politics. Carter served two terms as a Georgia State Senator and one term as Governor of Georgia, all the while experiencing great pressure and resistance from pro-segregationist politicians on both sides of the aisle, himself being a Liberal Democrat in favor of the Civil Rights Act and related legislation. In 1976, he was elected president, defeating Gerald Ford by only 57 electoral votes.
Actor Ronald Reagan
Life : February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004
In office : January 20, 1981 – January 20, 1989
Ronald Reagan attended Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois, graduating with a major in Economics and a “C” average, after which he began his career as a sports announcer. While traveling to California with the Chicago Cubs, he was bitten by the acting bug. A screen test done on that same trip resulted in a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers Studios. Reagan went on to appear in 19 films in only two years, including “Love is On the Air.” Other films throughout his career include “Knute Rockne, All American,” “Kings Row,” “Bedtime for Bonzo,” and “Hellcats of the Navy.”
Reagan was a member of the U.S. Army Cavalry Reserve, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 he was called to active duty as a Second Lieutenant. However, he was kept from combat due to being nearsighted, and instead spent his next three years in the Army Air Corps First Motion Picture Unit, narrating training films, and appearing in propaganda films geared toward recruitment.
Due to his future popularity as President, it is easy to forget just how popular of an actor Reagan was. In 1941, he was voted by the younger generation as the 5th most popular movie star, and he was twice elected President of the actors union Screen Actors Guild. Perhaps initially aided by his acting popularity and position in the SAG, Reagan was elected Governor of California, before beating Jimmy Carter to become the 40th President of the United States in 1981.
Oil Executive George H.W. Bush
Life : born June 12, 1924
In office : January 20, 1989 – January 20, 1993
George H.W. Bush served in the Navy During WWII as a pilot, flying torpedo bombers in the Pacific theatre; his plane was shot down September 2, 1944 under Japanese fire. After the war, Bush entered Yale on an accelerated track, earning a degree in Economics by 1948. Bush then returned to his home state of Texas where he entered the oil industry, taking a job as a sales clerk with Dresser Industries. While selling Dresser's wide range of technological services, Bush and his family moved all around Texas and California. In 1950, Bush formed an oil development company with a friend in Midland, Texas; the company soon merged with another company to create Zapata petroleum, and Bush became president of the Zapata Off-Shore Company in 1954.
In 1964, Bush's ambitions turned political. After stints as Chairman of the Republican Party for Harris County, Texas, a Congressman, an ambassador, Director of Central Intelligence, and Vice President to Ronald Reagan, Bush was elected 41st President of the United States in 1989.
Oil Executive George W. Bush
Life : born July 6, 1946
In office : January 20, 2001 – January 20, 2009
Though it may always have been the plan for him to follow his father into politics, George W. Bush, our 43rd President, spent two years in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968, with the help of some political influence on his father's part, after earning a BA in history from Yale. While training in Houston, he flew Convair F-102s with the 147th Reconnaissance Wing. In 1972 and ‘73 he drilled with the 187th Fighter Wing of the Alabama Air National Guard. Bush was suspended from flying for failing to take a physical exam, and was honorably discharged in 1974. Some controversy surrounding the circumstances of his suspension and discharge arose during the 2004 Presidential election, and his service records have been released to the public.
Bush pursued an MBA at Harvard in 1973, and in 1978, Bush ran for office in the House of Representatives in Texas' 19th Congressional District. He lost, being portrayed as “out of touch” with rural Texans. After his loss, Bush entered the oil industry, starting a series of small oil exploration companies, which later merged with a larger company, Spectrum 7, and eventually became HKN, inc., for which Bush served on the board of directors; though HKN, inc. was investigated on charges of insider trading, the SEC found no conclusive evidence. In 1988, Bush entered the political realm again, and aided in his father's own Presidential campaign. In 1995 he became Governor of Texas, and finally, in 2000, won the Presidential election against Al Gore by five electoral votes, despite losing in the popular vote.
John Quincy Adams
Martin Van Buren
James Knox Polk
Rutherford B. Hayes
Chester Alan Arthur
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Popular with our students.
Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.
Take the next step toward your future with online learning.
Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.