Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The right stuff: what they did before they were president

July 13, 2011 by Kathleen Maher


Among the credentials that Mitt Romney, the early "front runner" in the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, and Herman Cain, who  is trailing in the polls, have put on the table as qualifications for office is their experience as business executives.

Harry S Truman. Photo credit: The Kheel Center, Cornell University

This got us thinking: Does it take knowing how to run a business to run the country? How many of our past presidents were first captains of industry or small entrepreneurs, for that matter?

The answer:  surprisingly few.

Jimmy Carter successfully ran his family’s peanut farming business, Harry Truman ran a haberdashery, Abraham Lincoln briefly ran a small general store, and George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were both oil executives.

Among our presidents, the most popular career was as a lawyer, with 24 presidents in the profession, followed by 12 presidents who were soldiers (five were both!), while seven presidents were school teachers or professors.

With the careers of all our presidents in hand, we came up with our list of the top-ten most interesting “before they were president" careers. Let us know in the comment section if you agree or disagree with our choices!

1. Jimmy Carter – Peanut Farmer

Born in Plains, Georgia, President Carter eventually took over and successfully expanded his family business of peanut farming.

2. Harry S. Truman – Haberdasher

President Truman, after returning to Missouri after World War I, opened a haberdashery (men's clothing store) in 1919.The store was successful during its early years,  but eventually went bankrupt during the recession of 1921.

3. Ronald Reagan – Actor

President Reagan was an actor for over 40 years before he became president, starring in such films as Love is in the Air, Kings Row, Bedtime for Bonzo, and Hellcats of the Navy.

4. Herbert Hoover – Engineer

President Hoover began his career as a mining engineer in Australia in 1897. He successfully rose through the ranks of the profession, becoming a partner in Bewick, Moreing & Co. in 1901, before  striking out on his own in 1908 as an independent mining consultant.

5. Andrew Johnson – Tailor

Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, President Johnson became apprenticed to a tailor at an early age.  Johnson eventually left his apprenticeship and found work as a tailor in Greenville, Tennesse. A self-taught man, he began his political career as an alderman in Greenville in 1829.

6. Theodore Roosevelt – Rancher

President Roosevelt built a ranch, which he called Elk Horn, in Medora, North Dakota. There, in addition to learning how to ride western style, rope, and hunt, he served as deputy sheriff, hunting down outlaws.

7. Warren G. Harding – Newspaper Editor

Growing up in Caledonia, Ohio, President Harding learned all about the newspaper field from his father, who ran the local newspaper called the Argus. Harding eventually bought the failing Marian Daily Star, which eventually became one of the most popular newspapers  in the county.

8. Lyndon B. Johnson – School teacher

President Johnson attended the Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College, where he worked his way through school, graduating in 1930. Johnson taught public speaking at high schools in Texas before entering politics.

9. Woodrow Wilson – President of Princeton University

President Wilson received his Ph.D. in history and political science from John Hopkins University and went on to teach at Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University.  He joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1890, and became President of the University in 1902.

10. George Washington –Surveyor

President Washington’s earliest career was as surveyor of the western frontier for the British Colonies.  When Washington was only 16 years old, he earned the coveted position surveying lands for parcel and sale in Northern Neck, Virginia.

Kathleen Maher is a Program Developer for the National Constitution Center.

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