The First Jobs Of U.S. Presidents

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Abraham Lincoln By David Schepp & Claire Gordon


Think your job is difficult? Just imagine what it's like to lead one of the most populous and prosperous nations on earth. And yet, as the current race for the Republican nomination has shown, there's no shortage of candidates who think they have the right stuff to be president of the United States.

The person ultimately selected for that prestigious post must possess numerous talents, including being an effective policymaker, communicator, conciliator and moderator, in trying to bridge the divides among the many different views in Congress.

Historically, U.S. presidents have been aided in this effort by being leaders of one sort or another before ascending to the presidency. Many served as generals or other high ranking military officers, while others were governors, considered by many the best training for potential presidents.

But there are also those who practiced more conventional professions prior to their political lives, as history shows. Among the more famous of those, of course, is Abraham Lincoln, who grew up poor but became a self-taught lawyer and served in the Illinois legislature before being elected the 16th president in 1860.

For more on the first jobs of U.S. presidents, check out the gallery below.


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The First Jobs Of U.S. Presidents
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The First Jobs Of U.S. Presidents

A native New Yorker, Fillmore started his work life as an apprentice tailor before going on to become the last U.S. president from the Whig party. He assumed office in 1850 after President Zachary Taylor died just six months into his term. Fillmore famously said: "Nothing brings out the lower traits of human nature like office-seeking. Men of good character and impulses are betrayed by it into all sorts of meanness."

Left: A circa 1860 painting of Millard Fillmore, the 13th U.S. president, by Alonzo Chappel.  

Right: A lithograph of workers in a tailor shop.

Lincoln grew up poor and his early work life included farming, splitting rails for fences and being a storekeeper, before becoming an lawyer. A law partner said of him, "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest."

LEFT: Portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

RIGHT: 1939:  American actor Henry Fonda as the future president in the film "Young Mr. Lincoln." The scene shows Lincoln as a young lawyer  in a courtroom. The film was directed by John Ford for 20th Century Fox.

Lincoln's successor was born in North Carolina, and fell into poverty when his father died when Johnson was 3. He became an indentured apprentice to a tailor, but ran away. Johnson later opened a tailor shop in Greeneville, Tenn., before becoming the town's mayor.

LEFT: Portrait of Andrew Johnson, the 17th U.S. president. Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers.

RIGHT: The wooden tailor shop in Greeneville, Tenn., formerly owned by Johnson, as it appeared circa 1850. Photo by MPI/Getty Images.

Born in Northeast Ohio, Garfield became fatherless at age 2. At 16 he worked on canal boats, somehow earning enough money for an education. Garfield went on to become an instructor in classical languages at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) and later the school's principal. As president he served only six months before being assassinated.

LEFT: James Garfield, 20th U.S. president. Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers.

RIGHT: An image from the Library of Congress showing a canal boat driver.

Warren Harding's father wanted him to study law after graduation. But when the Ohio teenager ran out of money, he sold casualty insurance for a while. "It was the quickest money that I had ever earned," he told his biographer, "and I immediately lost interest in the leather-bound law books."

When that revenue stream dried up, Harding became the editor of a local newspaper, and at age 19 attended his first National Republican Convention. From that day on, the 29th president never shook his passion for politics. 

LEFT: Warren Harding, the 29th U.S. president, at age 30, when he was a Republican senator. Photo by Hulton Archive, Getty Images.

RIGHT: An image from the Library of Congress of a traveling salesman.

Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer for 11 years. "It is a great profession," he once said. "There is the fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege." 

LEFT: President Herbert Hoover poses with his pet dog, King Tut, in the 1930s. Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images.

RIGHT: Image from the Library of Congress of mine engineers checking surveys after a day's work.

Before dropping atomic bombs on Japan, launching the policy of communist containment, and putting into action the Marshall Plan, Harry Truman and a friend opened a haberdashery in downtown Kansas City, Mo. The store did well for two years, until "the Republicans took over the U.S. government," in the words of the 33rd president. The store went bankrupt in 1922, leaving Truman deeply in debt.

That same year, a Democratic political boss encouraged Truman to run for a judgeship on a county court, thinking Truman's reputation for hard work would sway voters. He was right. 

LEFT: Harry Truman. Photo by Eileen Darby, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

RIGHT: Truman and friends in his haberdashery store, circa 1920. Source: Truman Archive.

Gerald Ford was the captain of his high school football team and played center and linebacker for the University of Michigan. "I had pro offers from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, who were pretty hard up for linemen in those days," Ford said after he was elected president. "If I had gone into professional football the name Jerry Ford might have been a household word today."

Instead, he took a job coaching boxing and varsity football at Yale, until he was finally admitted to the university's law school. When, as a congressman, Ford's private criticism of the Vietnam War became known, then President Lyndon Johnson accused him of playing "too much football without a helmet." 

LEFT: President Gerald Ford and his daughter, Susan, are seen on the South Lawn of the White House with their dog, Liberty, in 1974.  AP Photo

RIGHT: Yale Archive photo shows Ford (right) and a fellow football coach getting ready for practice at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., September 1935.

It's well-known that Ronald Reagan had a successful Hollywood career before taking the oath of office. But before that, Reagan spent seven summers as a lifeguard at Lowell Park on the Rock River in Dixon, Ill., starting when he was 15. Reagan once claimed that the first time he was ever paid for something was when a man handed him $10 for salvaging his false teeth from the water.

"One of the proudest statistics of my life is seventy-seven," Reagan once said, "the number of people I saved during those seven summers." Reagan's biographer Edmund Morris believes the 40th president dedicated his political career to the theme of rescue. 

LEFT: American actor and politician Ronald Reagan poses in front of a red trailer belonging to the Yearling Row Ranch, Northridge, Calif., circa 1960. Hulton Archive, Getty Images

RIGHT: National Archives picture, circa 1927, of  Reagan as a lifeguard.

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