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The Jobs of U.S. Presidents (Before They Were President)

Updated on February 28, 2015

What Did They Do Before They Were President?

I’ve taken six of the best-known presidents of the United States and looked at their occupations, professions, and careers before they were president. How did their early work experience influence their actions a president.

George Washington

A portrait of George Washington.
A portrait of George Washington. | Source

George Washington's Resume

Surveyor

Plantation manager

Representative to Virginia's House of Burgesses

Military commander

George Washington, 1st U.S. President

(Born February 22, 1732; served from 1789 to 1897)

The death of George Washington’s father when George was only 11 years old prevented George from going abroad for a university education. He lived on the plantation of his older half-brother, Lawrence, and it was there that he learned surveying, tobacco growing, and the raising of livestock.

At the age of 16 he became a surveyor. A year later, in 1749, young Washington became the official surveyor for his county.

What George really wanted was a career in the military. He tried to join when he was 16, but did not because his mother objected. At the age of 19, he obtained an appointment as a major in the Virginia militia; at the age of 23, he became the commander of all of Virginia’s troops.

When he was 27, he resigned his commission and married a wealthy widow. He was now a wealthy landowner. He devoted himself to managing his plantation. He grew a variety of crops, raised livestock, maintained fruit orchards, and managed a successful fishery. He was a hard worker and often performed manual labor in the fields alongside his workers. He continually experimented with new crops and methods of land conservation.

He entered politics at age 26 with an appointment to Virginia’s House of Burgesses.

He eventually became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. At the end of the war, he returned to his plantation, but he was once again drafted into the service of his country. At the Constitution Convention, Washington was unanimously chosen as president.

The skills Washington learned managing a plantation, commanding an army, and taking a role in politics helped him develop the leadership and political skills as well as the practical skills to manage the affairs of state as the first president of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson.
A portrait of Thomas Jefferson. | Source

Thomas Jefferson's Resume

Law clerk

Plantation manager

Lawyer

Vestryman

Justice of the Peace

Representative to Virginia's House of Burgesses

Member of Continental Congress

Governor of Virginia

Delegate to Congress

Secretary of State

Vice Presdient

Thomas Jefferson, 3rd U.S. president

(Born April 13, 1743, served from 1801 to 1809)

Thomas Jefferson was born into a wealthy Virginia plantation family and was very well-educated. At age 16, Jefferson entered the college of William and Mary He studied history, science, math, metaphysics, and philosophy, in addition to several languages. He excelled at his studies and graduated with honors.

His first job was as a law clerk for his law professor. At the age of 24, he was admitted to the bar and became a county circuit lawyer. He was also a vestryman (a lay leader of the church) and a justice of the peace.

Thomas Jefferson’s father had died when Thomas was 14, and thomas received his father’s estate at the age of 21. He managed the plantation while continuing his college studies. It was the beginning of his zeal for farming, an interest that would be important to him for the rest of his life.

Jefferson’s first job in politics was his appointment to the Virginia House of Burgesses at the age of 26. Thereafter, he had many political positions. He served as a member of the Continental Congress. (He was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence.) He served as governor of Virginia, as a delegate to Congress, as a diplomatic representative to France to negotiate commercial treaties, as a secretary of State to George Washington, and as Vice-President to John Adams.

At the age of 29, Jefferson married and began work on Monticello—the name he gave to his plantation and the house he built there. It was a work-in- progress for over 40 years with Jefferson actively involved in the architectural design and all other aspects of the plantation.

During his lifetime, Jefferson was recognized as a horticulturist, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, musician, and inventor as well as for his political activities. His intelligence, his varied interests, and his political activities prepared him well for his duties as president.

Abraham Lincoln

A portrait of Abraham Lincoln
A portrait of Abraham Lincoln | Source

Abraham Lincoln's Resume

Farmer

Produce hauler

Store clerk

Store owner

Soldier

Postmaster

Surveyor

Lawyer

Assemblyman in Illinois

Representative to U.S House

Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. president

Born 1809; served from 1861 until his assassination in 1865)

Abraham was born into a poor farm family in Kentucky, and he most likely began working on the farm as a very young boy. Abraham had very little formal education; almost everything he knew was self taught.

His earliest paid work occurred while he was still a boy when his father rented him out to neighboring farms to perform manual labor tasks such as shucking corn, hoeing, plowing, and harvesting. (Abraham did not get to keep any of the money—it went to his father. This experience may have been influential in his action to abolish slavery.)

At age 19, Lincoln and a friend took a flatboat of farm produce to New Orleans. At age 22, Lincoln worked as a clerk in a general store. At age 23, he and a friend purchased another general store, but it failed within a year. During this year, he also served for three months as a captain in the Black Hawk War, became postmaster, and county surveyor.

The same year, he began his political career with an unsuccessful run for the Illinois General Assembly. The next year, at age 24, he won his election to become a member of the General Assembly, and he began to teach himself law.

At the age of 28, he was admitted to the bar. He practiced law over the next 20 years and earned a reputation as an outstanding lawyer. He was called “Honest Abe” and was known for his brevity, logic, and ability to “read” juries.

He won reelection to the General Assembly several times, and at age 37 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He later ran for senator, but lost to Stephen Douglas. In 1860, at the age of 51, he received the Republican nomination for president and was elected president.

Lincoln had intended to return to his law practice at the end of his presidency. Unfortunately, he was assassinated in 1865 at the age of 56.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

A portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. | Source

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Resume

Editor of Harvard Newspaper

Lawyer

State Senator

Secretary of the Navy

Governor of New York

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd U.S. president

(Born January 30 1882; served 1933 to 1945).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born into a high-society wealthy New York family. He attended a private prep school, Groton Academy, and later Harvard.

At Harvard University, he became the editor of the school paper, The Crimson. Competition for the post was fierce, and Roosevelt competed hard. His success may have given him his first taste of politics.

After Harvard, Roosevelt attended Columbia Law School for two years, and even though he never graduated, he did pass the bar.

However, he had neither an aptitude nor a passion for the law. He worked for a few years at a New York City law firm and then entered politics. Theodore Roosevelt was his fifth cousin (and an uncle after he married his fifth cousin, Eleanor), so politics probably seemed like a natural fit.

In 1910, at the age of 28, he was elected to the New York State Senate. Three years later, he was appointed as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson.

When he returned to private life, he worked at a New York law firm, at a financial firm and, later, at a new law firm he founded with a partner. However, he remained active in politics, supporting Democrats in their runs for office and sometimes running for office himself. (He was unsuccessful in his attempt to win the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, and in his run for Vice President with James N. Cox also failed.)

In 1928, he was elected governor of New York, and in 1932, he was elected president. He is the only president to have been elected four times. (After his death, a law was passed limiting presidents to two terms.)

Ronald Reagan

A portrait of Ronald Reagan.
A portrait of Ronald Reagan. | Source

Ronald Reagan's Resume

Lifeguard

Sports broadcaster

Actor

President of the Screen Actor's Guild

Spokesman for G.E.

Governor of California

Newspaper columnist

Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S President

(Born February 6, 1911, served 1981 to 1989)

Ronald Reagan was born into an average working class family in Illinois. His father was a salesman. His mother occasionally worked as a seamstress and a sales clerk.

Ronald Reagan’s first job began when he was 16. He was a lifeguard. Over a six-year period, Reagan reportedly performed 77 rescues, and it is said that he notched a mark on a wooden log for each one.

Reagan attended Eureka College, a Christian liberal arts school, in Illinois. He majored in economics and sociology. He was involved in many different aspects of campus life—he was a member of a fraternity, a cheerleader, a member of the football team, captain of the swim team, and an actor in campus theatrical performances. He was elected student body president.

His first job after college was as sports broadcaster at the University of Iowa. He was paid $10 a game. He later became a radio announcer before working as an announcer for the Chicago Cubs.

When he was 26, Reagan was discovered by a Hollywood agent and he moved to Hollywood. He received a contract with Warner Brothers that same year and went on to appear in more than 50 films.

In 1942, Reagan was called to active duty by the Army Air Force. He was assigned to the 1st Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, Calif., where he spent the war years making over 400 training films.

In 1947, Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild for the first of five consecutive terms. During this time, Reagan testified as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Those hearings resulted in the blacklisting of many writers and directors.

Reagan later became a spokesman for General Electric and traveled the country giving speeches for the company. This job gave him national recognition and his start in politics.

Reagan ran for governor of California and won two terms--once in 1966 and again in 1970. In 1968 and again in 1976, he was defeated in his run for the Republican presidential nomination.

After his second term as governor was completed, he spent the next few years, working on his ranch, giving speeches, doing radio commentaries, and writing a weekly newspaper column.

Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination for president and the election in 1980.

Barack Obama

A portrait of Barack Obama.
A portrait of Barack Obama. | Source

Barack Obama's Resume

Legal Intern

Community organizer

President, Harvard Law Review

Lawyer

Author

State Representative (Illinois)

Professor (Law School)

Senator

Barack Obama, 44th U.S. President

(Born August 4, 1961; served from 2008 to present)

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to a middle class white young American woman and a black exchange student from Kenya. They met when both were attending the University of Honolulu. His parents’ marriage was short- lived, and although Obama spent his earliest years living with his mother, from about the age of ten on he lived with his white grandparents.

After graduation from high school in his home state of Hawaii, Barack Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years and then transferred to Columbia University in New York City. He got a degree in political science in 1983 at age 22.

Obama next spent a year in New York working as a researcher with Business International Group, a global business consulting firm. Obama then took a job working as a community organizer in Chicago's largely poor and black South Side. His main assignment was to launch the church-funded Developing Communities Project and, in particular, to organize residents of a housing project to improve conditions. His efforts met with some success, but he concluded that he needed a law degree to be successful in bringing about change.

In 1988, at the age of 27, Obama enrolled at Harvard Law School. During his time at Harvard, he won election for president of the Harvard Law Review—the first African- American to ever hold that position. He was an excellent student and graduated magna cum laude. After his first year at Harvard, Obama did an internship at Chicago's Sidley and Austin law firm. Here he met Michelle Robinson, who was his supervisor. They married four years later.

Obama received a contract from Random House to write a book about race relations. The book, Dreams from My Father: a Story of Race and Inheritance was published in 1965. (In 2006, his second book, The Audacity of Hope, was published.)

For the 1992 election Obama worked at Illinois Project Vote, a voter registration drive aimed at increasing black He also took a position as an attorney with the civil rights law firm and a position as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.

In 1996, he launched his first campaign for political office for the Illinois legislature. He won. He became a leading legislator on a wide range of issues, passing nearly 300 bills design to help children, old people, labor unions, and the poor. In 2000, he sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. House and lost. In 2004, he ran for the U.S. Senate and won. He then sought the 2008 nomination for president, won it, and went on to win the election.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

A beautifully-written, poignant, probing memoir of one man's search for his identity. Obama weaves his personal story into a larger context. I strongly recommend this book about family and community and American culture. I learned so much from this book.

 

Six presidents—what do they have in common?

Some were born rich and some were born poor. Some went to elite schools and some went to lesser schools or no schools at all. Some had some early success in politics like being class president or being elected, being captain of a team, or achieving some other coveted office at school.

As young people just starting out in life, did they ever dare to dream that they would be president? I doubt it. did they seek power or power’s sake or did they seek the presidency in order to help create a better world. I’ll leave that or you to decide.

What did they have in common--hard work and perseverance. When they entered politics, they won some and they lost some. They hung in there and eventually won the biggest political prize of all.

During Obama's 2008 campaign, he was mocked for having been a community organizer.

Do you think Barack Oama's previous work as a community organizer helped or hurt him during his run for president?

See results

Barack Obama discusses "Dreams from My Father"

Learn More About the Presidents

© 2014 Catherine Giordano

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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 2 years ago from The Caribbean

      I like your observations in your concluding paragraphs. They all worked hard, but I'm not sure why I find the story of "Honest Abe" so attractive over the others--both in this and your previous article. I do appreciate the research and presentation. Thank you.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      This is very interesting and informative hub about U S Presidents!

      I knew about some of the former Presidents as I have read about them.

      You are right, hard work and perseverance are the key factors to reach such heights in public life.

      Voted up and thanks!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      MsDora: I agree with you. Lincoln's story touches the heart. His beginnings were so humble, he had to work so hard, his life was marked by so many tragedies, it affects the emotions. I think I have to write a piece just dedicated to Lincoln.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Chit: Thank you for your comment. I hope I gave you some new insight into a few of the most famous American presidents.

    • goatfury profile image

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Great info here! I especially like the smaller text box with the summary. Did you link to your other article with the same Presidents?

    • goatfury profile image

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      I have a couple of different series of highly related articles as well, and I often struggle with how to help my readers find the other ones. I know linking inside the article works, to a degree, but is it possible to have a list somewhere? Not to hijak here, but I wondered if maybe you had already done this.

      Anyway, great article.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you. The text boxes were an afterthought-I did them as an edit. I'm glad you liked them. Yes, I did link the two presidents hubs.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      HP always lists related hubs at the bottom of each hub. as you said you can put a link to your other hubs right in the hub itself. (I just went and did that on my two presidents hubs because one of them got made "editor's choice" and removed from my domain.) And when you set up your hub, on the right hand side is place to click "Display Options." You can create a group name and link all the articles into that group. That's everything I know.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      It was interesting to read the jobs these presidents had prior to office. I admire Lincoln the most. I'm sure they all worked equally has hard to get to this position. Great article and so educational.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you teaches. I admire Lincoln the most also. I learned so much about him that I never knew when I researched this hub.

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