The First Jobs of All the U.S. Presidents
Hey, everyone has to start somewhere.
Before leading the country was even a distant dream they pondered in their quietest moments, the men who would become our nation’s leaders explored other careers. Yep, they were just like the rest of us—sort of. Their first jobs spanned the gamut but were often the result of family connections, personal interests, luck, and maybe even fate. From land surveyors and ice-cream scoopers to teachers and a whole lot of lawyers, the 45 leaders of the United States all have fascinating stories about the first places they earned a paycheck.
While most of today’s 15-year-olds are entering their sophomore year of high school and worrying about algebra tests and finding a date for the homecoming dance, Washington was starting his first job as a land surveyor, according to the George Washington Foundation. His connections were important to his early success, as his brother-in-law married into the powerful Fairfax family, and he went on his first expedition to explore wild areas of Virginia. Frontier exploration would later lead to his interest in the military, and by the age of 17, he had already held county public office as a surveyor. Here are more surprising facts you never learned about George Washington in school.
Being the town’s schoolmaster wasn’t really Adams’ favorite thing, as it turns out, because he didn’t find it very intellectually stimulating. However, he used that time to take a bit of a “gap year,” as modern-day students would call it, to figure out his future. He grappled with the idea that becoming a lawyer might require him to sacrifice his own moral beliefs, which bothered him, but he came to terms with it and eventually did just that, according to the John Adams Historical Society. In the meantime, he earned money for law school as a schoolmaster, and he was known to call only on the smartest students in order to satiate his own intellectual boredom. He also kept detailed journals of his life.
Born to one of Virginia’s most well-off and well-known families, Jefferson was given a top-notch education and became a lawyer. When he was 14, however, his father died, and he inherited around 5,000 acres of land, including his father’s plantation at Shadwell. Despite this, Jefferson really wanted to live on a mountain, so he cleared the land on a nearby mountain, where he’d played as a boy, and named it Monticello. Of course, that’s also what he named his new estate, which he would spend the next 40 years building and redoing in what he called his “essay in architecture,” according to Monticello.org. Don’t miss these 52 astonishing facts you never knew about U.S. presidents.
Madison was the oldest of 12 kids in his family, which sounds like a job in and of itself. He grew up on the famous plantation Montpelier, which is now open to the public. After graduating from college at what is now Princeton University, he became interested in the relationship between Britain and America, which had become strained over the topic of British taxation, according to History.com. He was appointed a colonel in the military but quickly realized his talents were in politics. He went on to write the first drafts of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as one of the country’s Founding Fathers.
Monroe had lost both of his parents by his mid-teen years, and they left him quite a bit of land and slaves before he left for college in Williamsburg, Virginia. According to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, it was quite a fun time to be hanging around Williamsburg, as the governor had fled for his life. “After he left, Monroe and some of his fellow classmates helped loot the arsenal at the Governor’s Palace. They escaped with 200 muskets and 300 swords, which they donated to the Virginia militia.” Not quite a first job…but a large and charitable prank story, nonetheless. By 1776, around two years later, Monroe had joined Virginia infantry and then became an officer in the Continental Army.
John Quincy Adams
Print Collector/Getty ImagesThere’s nothing like a presidential apprenticeship to pave the way for a successful career! John Quincy Adams was the son of John Adams, the second president of the United States. He lived his childhood in an apprenticeship-style role to his father, and he and his mother even watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from their own family farm. As a 14-year-old, he received on-the-job training in the diplomatic corps as well as attended school, according to Biography.com. He also served as the secretary and translator for diplomat Francis Dana, accompanying him to Russia as a teenager. His language skills served him well, as he also went to Paris to help his father during the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris. Like many presidents, he was first a lawyer. Learn what presidents’ handwriting reveals about them, including John Quincy Adams’.
Unlike some previous presidents, the man still on our $20 bill had “humble beginnings as a poor orphan with little education,” according to CNN. His teenage job was more dangerous than your average preteen’s, as he served as a courier in the Revolutionary War who was responsible for delivering messages and packages. He had joined the cause after his older brother died, and he and his other brother were captured as prisoners by British forces, further fueling his hatred for the British. He was released as a part of a prisoner exchange and went on to be called the “people’s president,” in spite of controversial decisions that forced Native Americans to migrate. Today, his legacy is complicated, to say the least.
Martin Van Buren
The son of Dutch parents, Van Buren was a law clerk under a local lawyer at age 13 and went on to open his own firm at age 21, according to History.com. His father owned a tavern, and politics was often the center of discussion. Prominent guests including Alexander Hamilton frequented the bar, and young Van Buren got his start listening to such conversation and debate, according to UVA’s Miller Center. His job as a law clerk was the result of a favor called in by his father, as Van Buren hadn’t attended college and didn’t come from a well-off family. He spent seven years doing grunt work and studying at night to become a lawyer.
William Henry Harrison
The son of Benjamin Harrison, who signed the Declaration of Independence, William Henry would end up dying in office after serving for just one month. In his early years, he studied medicine and then became an “aide-de-camp,” which is basically a secretary for handling routine matters confidentially, for General Anthony Wayne, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. He also spent a considerable amount of time and effort dating and marrying his future wife in secret, as his father didn’t approve. These are the funniest jokes told by 23 U.S. presidents.
Tyler took over after Harrison’s untimely death and, as a result, earned the nickname of “His Accidency,” according to History.com. But his upbringing was no accident, as he was groomed for great things from early years in his top-notch education and learned law from private tutors. He began college coursework at 14 when most current teenagers start high school, and he was elected to the Virginia Legislature at 21.
James K. Polk
Known as “Young Hickory,” Polk was an enthusiastic supporter of Andrew Jackson, who was referred to as “Old Hickory.” A “first job” wasn’t on Polk’s radar as a teen, as he had struggled with illness throughout his childhood, suffering from gallstones. At 17, he had them surgically and painfully removed, without anesthesia or sterilization, according to ThoughtCo. After recovering from his challenging ordeal, he was finally ready to attend college the following year in 1816; by 1825, he had a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here are 13 facts about the White House you never knew.
Unlike many presidents who came before him, Taylor wasn’t a huge fan of school, and UVA’s Miller Center refers to him as a “poor student” who had crude and unrefined handwriting, spelling, and grammar throughout his life. His desire to join the military was seen as an acceptable alternative to a law career. He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, in a cabin in the woods, with seven brothers and sisters. He went on to be recognized later as a Mexican War hero, fulfilling his boyhood goal of being a military leader.
While many presidents claim to have a rags-to-riches story, the 13th president of the United States actually did. Fillmore was born into extreme poverty in a log cabin in the New York Finger Lakes region. According to History.com, his first job was as a wool carder, which involves gathering pieces of various fibers and textures to prepare it for the textile process. Woolery.com says that a variety of fibers can be “carded,” from dog hair to llama to soy fiber to polyester. Fillmore went on to become a lawyer, and sadly, he would eventually become known for his ambivalence in taking a stance on slavery and his inability to prevent civil war. Do you know which state has produced the most U.S. presidents?
Education was the main focus for Pierce’s mother, who raised this future president and his seven siblings, according to Biography.com. At age 12, Pierce was removed from public schools and spent three years in private academies. He went to college, where he graduated fifth in his class and became known for his public-speaking skills—something that would certainly come in handy later on. His father, Benjamin, was an accomplished Revolutionary War hero and, later, a governor, and he eventually helped get Pierce selected as Speaker of the House in the New Hampshire State Legislature when he was in his mid-20s.
Buchanan didn’t exactly follow the rules: He was almost expelled from college twice, before turning things around and ultimately getting his law degree. UVA’s Miller Center called him a “spirited presence on campus.” He was also the only bachelor president after his fiancée broke up with him and died soon thereafter. After that, he vowed never to marry, and he kept that promise.
MPI/Stringer/Getty ImagesAs you may already know, Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky. He lost his infant brother and then, later, his mother when he was 9. Although he loved poetry, storytelling, and public speaking, he had to do the work of the house and land, which could be considered his first job. After his mother’s death, his father married a woman who had three young children, so by his early teens, Lincoln was taking care of eight people as his father’s health deteriorated, according to the Abraham Lincoln Historical Society. He had early jobs loading freight onto boats to go down the river and as a general-store clerk, which would prove helpful to his future in politics, as the store was the center of town gossip and news. Speaking of Lincoln, did you know there’s a typo on the Lincoln Memorial?
According to Google Arts and Culture, Johnson was a tailor who ran away from his apprenticeship, and “with a reward on his head,” he traveled through the South honing his trade. He eventually returned to North Carolina, where his mother and stepfather lived, and settled in Tennessee. There, he opened his own tailoring shop, which is now protected inside the Memorial Building. In the Journal of the Costume Society of America, Johnson’s mother, “Polly the Weaver,” was affectionately described as a hardworking seamstress, working with the linens for the North Carolina Supreme Court members. Apparently the combination of clothes and politics rubbed off on her son as well!
Ulysses S. Grant
Grant was a quiet kid, often mistaken as stupid by classmates. But not only was he obviously not dumb—he was also a horse whisperer, according to UVA’s Miller Center. His first job involved corralling rambunctious horses on his farm, and he became known as the one who could handle horses that others couldn’t. But his father had larger goals for him, so he applied for an appointment to West Point, which led to his free college education in return for Army service.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Hayes was one of the first advocates of women in the legal arena, and he even signed an act that permitted female lawyers to argue cases in U.S. federal court. But way before that, he was a young lawyer finding his way. He graduated top of his class from Kenyon College and went on to Harvard Law, after studying in a law office for months before attending. Hayes overcame a tragic childhood, in which his father and sister died before his birth and his 9-year-old brother died afterward.
Kean Collection/Getty ImagesJames Garfield was another president who endured a tough start in life. His father died when he was just a year old, leaving his mother to raise four children in an impoverished situation. So, this future president used his first job as a teacher to pay his way through college, teaching classical languages at the Eclectic Institute. He even became the school’s president before transitioning to a career in law, and Business Insider also reports that he tended to mules for $8 per month. Plus, when he was 15 years old, according to The Week, he was a canal boat driver…though apparently not a very good one. He fell overboard 14 times in just a few months. Another random fact: James Garfield was the first left-handed president. Here are other surprising presidential firsts you never knew about.
Arthur also taught school on holiday breaks to pay for his law degree, but his pursuits in his early law career were particularly interesting. Britannica calls him an “ardent abolitionist,” and he represented Lizzie Jennings, an African American woman who sued a streetcar company in Brooklyn for forcing her off an all-white car. This and other legal victories paved the way for equal transportation rights.
Cleveland was a unique president for a few reasons, but similar to the previous few leaders, he was a teacher before—you guessed it—he pursued a legal career. He was one of the least healthy presidents and generally a big guy, according to the Constitution Center, and he enjoyed cigars and beer. His real first name was actually Steven, and he was not only the 22nd preside but also the 24th, illustrating the law that you can serve multiple consecutive or nonconsecutive terms up to a total of two terms or 10 years.
The grandson of president #9, William Henry Harrison, and the son of a Congressman, the younger Harrison grew up on plentiful acres of farmland, according to UVA’s Miller Center. If substantial but enjoyable work with the land qualifies as his first job, then Harrison was an expert: “He hunted, fished, hauled wood, tended livestock” before studying at a private school in Cincinnati and then at Miami University (of Ohio) to become a lawyer.
McKinley was a native Ohioan. His father managed an iron foundry, and his mother was a very religious woman. He participated in some debate societies as an extracurricular interest and attended one term of college but had to quit prematurely due to illness and financial issues, according to Study.com. To make money, he became a teacher and a post-office clerk, and he eventually served in the Battle of Antietam in 1862.
Teddy Roosevelt’s family owned a plate-glass import business, according to Biography.com. He grew up dealing with illnesses, especially asthma, so he was home-schooled. His father encouraged him to engage in an intense physical routine by his teens years, including boxing and weightlifting. After quitting law school early, he became the youngest member of the New York State Assembly. He was on the fast track until his mother and wife died on the same day (February, 14, 1884); he took a break from politics and headed out to the Dakota Territory for two years, where he worked as a cattle rancher. Check out the hidden talents of 24 U.S. presidents.
William Howard Taft
Taft had to live up to a prestigious legacy: His father was a lawyer and the Secretary of War under President Grant. While he was in law school at the University of Cincinnati, the younger Taft served as a courthouse reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial, now the Cincinnati Enquirer, which reported on his early life. They joked that technically a president worked for them.
Wilson spent his early years observing the horrors of war close-up, as his father’s church was turned into a military hospital during the Civil War, according to Britannica. He struggled with education, as he was apparently dyslexic, but he later became somewhat famous for publishing an essay and later his first book, which focused on valuing public opinion in politics. Can you guess the middle name of every U.S. president?
This future president’s father was the partial owner of an Ohio newspaper, so Harding’s apprenticeship was in printing. This was just the beginning of his career in journalism, which he practiced as the editor of his college paper at Ohio Central College. He would go on to revive the Star, as well as to establish its political stance as Republican in an area mostly comprised of Democrats, piquing his interest in politics and merging his two career paths.
“Silent Cal” was a lawyer before he was president, and he married a woman who both liked to talk a lot and also taught for a school for the deaf. Biography.com calls the two nearly completely opposite, although they went on to have a very happy marriage. Like many presidents up to this point, he endured intense tragedy as a child, losing both his mother and sister at a young age. He also lost his son later in life to sepsis.
After losing both parents in his youth, Hoover spent many years fending for himself. His first job was as the founder of a student laundry service at Stanford University. He also worked for the school’s registration office as he majored in geology. (He was one of the few presidents to pursue a science-based degree.) After graduation, he looked for a job in surveying, but ended up finding a position in mining engineering, according to UVA’s Miller Center.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The distant cousin of Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin was inspired by a speech he heard his relative give during his time at Groton, an elite private school. He went on to attend Harvard, where his first official role was serving as the editor of the school paper, The Harvard Crimson. According to George Washington University, he was a good-looking man who women flocked to—”handsome, charming, and fun-loving.” Unfortunately, he contracted polio at age 39 and lost the ability to walk.
Historical/Getty ImagesPerhaps best known as the president to drop the atomic bomb, Truman grew up working on his family’s farm and did not attend college. After high school, he had a variety of interesting jobs, starting as a timekeeper for a railroad company, according to Biography.com. He was also a bookkeeper and a clerk at two banks, but he eventually joined the National Guard. Did Truman also cover up a UFO when he was in office? This is one of 15 presidential mysteries that were never solved.
Eisenhower’s family struggled with poverty. He was one of seven brothers, and to contribute, he started selling vegetables at a very young age and also working in a creamery, making and selling dairy products. He enjoyed history and sports, but he took a year off from school to help fund his brother’s education by working. Word is that he cared a bit more about football than school at West Point Academy, but he did graduate.
John F. Kennedy
Kennedy wasn’t really in a position to need a job as a young man, as his family lived comfortably by the time he was in Harvard. He had some health struggles as a young child, but he enjoyed a well-off, sports-based upbringing; his father and brother Joe encouraged a competitive spirit. He wrote his college thesis on why England wasn’t prepared for World War II, according to JFK Library’s website, and shortly after college, he enlisted in the Navy and became a lieutenant and commander of a patrol torpedo boat in the South Pacific. After Joe’s tragic death in the war, JFK decided to forgo his original plans of becoming a teacher or writer and instead ran for Congress. The rest, as they say, is history. These are the 13 things that must happen when a president dies.
Lyndon B. Johnson
This future president was prepared to fill big, and shiny, shoes as he was a shoe-shiner before making his way into the political spotlight. According to The Week, he used the part-time job to make summer money but went on to shine shoes through high school as well, before becoming a goat herder on his uncle’s farm.
Nothing makes for a future in politics like seeing the country’s problems up close and personal. This is how Nixon got started in his career—as a lawyer for the Office of Price Administration in Washington, D.C., which, according to the Richard Nixon Foundation, would “greatly influence policies Nixon would develop later in his career.” He also spent two summers visiting relatives in Arizona, where he would pluck chickens at the butcher. His other early jobs included spinning the wheel at the carnival, working as a pool boy at a country club, and helping at his father’s grocery store.
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Ford was an all-star athlete and an Eagle Scout and, the Gerald Ford Foundation claims, the only president to earn that high honor bestowed upon Boy Scouts who complete certain tasks that display service, leadership, and an ideal attitude. He also worked hard at his first jobs as a painter for the family business and as a restaurant employee.
PhotoQuest/Getty ImagesAs you probably know, Jimmy Carter was a Georgian peanut farmer, and he started working at a younger age than any president. According to Notable Biographies, “Jimmy already showed a talent for business: He began to sell peanuts on the streets of Plains.” He was also one of the original “flippers,” as he invested his earnings at age 9 in five bales of cotton, which he stored and resold years later, earning himself enough to purchase five old houses.
Reagan had a combination of the most unique jobs, according to The Week. Way before he was a successful actor, he earned a quarter an hour working briefly for Ringling Brothers and later worked 12-hour days as a lifeguard. Early newspaper reports apparently credited him for saving 77 lives by the end of his lifeguarding career. He had a typical college side job of washing cafeteria tables and cooking, and he contributed to college costs and sent money home to his struggling family as well.
George H. W. Bush
The elder Bush’s first job was joining the Navy at age 18 in 1942. He served in World War II and was the youngest pilot to receive his wings at the time, according to the White House archives. He went on to complete 58 combat missions. His job was a bit more dangerous than some previous presidents’, as he was even shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire and was rescued from the water by a submarine. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action.
Bill Clinton started working at age 13 at a grocery store, where he convinced the owner to let him sell comic books. In addition, Clinton was a “band kid” (and one of the presidents with the highest IQ scores), spending time at a band camp in the Ozarks playing saxophone. His family life involved his parents’ tumultuous marriages and divorces, and he apparently had to break up some violent fights. According to UVA’s Miller Center, his mom went to the racetracks on Sundays, and he usually went to church to hear the music.
Being a president is tough. For proof, take a look at these dramatic before-and-after photos of how presidents have aged in office.
George W. Bush
Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis/Getty ImagesFollowing in his father’s footsteps, George W. Bush joined the National Guard and flew planes. He would deal with oil later in politics, but it also gave him his start after graduating with an MBA from Harvard. Business Insider reports that he was a scout for drilling sites, and he would later go on to establish his own oil-exploration company.
In Honolulu, Hawaii, Obama found his first paycheck at a Baskin Robbins, as an ice cream scooper. According to New York, the conditions were brutal. “Chocolate ice cream gets real hard,” he said. “Your wrists hurt. [Carpal tunnel syndrome, although] they didn’t call it that.” Obama was the only president to be born outside the contiguous 48 states. He also apparently spent too much time eating ice cream, and he doesn’t like it anymore as an adult.
In a pre-presidency interview with Forbes, Trump revealed that his first job involved scavenging for soda bottles with his brother at his dad’s sites to turn in for the deposit money. From there, he started accompanying rent collectors to learn about that process, and in the interview, he said that he “learned to stand out of the doorway to avoid the possibility of being shot.” He went on to joke about bottles being much safer to collect than rent and said that his job was probably equal to a “below-average allowance.”
How much of a history buff are you? Next, see if you can correctly answer these U.S. presidential trivia questions everyone gets wrong.