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5 American Presidents and the Jobs They had Before Running for Office

Eileen Farrelly

Everyone had to have jobs, even presidents. When it comes to building a successful career, we all have to start somewhere. And many successful people have built their careers from very humble origins. This is as true of politics as it is in any other area.

Not many start planning a political career in their early years, and early jobs often don’t relate to what they later go on to achieve. Presidents had all kinds of jobs and came from lots of different backgrounds including the more obvious ones, such as business and law. But many also come from more unlikely backgrounds.

George Washington

George Washington, the Lansdowne portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

George Washington, the Lansdowne portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

America’s first president began his career as a surveyor. Following his father’s death when he was only 16, Washington had to earn a living. Fortunately, he had always enjoyed spending time outdoors and was good at math and arithmetic.

He combined these skills and taught himself to use the surveying tools he had inherited from his father. At this time, as new territories were still being opened up and explored, surveying was a valuable skill.

A chance meeting with Lord Fairfax – reputed to have been the richest man in Virginia – helped him on his career. He soon joined Fairfax’s surveying party in Virginia. And despite having had no formal training later became the official surveyor for Virginia.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Like many boys growing up in rural America, Lincoln had to work on the family farm. But later he wanted to make his own career, possibly due to family tensions.

He had a number of jobs including working as a boatman, running a general store (many say he was a bartender) and working as a day laborer. He was also a skilled wrestler. Lincoln’s own education had been limited but he was a good learner. Using borrowed law books and reading legal documents young Lincoln taught himself enough to gain a license to practice law.

Theodore Roosevelt

Col. Theodore Roosevelt, 1898

Col. Theodore Roosevelt, 1898

Unlike many other presidents, Theodore Roosevelt came from a wealthy family and had little need to work to support himself. As a young man, he inherited his father’s fortune which was equivalent to more than $3 million in today’s money. He decided to study law but dropped out and dedicated himself to politics. He was one of the few who put his career on such a direct path to the White House from the start.

Ronald Reagan

Television star Ronald Reagan as the host of General Electric Theater

Television star Ronald Reagan as the host of General Electric Theater

By the time Ronald Reagan ran for president he was already a well-known face. As a star of the silver screen, he had played roles in many popular movies.

His first acting credit was for a starring role in the 1937 movie Love is in the Air. But before making it as an actor he supported himself through various odd jobs including working as a lifeguard. Reagan is credited with saving 77 lives in the course of his duties.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton – 42nd President of the United States

Bill Clinton – 42nd President of the United States

Although Clinton was another law graduate, he also quite literally spent time on the shop floor. One of his early jobs was in a grocery store in Arkansas packing bags and stocking shelves. He also made some extra money by persuading the store owner to let him sell second-hand comics. Despite toying with the idea of becoming a professional saxophone player, Clinton knew early on that he wanted a career in public office. He got his first taste of the political world as an intern with Arkansas Senator Arthur J. Fulbright.

Read another story from us: Teddy Roosevelt – 10 Things to Know About America’s Rough and Tumble President

Although quite a few presidents jobs were legal or had business background there is clearly no set career path for those who dream of entering the White House. So just remember, the person who is serving your table or packing your groceries today may well be a future president.