Origin Stories: Where do Presidents Come From?

By Kaleena Fraga

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

The election of 2020 is underway! So far it is the most diverse election in American history. The people running (or who will probably run) represent a mix of genders, sexual orientations, and race. One thing many of them have in common is that they serve or have served in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate has not, historically, been the best jumping off point to the presidency. Only Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama went directly from serving in the Senate to the White House (although many other presidents served in the Senate at some point in their career before the presidency). With this in mind, we’ve decided to look at where presidents came from: that is, what office did they hold, or what career did they leave, before entering the White House?

The Military : 5

George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower all transitioned from military careers into the presidency. Washington, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower were strictly military men who left this life to be president.

In the case of Eisenhower and Taylor, their party preference was initially unknown. Eisenhower was especially cagey about his politics, and Harry Truman even floated that they run together with Eisenhower on top of a Democratic ticket in 1948. Taylor had never voted in an election–feeling that, as a military man, it wasn’t right to choose a party.

Of the five, only Franklin Pierce had prior political experience. He served in both the House and the Senate before enlisting in the Mexican-American war.

Vice Presidency :14

You can check out our great collaboration with Periodic Presidents to learn more about how the vice presidency doesn’t guarantee an easy path to the presidency. Still, many have made the leap (or have been pushed after the death of an incumbent).

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and George H.W. Bush directly succeeded a president in an election. Richard Nixon lost his election in 1960 directly after his vice presidency, but won in 1968.

John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry S. Truman became president after the incumbent died of natural causes.

Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson became president after an assassination.

Gerald Ford became president after the only presidential resignation in American history.

The Cabinet :5

Although rare in recent history, a number of presidents came to the White House from next door–that is, they had served as a cabinet secretary before becoming president. In the early days of the Republic serving as secretary of state, not as vice president, seemed to be the best place for someone with presidential ambitions.

This group includes: James Madison (State), James Monroe (State), John Quincy Adams (State), Herbert Hoover (Commerce), and William Howard Taft (War).

Others used the secretary of state position as a stepping stone to higher office before the presidency. Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren were secretary of state before becoming vice president. James Buchanan also held this office in the years before he became president.

In 2020, Julian Castro will be running after holding a place in Barack Obama’s Cabinet. He served as Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The Senate: 5

As we’ve established, the only sitting senators to move from the Senate to the White House have been Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama.

Andrew Jackson’s last stint in public office was in the Senate, but he resigned in 1825 after losing to John Quincy Adams in the election of 1824. He would not become president until 1828. Benjamin Harrison similarly lost reelection to the Senate in 1887, and decided to run for president a year later.

So far, the race for 2020 has quite a few candidates hoping to become the fourth sitting senator to become president. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren are all current United States senators who have announced an intention to run. There is speculation that Senators Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, Jeff Merkley, and Bernie Sanders could also throw their hats into the ring.

Other presidents who served in the United States Senate include: James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

So, in terms of starting points, the Senate ain’t bad if you want to be president some day (although perhaps not some day soon).

Ministers/Ambassadors: 2

A few presidents previously served in diplomatic roles before they moved to the White House.

After a sparkling military career, William Henry Harrison had a rough time in politics before Henry Clay convinced John Quincy Adams to name him Minister to Colombia. Harrison had served two terms in the House, but had been passed over for diplomatic posts, and later lost a race for the governor of Ohio, as well as two races for the Senate,  as well as, a race that would have returned him to the House. When he did win a Senate seat, he used this to call on political favors, thus securing his posting in Colombia. He was ineffective as a minister, and spent his years before the presidency back on his Ohio farm.

James Buchanan also held significant political office before becoming Minister to England, the role which preceded his presidency. Buchanan served in the House, the Senate, and the Cabinet. Yet his time as Minister to England allowed him to avoid controversies surrounding slavery in the 1850s, which made him a desirable presidential candidate. As president, Buchanan’s inaction on the eve of the civil war made him one of the worst presidents in American history.

The House : 2

Although nineteen presidents served in the House of Representatives at some point in their career, it’s exceedingly rare to move directly from the House to the presidency. Only James Garfield made the consecutive leap in 1880. Serving in the House was Abraham Lincoln’s last public office before his run for the presidency, but in the decade in-between he mostly focused on his law practice.

Other House alum include: James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush.

Governor: 10

The race for 2020 could see quite a few current or former governors in the mix. Although none have announced, some perspective candidates are Terry McAuliffe (VA), Steve Bullock (MT), John Hickenlooper (CO), and Jay Inslee (WA).

Although this was not historically a popular route to the presidency, governors have recently found success in catapulting themselves from the governor’s mansion to the White House. Recent examples of governors who left their states to become president are George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In the 19th century, James K. Polk, Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley all went from being governor to being president.

President: 1

Grover Cleveland represents a special case. Yes, he was a governor before he became president the first time. But he is also the only nonconsecutive president in American history. After serving one term in office, he lost his bid for a second, waited four years, and then returned to power to fulfill a nonconsecutive second term.

Business: 1

Donald J. Trump is the only president to come directly from the world of business, without strong affiliations to politics or the military. In 2020 a run from Howard Shultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, could change this.

Mayors: 0

No one has served as mayor of a city and then become president, however there are a few candidates in 2020 who hope to do just that. Pete Buttigieg has officially announced his candidacy. Other mayors (current and former) such as Michael Bloomberg, Bill De Blasio, and Andrew Gillum are considered possible candidates as well.

***

Power isn’t linear. Many presidents have jumped from one position to another, and have ended up in the presidency via unlikely avenues (see: James Garfield). Different historical trends promote different results. Two hundred years ago being secretary of state was a good move if you wanted to be president–today, it might be wiser to see a governorship.

Here’s what’s for sure: in 2020 candidates will come from a variety of backgrounds–all with the goal of ending up in the same place.

One thought on “Origin Stories: Where do Presidents Come From?”

  1. Excellent & very interesting (as usual!). I agree with those who are saying to Shultz and possibly Bloomberg – don’t run! reminds me of when Raiph Nader ran (year?) and took votes away from Hillary and then George Bush won. I think that’s right.

    Like

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