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Explore the Diverse Jobs of the Presidents

Presidential occupations

Before they served as commander-in-chief, chief of party and chief of state, the U.S. presidents held a range of occupations, many of them still relevant today. Read on to find out how these political leaders earned a living prior to receiving president salaries and benefits.

The accompanying art comes from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the U.S. News & World Report archives. Sources include White House biographies, presidential libraries and the University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs.

George Washington

Washington worked as a land surveyor, gathering the kind of information cartographers use to make maps. He also served as a soldier and military general. Washington was a farmer who owned a plantation, where much of the agricultural work was done by enslaved labor.

Artwork Details:
George Washington by Rembrandt Peale.
Oil on canvas, 1795. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust.

John Adams

Adams worked as a lawyer, famously representing British soldiers accused of killing colonists during the Boston Massacre. He also served as a diplomat.

Artwork Details:
John Adams by John Trumbull.
Oil on canvas, 1793. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson worked as a lawyer and held several political offices in addition to serving as a diplomat abroad. He owned a plantation, where much of the agricultural work was done by enslaved labor.

Artwork Details:
Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown.
Oil on canvas, 1786. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; bequest of Charles Francis Adams.

James Madison

In addition to owning a plantation farmed by enslaved workers, Madison worked mostly in politics, holding several elected offices.

Artwork Details:
James Madison by Chester Harding.
Oil on canvas, 1829-1830. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

James Monroe

Monroe served as a soldier and military officer during the Revolutionary War, then worked as a lawyer. He served as a diplomat and held elected offices in addition to owning a plantation, where enslaved workers did much of the farming.

Artwork Details:
James Monroe by John Vanderlyn.
Oil on canvas, 1816. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

John Quincy Adams

Before following his father into the presidency, John Quincy Adams worked as a lawyer, professor and diplomat.

Artwork Details:
John Quincy Adams by George Caleb Bingham.
Oil on canvas, c. 1850, from an 1844 original. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Andrew Jackson

Early on, Jackson worked as a lawyer, teacher and saddle-maker, according to biographer Jon Meacham. He owned a plantation, where enslaved workers did much of the farming. He gained national attention for his work as a soldier and military general.

Artwork Details:
Andrew Jackson by James Tooley, Jr.
Watercolor on ivory, 1840. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. William H. Lively, Mrs. Mary Lively Hoffman, and Dr. Charles J. Lively.

Martin Van Buren

Van Buren worked as a lawyer and held several political offices.

Artwork Details:
Martin Van Buren by George Peter Alexander Healy.
Oil on canvas, 1858 (signed 1864). Lent by the White House, Washington, D.C.

William Harrison

Harrison worked as a soldier and military leader in addition to holding political positions and earning income through farming.

Artwork Details:
William Henry Harrison by Albert Gallatin Hoit.
Oil on canvas, 1840. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

John Tyler

Tyler worked as a lawyer and owned a plantation where labor came from enslaved workers. He held a variety of political offices.

Artwork Details:
John Tyler by George Peter Alexander Healy.
Oil on canvas, 1859. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Friends of the National Institute.

James K. Polk

Polk worked as a lawyer and a politician. He owned a plantation and enslaved workers.

Artwork Details:
James Knox Polk by George Peter Alexander Healy.
Oil on canvas, 1846. Lent by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund.

Zachary Taylor

Before becoming president, Taylor had a long military career, gaining renown in the Mexican War. He owned a plantation and enslaved workers.

Artwork Details:
Zachary Taylor by James Reid Lambdin.
Oil on canvas, 1848. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Barry Bingham, Sr.

Millard Fillmore

Fillmore worked as a teacher and a lawyer and held several elected positions.

Artwork Details:
Millard Fillmore by James Reid Lambdin.
Oil on canvas, c. 1858. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Fillmore Norfleet, Jr. in memory of R. Fillmore and Elizabeth C. Norfleet and in honor of our children and grandchildren.

Franklin Pierce

Pierce’s career included periods working as a lawyer, soldier and politician.

Artwork Details:
Franklin Pierce by George Peter Alexander Healy.
Oil on canvas, 1853. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust.

James Buchanan

Buchanan worked as a lawyer and politician in Pennsylvania. He served as a diplomat and worked for the government as secretary of state.

Artwork Details:
James Buchanan by George Peter Alexander Healy.
Oil on canvas, 1859. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust.

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln worked as a postmaster and a surveyor before practicing law. He also worked as a soldier before getting into politics.

Artwork Details:
Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner.
Albumen silver print, 1865. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Andrew Johnson

Johnson’s first career was as a tailor. He held several political offices, including governor of Tennessee.

Artwork Details:
Andrew Johnson by Washington Bogart Cooper.
Oil on canvas, after 1866. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Ulysses S. Grant

Grant had a military career, eventually serving as General-in-Chief of the Union forces during the Civil War. He also worked for a period in a leather store, helping customers and keeping ledgers, according to “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant,” by historian Ronald C. White.

Artwork Details:
Ulysses S. Grant by Thomas Le Clear.
Oil on canvas, c. 1880. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., 1921.

Rutherford B. Hayes

A practicing lawyer, he served as a soldier during the Civil War and later became governor of Ohio.

Artwork Details:
Rutherford B. Hayes by Eliphalet Frazer Andrews.
Oil on canvas, 1881. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund.

James A. Garfield

Garfield worked as a teen driving canal boats, which carried passengers and cargo. He held other jobs including carpenter assistant, janitor, teacher and soldier. He later became a lawyer.

Artwork Details:
James Garfield by Ole Peter Hansen Balling.
Oil on canvas, 1881. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the International Business Machines Corporation to the Smithsonian Institution, 1962.

Chester A. Arthur

Arthur was a teacher and lawyer before working as the collector of the Port of New York, a federal job tasked with collecting duties on imported goods.

Artwork Details:
Chester A. Arthur by Ole Peter Hansen Balling.
Oil on canvas, 1881. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. Harry Newton Blue.

Grover Cleveland

Before becoming a lawyer, Cleveland worked as a legal clerk. He later served as a sheriff and a mayor and governor of New York.

Artwork Details:
Grover Cleveland by Anders Leonard Zorn.
Oil on canvas, 1899. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Reverend Thomas G. Cleveland.

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison was a lawyer who also worked as a court reporter. He fought in the Civil War and participated in politics.

Artwork Details:
Benjamin Harrison by Theodore Clement Steele.
Oil on canvas, 1900. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; lent by Harrison Residence Hall, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.

William McKinley

McKinley was a soldier before he started practicing law and entered politics. He served as governor of Ohio.

Artwork Details:
William McKinley by August Benziger.
Oil on canvas, 1897. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Miss Marieli Benziger.

Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt worked as a rancher and author and held several government posts. He served in the military and later become governor of New York.

Artwork Details:
Theodore Roosevelt by Peter A. Juley.
Getlatin silver print, 1903. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Joanna Sturm.

William Howard Taft

Taft had a law career and worked as a judge and law professor. He served as governor general of the Philippines and U.S. secretary of war.

Artwork Details:
William Howard Taft by William Valentine Schevill.
Oil on artist board, c. 1910. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of William E. Schevill.

Woodrow Wilson

After working briefly as a lawyer, Wilson earned a doctorate and worked as a professor and author. He served as president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey.

Artwork Details:
Woodrow Wilson by John Christen Johansen.
Oil on canvas, c. 1919. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of an anonymous donor.

Warren G. Harding

Harding was a newspaper editor before getting into politics.

Artwork Details:
Warren G. Harding by Margaret Lindsay Williams.
Oil on canvas, 1923. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Calvin Coolidge

Coolidge worked as a lawyer and later became governor of Massachusetts.

Artwork Details:
Calvin Coolidge by Joseph E. Burgess.
Oil on canvas, 1956. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta.

Herbert Hoover

Hoover worked as a mining engineer and then led food relief efforts during WWI before working as U.S. secretary of commerce.

Artwork Details:
Herbert Hoover by Douglas Granville Chandor.
Oil on canvas, 1931. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a lawyer and worked as assistant secretary of the Navy, overseeing civilian employees, logistics and operations. He later became governor of New York.

Artwork Details:
Franklin D. Roosevelt by Douglas Granville Chandor.
Oil on canvas, 1945. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Harry S. Truman

Truman worked as a bank clerk and a farmer before serving in the military. He ran a clothing store before entering politics.

Artwork Details:
Harry S Truman by Jay Wesley Jacobs.
Oil on canvas, 1945. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; partial gift of the William T. Kemper Foundation.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower had a military career, rising to become Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WWII. He also worked as president of Columbia University.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy served in the military and worked in journalism before entering politics.

Lyndon B. Johnson

Johnson worked as a teacher and secretary and served in the Navy.

Richard Nixon

Nixon worked as a lawyer and served in the Navy before getting into politics.

Gerald Ford

Ford worked as a football and boxing coach and lawyer before joining the Navy. He served many terms as a U.S. Congressman.

Jimmy Carter

Carter served in the Navy and then worked as a peanut farmer before holding several elected offices, including governor of Georgia.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan was an actor and also worked in the Army Reserve before becoming governor of California.

George H. W. Bush

Bush served in the Navy during WWII, then worked as an executive in the oil industry. He later worked as a diplomat and the U.S. director of central intelligence.

Bill Clinton

Clinton worked as a law professor and served as governor of Arkansas.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush served in the National Guard and worked in the oil industry. According to ESPN, he worked as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Bush also served as the governor of Texas.

Barack Obama

Obama worked as a lawyer, author, professor and community organizer, then as a state and U.S. senator.

Donald Trump

Trump worked as a real estate developer and businessman licensing an array of properties and products, including golf courses, hotels and pageants. He also worked in entertainment, appearing on television shows and movies.

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Explore the Diverse Jobs of the Presidents originally appeared on usnews.com