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Before They Were Elected: Presidents as Entrepreneurs

Yogi Berra advice Credit: Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center

President’s Day is a time to reflect on the country’s rich history and the men (for now) who have led it from its modest infancy to its standing as a global leader. It’s also a day off from work for a lot of people, and an opportunity to spend money at myriad sales promoted in the spirit of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

Among our 44 former presidents, more than a handful possessed that common drive to start their own enterprise before taking their ambition to the nation’s grandest stage. Here are their stories.

Abraham Lincoln (No. 16, served 1861–1865)

If Lincoln wasn’t a success of enormous consequence, his noble mug wouldn’t be on every $5 bill we pull out of our wallets. But Lincoln couldn’t hack it as a small businessman.

Long before he assumed the weight of the country’s deep divisions, Lincoln ran a general store. And not very well. He was 23 years old when he and a partner opened their store in New Salem, Ill. Lincoln got out from the struggling business fairly quickly, but he did get stuck with his partner’s debt of $1,000.

Warren G. Harding (No. 29, served 1921–1923)

Dealing with the press has always been a cumbersome task for the president. President Harding had an advantage.

Harding came from a newspaper family, learning the ins and outs of his father’s business beginning when he was 10 years old. He studied the newspaper trade in college and, after dabbling in teaching, insurance and the law, dove into the business full time. With partners, he cobbled together $300 to buy the Marion Daily Star in Ohio. He owned the paper outright by the time he was 21.

Owning a business wore Harding down, but he refueled at a local sanitarium. He pursued his business aggressively. In 1923, the year he died, Harding sold his paper for $550,000. Not too shabby. In today’s dollars, that’s about $7 million, a nice profit.

Herbert Hoover (No. 31, served 1929¬–1933)

President Hoover served during the country’s absolute worst economic period. It would seem ideal to have a businessman in charge at that point, but Hoover’s policies exacerbated the economy’s deterioration.

Before the economy tanked, Hoover succeeded in the business world. He worked as an engineer and invented a new process to extract zinc that was lost to the mining process. He started the Zinc Corp. in the early part of the 20th century, and it later became part of a larger corporation.

Harry Truman (No. 33, served 1945–1953)

President Truman’s most lasting impression on history occurred within weeks of his taking office after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Upon taking the helm, he found out about the Manhattan Project. Within months, he made the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, effectively ending World War II.

The president had come a long way from being a local haberdasher. Hoover remains the only president elected after 1897 who did not earn a college degree. Medical issues prevented him from getting into West Point, so Truman took some classes at a business college but never finished. Then he decided to get an education in hard knocks.

Truman opened his clothing store in Kansas City, Mo., in 1919. He went bankrupt a couple years later, and changed career paths, starting with respectable positions in local government that led to greater offices.

Jimmy Carter (No. 39, served 1977–1981)

In addition to being elected to the highest office in the most powerful country in the world, President Carter started the Department of Education, won a Nobel Peace Prize and has written nearly two dozen books. And yet he’s still remembered as a peanut farmer.

Carter was serving in the Navy after graduating from the Naval Academy when his father died. Carter returned to Georgia to work on the family business. Agriculture proved a natural fit for Carter, and he grew the business successfully.

The Legal Eagles

Surveying the presidents has revealed at least two prevailing characteristics among many presidents: They were born rich and they viewed the law as the best avenue to further prominence.

Perhaps the most privileged found work at prestigious firms or used their bar credentials to vault immediately into illustrious positions. But more than a few put up their own shingle and practiced on their own or with a partner, including Andrew Jackson, Millard Fillmore, Abe Lincoln, Benjamin Harrison and Gerald Ford, among others.

Business News Daily Editor

Business News Daily was founded in 2010 as a resource for small business owners at all stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Our site is focused exclusively on giving small business advice, tutorials and insider insights. Business News Daily is owned by Business.com.