Presidents 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 present 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.
Many presidents had successful careers before they went into politics, earning reputations as savvy businessmen prior to becoming adept political leaders. In fact, businessmen have often been as plentiful as lawyers in the nation’s capital.
There’s an age-old debate about private sector businessmen serving in political office, especially at the presidential level. Many feel that public sector jobs are riddled with laziness and inefficiency, and only the competition of the free market found in the private sector can motivate leaders to get things done. A classic example of someone in the “private sector camp” is Michael Bloomberg, who was an accomplished media mogul before becoming a successful mayor. Others believe inviting wealthy businessmen into the public policymaking process creates an endemic type of corruption, especially when money holds significant sway over politics.
It’s not clear whether business experience leads to political success, or whether businessmen-turned-politicians necessarily corrupt the creation of public policy. The answer depends on who you ask. One thing is certain, however: Businessmen have long been inextricably involved in American politics, sometimes becoming the most visible elected official in the entire republic.
The following list is filled with businessman presidents, some of whom were successful, some who only became successful entrepreneurs after their political careers (like George Washington). The effectiveness of a businessperson in political office is up to you, dear reader, but this list of businessman presidents can serve as evidence in your debate.
George Washington (No. 1, served 1789-97)
It turns out Washington, in addition to being one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history, was a savvy businessman. After completing his final term as president in 1797, Washington turned his talents to a much-enjoyed business at the time: whiskey. He opened a distillery on the grounds of Mount Vernon. By 1799, the distillery was producing 11,000 gallons per year, making it one of the largest in the country.
Of course, at that time, Washington’s business ventures were built on the backs of slaves, specifically six people who worked the distillery. His commercial success, like that of much of the nation’s early distillers, was due in large part to slave labor.
Abraham Lincoln (No. 16, served 1861-65)
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 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, Illinois. Lincoln got out of the struggling business fairly quickly, but he did get stuck with his partner’s debt of $1,000.
Andrew Johnson (No. 17, served 1865-69)
Before Johnson entered political life, he was an accomplished tailor and real estate owner. The son of a seamstress, Johnson apprenticed as a tailor when he came of age. Once he was old enough, he started his own shop. It was in his business as an independent tailor that he began to teach himself to read and write, eventually leading him to political life and the presidency.
Warren G. Harding (No. 29, served 1921-23)
Dealing with the press has always been a cumbersome task for the president, but Harding had an advantage: He came from a newspaper family, learning the ins and outs of his father’s business from the age of 10. He studied the newspaper trade in college and – after dabbling in teaching, insurance and 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 and pursued his business aggressively. In 1923, the year he died, Harding sold his paper for $550,000. In today’s dollars, that’s about $7 million – not too shabby.
Herbert Hoover (No. 31, served 1929-33)
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 in the contemporary mining processes of his day. He started the Zinc Corporation in the early 20th century, and it later became part of a larger corporation.
Harry Truman (No. 33, served 1945-53)
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. He remains the only president elected after 1897 who did not earn a college degree. Medical issues prevented Truman from getting into West Point, so he 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, Missouri, in 1919. He went bankrupt a couple years later and changed career paths, starting with positions in local government that ultimately led to greater offices.
Jimmy Carter (No. 39, served 1977-81)
In addition to being elected to the highest office in the most powerful country in the world, Carter started the Department of Education, won a Nobel Peace Prize and has written nearly two dozen books. 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. He returned to Georgia to work on the family business. Agriculture proved a natural fit for Carter, and he grew the business successfully.
Donald Trump (No. 45, served 2017-present)
Before Trump was a politician, he was a famous entrepreneur. He took over the family company and developed it into an international brand. He also invested in real estate and helped develop some of the world’s most luxurious hotels and casinos. A long line of products have borne the Trump brand, including Trump Steaks, Trump University, Trump Shuttle and Trump Success Eau de Toilette.
Trump developed such a reputation as a businessman that he was cast in the American TV show Celebrity Apprentice, which started his famous motto: “You’re fired.” The fruits of Trump’s success are much debated by critics today, but it’s clear that Trump was an accomplished entrepreneur before he became president.
The legal eagles
Surveying the presidents reveals at least two prevailing characteristics among many of them: They were born rich and viewed the law as the best avenue to further their 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 Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Millard Fillmore, Benjamin Harrison and Gerald Ford.
Patrick Egan contributed to the reporting and writing in this article.