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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

DIVERSITY is the keynote to the 43 Presidents as a group. In physical appearance, temperament, place of birth, family background, role in national life, status of health, political affiliation, the nature and success of their administrations, popular reaction of their times and posterity toward them, and pursuits in later life, they demonstrate exceptional heterogeneity. Yet, in numerous respects, they exhibit similarities.

Among these is ethnic origin. All the Presidents have been of Northern European extraction and the preponderant number of British origins. English bloodlines predominate, followed by Scotch and Scotch-Irish. Both of Kennedy's parents were of Irish background. Although several Chief Executives carried traces of Continental European ancestry, the only ones directly descended from that area were Van Buren and the two Roosevelts, whose names reflect their Dutch forebears; and Hoover and Eisenhower, both of Swiss-German lineage. Most of the parents of the Presidents and their families have spent several generations in the United States; only a handful of Chief Executives, who by law are required to be American born, were the children of one or both immigrant parents.

A second area of resemblance is in occupation, where public service and the law rank high. Except for Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower, who had been Army generals and whose earlier careers were essentially apolitical, practically all the Presidents played extensive roles in public life—Federal, State, and local, appointive and elective. The range is considerable, however. Buchanan, for example, enjoyed almost four decades of experience in State and Federal posts, including the diplomatic corps.

On the other hand, the only earlier elective office Arthur ever held was as Vice President. Lincoln's experience consisted only of four terms in the State legislature and a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Hoover, along with Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower, never ran for any kind of public office prior to his Presidential nomination, though he had served as Secretary of Commerce, as World War I Food Administrator, and on various national and international relief commissions.

Theodore Roosevelt Franklin D. Roosevelt
Theodore (left) and Franklin D. (right) Roosevelt while they were serving as Assistant Secretaries of the Navy. (Library of Congress)

Thirteen Chief Executives (John Adams, Jefferson, Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, and Ford) had served as Vice Presidents. Nine were Cabinet members, Monroe holding two posts: six secretaries of State (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, and Buchanan); three Secretaries of War (Monroe, Grant, and Taft); and one Secretary of Commerce (Hoover). Other Presidents also held various sub-Cabinet posts and lesser U.S. Government positions.

Seven served as Ambassadors or Ministers: both Adamses, Jefferson, Monroe, Van Buren, Harrison, and Buchanan—all before the Civil War. Taft held the position of Governor General of the Philippines; and, after his Presidency, the Chief Justiceship of the United States, the only President who ever held a seat on the Supreme Court.

Except for 12, the rest enjoyed congressional experience, all before their incumbencies except for John Quincy Adams who held a seat in the House of Representatives afterward, as did also Andrew Johnson in the Senate. The first five Presidents had served in the Continental Congress. The last two of these, Madison and Monroe, also sat in Congress, the former in the House and the latter in the Senate.

Ten served in both Houses (John Quincy Adams, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Tyler, Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Nixon); five in the Senate only (Monroe, Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison, Harding, and Truman); and eight in the House (Madison, Polk, Fillmore, Lincoln, Hayes, Garfield, McKinley, and Ford).

Polk was the only Speaker of the House to become Chief Executive. Tyler held the office of President pro tem of the Senate for one session. Lyndon B. Johnson served as both Minority and Majority Leader of the Senate. Garfield and Ford were House Minority Leaders. Garfield was the only Chief Executive elected while serving as a Member of the House, though he was also a Senator-elect. Ford was appointed as Vice President while in the House, and then assumed the Presidency upon Nixon's resignation. Harding and Kennedy were elected while sitting in the Senate.

Sixteen individuals had earlier served as Governors of States or Territories: Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, Andrew Johnson, Hayes, Cleveland, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Carter. Four were Governors when they became President (Hayes, Cleveland, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt), and McKinley had left office earlier in the year that he ran for the Presidency.

Many White House occupants also served in State legislatures or held such State posts as attorney general, Lieutenant Governor, and comptroller, as well as various county and city positions. Despite the prominence of large cities in U.S. history, only one mayor of a major city (Buffalo), Cleveland, ever occupied the highest office in the land.

More than two-thirds of the Presidents received training in the law, many in the days before formal school training when they "read the law." Most of the overall group were admitted to the bar. Some curtailed or abandoned law practice during long periods in public office and never returned to it actively. Wilson, for one, stopped practicing after a short time, to begin graduate studies in political science.

Several men, including Van Buren, Hayes, Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley, Taft, and Coolidge, worked as county or city prosecuting attorneys or solicitors before they entered the main stream of political life. Jackson held the position of attorney general of the Western District of North Carolina (present Tennessee), as well as justice of the Tennessee superior court. Taft also sat on a superior court, in Ohio, and was a Federal circuit judge.

A number of individuals were once elementary or secondary teachers: John Adams, Jackson, Fillmore, Pierce, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland (at a school for the deaf), McKinley, Harding, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Arthur and Johnson also served as principals. Of the group, Garfield moved on to college teaching, the one-time principal occupation of John Quincy Adams, Taft, and Wilson. Garfield, Wilson, and Eisenhower, respectively, served as presidents of Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) and Princeton and Columbia Universities. Taft was dean of the Cincinnati Law School.

Several Presidents were, by principal occupation, farm or plantation owners or managers, and those who engaged in other professions sometimes pursued agriculture as an avocation. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, though from an urban background, operated ranches in North Dakota. Other Chief Executives purchased or inherited family farms or estates.

Other occupations include mining engineer (Hoover), tailor (Andrew Johnson), and newspaper editor (Harding). A considerable number of Chief Executives were professional or semiprofessional soldiers. None were doctors or ministers, though William Henry Harrison studied medicine for a while; and John Adams and Madison, theology.

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson poses in 1928 with grade-school students at Cotulla, Texas, where he was both principal and teacher. (Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library)

During the course of their careers, numerous Presidents followed humble occupations and knew disappointment and failure. Fillmore worked as a wool carder. Grant, as a young officer unhappy with military service, resigned and worked as a clerk and real-estate agent, but he was unsuccessful in these fields as well as farming. Truman failed in the haberdashery business, as did Lincoln in storekeeping. A number of others at some point in their lives, particularly during their early years, were forced to work at menial jobs.

Another general similarity among the Presidents is that, despite the modest origins of many of them, a great number were either wealthy or well-to-do as they neared the ends of their lives. Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson were self-made millionaires; Franklin D. Roosevelt and Kennedy, by inheritance. Others who enjoyed considerable wealth include Washington, Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Truman, Eisenhower, and Nixon. On the other hand, Jefferson died in debt and Madison and Monroe ended their lives in genteel poverty, though all three had always lived in comfortable circumstances. A few others also enjoyed no more than modest wealth. At one point in his life, McKinley barely avoided bankruptcy.

Most Chief Executives have been well educated. The contrasts are marked, however. Lincoln enjoyed only a few months of low-level formal education, whereas Wilson earned his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph. D.) degree, the only Chief Executive to do so. Although historically speaking relatively few Americans have ever enjoyed the privilege of a college education, 27, or just over two-thirds, of the Presidents were graduates, and two others attended higher-level institutions but did not win a degree. Of the 27, at least half won honors or other academic distinction.

Five have been graduates of Harvard (the two Adamses, two Roosevelts, and Kennedy); two of the College of William and Mary (Jefferson and Tyler); two of Princeton (College of New Jersey) (Madison and Wilson); two of the U.S. Military Academy (Grant and Eisenhower); and 14 of other schools (Polk, University of North Carolina; Pierce, Bowdoin College; Buchanan, Dickinson College; Hayes, Kenyon College; Garfield, Williams College; Arthur, Union College; Benjamin Harrison, Miami [Ohio] University; Taft, Yale University; Harding, Ohio Central College; Coolidge, Amherst College; Hoover, Stanford University; Lyndon B. Johnson, Southwest Texas State Teachers College; Nixon, Whittier College; Ford, University of Michigan; and Carter, U.S. Naval Academy). A few of these individuals also studied at other colleges or universities on a preparatory or temporary basis.

Those attending college but not graduating were: Monroe (College of William and Mary), William Henry Harrison (Hampden-Sydney College), and McKinley (Allegheny College). The following nine men did not attend at all: Washington, Jackson, Van Buren, Taylor, Fillmore, Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Cleveland, and Truman.

Wilson earned his Ph. D. in political science at Johns Hopkins. Except for John Adams, who received an M.A. from Harvard, no President ever was awarded one, though many of them won honorary degrees. Two undertook university-level study abroad, both briefly: John Quincy Adams at Holland's University of Leyden, and Kennedy at the London School of Economics. Madison accomplished a year of additional study at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) following his graduation, as did also Franklin D. Roosevelt at Harvard.

Many Chief Executives undertook specialized professional training, particularly in the law. Graduates of law schools were Hayes (Harvard University), Taft (Cincinnati Law School), Wilson (University of Virginia), Nixon (Duke University), and Ford (Yale University). Those who attended schools but did not obtain degrees were McKinley (Albany Law School), both Roosevelts (Columbia University), Truman (Kansas City Law School), and Lyndon B. Johnson (Georgetown University).

The following read law in the days before formal training was available or commonplace: both Adamses, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Harding, and Coolidge. In addition, at least three of those who matriculated at law schools—Hayes, McKinley, and Taft—also read law.

About two-thirds of the Chief Executives have performed military service. Gen. Benjamin Harrison is picturd here during the Atlanta Campaign, in the Civil War. (Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library)

Another marked similarity is in the performance of military service. Twenty-four, or about two-thirds, of the Presidents have served in various branches of the Armed Forces or State militia units; one, Buchanan, in a private volunteer group during the War of 1812. Interestingly enough, all except him attained officer status, 11 as generals. A few worked their way up from the enlisted ranks. Three became commanders of the Army: Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower.

For at least 11, notable success as officers provided a stepping stone on their way to the Presidency: Washington, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Pierce, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower—only three of whom (Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower) were professional soldiers for the major part of their lives. The only erstwhile naval personnel among the Chief Executives have been the last five (Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter), all of whom served as officers below admiral rank.

Despite the trend toward urbanization in the United States from its earliest days, the Presidents have overwhelmingly hailed from small towns and rural areas. Only Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Kennedy, and Ford were born in metropolitan areas or large cities. A number who came from rural areas, including Jackson, Polk, Fillmore, Buchanan, Lincoln, and Garfield, as well as possibly Taylor and Pierce, literally rose from "log cabins" to the White House. Most of the others were born in modest homes amid humble or middle-class surroundings. Van Buren was born in his father's tavern. A few individuals of agrarian origins belonged to well-to-do families; or they and members of their families subsequently advanced to positions of wealth and prominence.

In line with the predominance of rural origins, the fathers of more than half the Presidents were, at one time or another, farmers or plantation owners. Others were professional men or executives, including several lawyers, clergymen, teachers, and financiers. Additional diverse occupations include: ironmaker, livestock dealer, carpenter, blacksmith, tanner, tavernkeeper, surveyor, mechanic, storekeeper, merchant, and tavern porter.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004