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Previous roles and professions of U.S. presidents 1789-2017

From 1789 until today, 44 men have served as the President of the United States (officially 45, as Grover Cleveland served twice as the 22nd and 24th president). Of these 44 men, 31 have had a military background, with ranks ranging from a militia private to five star generals. There is some correlation between the ages of the presidents and major wars in U.S. history; explaining why none of those in office between 1909 and 1945 had any military background, and why six of the ten veteran presidents since then served in the National Guard or Naval Reserve. Three US presidents have held the highest position in the U.S. military, they were; George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the War of Independence, Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General of the US Army during the American Civil War, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe in the Second World War.

Popular professions

In terms of non-military roles, the most common profession for U.S. presidents before taking office was that of a lawyer. 26 U.S. presidents studied and practiced law before entering the world of politics, while Harry S. Truman met all the criteria to become a lawyer, before political and personal circumstances prevented this (although he was posthumously awarded an honorary law license in 1996). Barack Obama was the most recent U.S. president to have held this job, however the profession was much more common in earlier years, as 22 of the first 32 presidents had been lawyers. Eight presidents had also worked in the education sector, with four schoolteachers, three college professors and one university dean being elected to office; and a number went on to teach or serve on university boards after their time in office. More uncommon jobs for U.S. presidents include Hollywood actor (Ronald Reagan), inventor (Thomas Jefferson), peanut farmer (Jimmy Carter) and reality TV host (Donald Trump). Donald Trump is the only US President without any military or political background.

Political roles

A total of 14 vice presidents have ascended to the presidency; eight were due to the death of their respective president, five were elected for their first term, and Gerald R. Ford assumed the presidency following the resignation of Richard Nixon. Of the nine men who assumed the presidency following a death or resignation, five were re-elected to serve a full term. Thomas Jefferson and Richard Nixon are the only vice presidents to have won two presidential elections, and Jefferson is the only one to have completed both full terms. The most common political background of a U.S. president is that of a Congressman in the House of Representatives, with 18 presidents having served in this role, while 16 also served in the U.S. Congress as Senators. Additionally, 17 U.S. presidents had served as state governors, and William Howard Taft was the Governor-General of the Philippines from 1901 to 1903, when it was a U.S. territory. Six U.S. Presidents had previously served as Secretaries of State, while Taft and Grant had served as Secretaries of War, and Herbert Hoover had been the Secretary of Commerce. If Joe Biden wins the 2020 presidential election, then he will be the 15th vice president, 17th senator and 27th lawyer to assume the presidency.

Number of U.S. presidents who held select professions or government roles before taking office between 1789 and 2017

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Release date



United States

Survey time period

1789 to 2017

Supplementary notes

*Includes George Washington, who had served in an equal capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and was promoted posthumously to the rank of General of the Armies in 1976.

** Includes Governor-General of the Philippines held as a position by William Howard Taft from 1901 to 1903.
>br> This data was compiled from a variety of sources, the majority came from the linked source, information on military backgrounds came from the US Department of Veteran Affairs.

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Statistics on "U.S. presidents 1789-2020"

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