Surprising Early Jobs of 5 US Presidents

It’s generally assumed that to work in politics, you need to have attended an Ivy League university (or in the UK have attended one of the country’s best universities) and worked your way up the ranks via  perhaps a short stint in either PR, law or business until, eventually, you make it as a politician. Certainly in the UK, this is borne out in the backstories of our highest ranking Cabinet members: Prime Minister David Cameron, Oxford; Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Oxford; Home Secretary Theresa May, Oxford. In the US, a large number of Presidents worked in the legal profession. Still, some US Presidents do appear to have quite colourful backgrounds. Some of that country’s presidents had some very surprising jobs. Read on.

1. James Garfield: Janitor

America’s 20th president was the Republican James Garfield, whose presidency was tragically cut short as a result of his assassination by Charles Julius Guiteau, a man with ‘serious emotional problems’, bent on revenge after he had failed to win a place in Garfield’s administration.

Garfield was born into humble circumstances and has been described as the poorest man ever to have become president. He was raised on an Ohio farm by his widowed mother, the youngest of five children. Garfield’s entry into the world of politics is surprising given that the young Garfield had dreamt about becoming a sailor and worked on commercial canal boats. Sickness put an end to this dream however; he fell overboard no less than fourteen times, resulting in a fever bad enough to cause him to abandon his dream. Whilst recovering, Garfield resolved to make a living with his brains and not with his brawn.

Clearly a bright man with ambition and determination, Garfield supported himself through college by undertaking a number of jobs, including part-time teaching at a district school and carpenter, but perhaps the most unspectacular was his job as a janitor at the Eclectic Institute in Ohio. His various jobs enabled the young Garfield to gain an education and he eventually enrolled at Williams College (he was one of the oldest students enrolling at the time). After graduating from Williams College, Garfield taught himself Law, passed the Ohio bar exams and then threw himself into full-blown Republican politics.

2. Grover Cleveland: Executioner

Twice elected President of the United States, Democrat Stephen Grover Cleveland is the only US president to have served two non-consecutive terms in office. Particularly notable is that Cleveland was elected to the presidency during a period of Republican domination.

In common with other US presidents, Cleveland’s ascendancy to the presidency began in humble circumstances. Also in common with other US presidents in this list, he was supremely bright and was admitted to the bar despite never having attended college. He worked as a lawyer prior to becoming president, earning a reputation as a hard-working lawyer with a formidable memory – he would typically present arguments before a judge from memory.

Before becoming president, Cleveland served as Sheriff of Erie Counter. During his term, he performed the role of executioner and hanged two convicted murderers: Patrick Morrissey and John Gaffney. Although he could have delegated the task, and despite the objections of his friends and family, Cleveland chose to do the deed himself due to his “fairness “and unwavering sense of duty.

3. Jimmy Carter: Landlord

James Earl Carter was the 39th president of the United States. A Democrat, Carter was elected president in 1976 after having defeated the incumbent Gerald Ford.

Jimmy Carter was born and raised in Georgia. Although his time as a peanut farmer has been well documented (he was given an acre of his father’s farmland that he used to grow peanuts, subsequently selling them), what is less widely known is that as a 13-year-old, the young, business-minded Carter was a landlord.

Young Jimmy engaged himself in a number of profitable business ventures, ultimately saving up enough money to purchase no less than five properties, bought at “rock bottom” prices, and rented these properties out to families in the local area.

4. Ronald Reagan: Circus Roustabout

Born and raised in Northern Illinois, Reagan was the 40th president of the United States. A Republican who originally started out as an avowed Democrat, Reagan was preceded by Jimmy Carter and was succeeded by George H.W Bush.

Far from being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Reagan was born to a poor family. He graduated from college in 1932 and, in his early career, worked as a sports announcer and held several well-publicised roles in films. So far, so normal. What is less well- known is his work as a circus roustabout (an unskilled labourer), working for Ringling Brothers’ Circus in 1925.

5. Calvin Coolidge: Toymaker

Republican John Calvin Coolidge was the 30th president of the United States. Often described in history books as "quiet", "sombre" "stoic" and "sour" - and certainly not known for being the life and soul of a party - Coolidge,  like Garfield before him, supported himself through college - the Black River Academy in Ludlow. At the time, the Academy was free to local residents, however, as the young Calvin did not meet the criterion for ’local’, he was obliged to pay the sum of 60cents per week to pay for his education.

Given his rather serious demeanour, it is perhaps surprising that "Silent Cal", as he was known by some, should  accept work as a toymaker. Coolidge was given the job of making doll carriages for the well-respected Ludlow Manufacturing Company, work which he undertook on a part-time basis at weekends.

See Also: Top10 US Universities for Politics

The US is by no means the only country whose presidents held such diverse backgrounds. A bit of internet surfing has thrown up a number of further surprises. Croatia’s president Edi Rama was a painter and also a basketball player. Madagascar’s ex-president Andry Rajoelina worked as a DJ. Former president of Bulgaria, Boiko Borisov was employed as a fireman, karate instructor and nightclub bouncer, the latter situation not at all surprising if you’ve seen his thick neck and colossal shoulders. To help with his college fees President Pahor of Slovenia was accepted as a model, earning the handsome politician the nickname “Barbie Doll”. And Iceland’s former prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir worked as an air hostess.

What is revealing about the presidents in this shortlist is their ability to triumph over adversity, whatever the nature of that adversity -   by just using their enormous will, ambition, drive and hard work. In most cases, these qualities were forged at an early age with misfortune making them determined to succeed. US President Theodore Roosevelt, widely regarded as America’s best president, often spoke of the importance of “labor and painful effort, grim energy and resolute courage” for positive change to occur. Tough, smart and highly driven, all 5 presidents had these qualities in abundance how else do you go from janitor to ruler of a nation?), qualities that prepared them well for the highest office in the land, for life in the White House.

What are your observations about these presidents? Do you believe that you too could become president/prime minister?  Share your comments below!

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