Before They Were Presidents… They Were Lawyers

In honor of Presidents’ Day, we’re taking a look at American presidents who served their country as legal professionals before they were Commander in Chief. Here are the 25 United States Presidents who passed the bar before they were sworn in.


1. John Adams

Law School: Harvard | President: 1797 – 1801

Little Known Fact: It’s rumored that John Adam’s dying words were: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” However, unbeknownst to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson had died just a few hours earlier.


2. Thomas Jefferson

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship | President: 1801 – 1809

Little Known Fact: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams once traveled to William Shakespeare’s birthplace. While they were there, they chipped away pieces of wood from one of Shakespeare’s chairs to keep as souvenirs.


3. James Monroe

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship with Thomas Jefferson | President: 1817 – 1825

Little Known Fact: The capital of Liberia is called Monrovia after President James Monroe.


4. John Quincy Adams

Law School: Harvard | President: 1825 – 1829

Little Known Fact: Try not to picture this. John Quincy Adams would often go for a morning swim in the Potomac River… completely nude.


5. Andrew Jackson

Legal Training: Apprenticeship | President: 1829 – 1837

Little Known Fact: Andrew Jackson was involved in as many as 100 duels, usually to defend the honor of his wife, Rachel. He was shot in the chest during a duel in 1806, and suffered a gunshot to the arm during a barroom fight in 1813 with Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton.


6. Martin Van Buren

Legal Training: Apprenticeship | President: 1837 – 1841

Little Known Fact: The term “OK” was supposedly coined by Martin Van Buren. Martin grew up in Kinderhook, NY and was often referred to as “Old Kinderhook.” Supporters of Van Buren’s campaign came to be known as “O.K. clubs,” and the phrase eventually translated to “alright.”


7. John Tyler

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship | President: 1841 – 1845

Little Known Fact: John Tyler had more children than any other U.S. President. He fathered eight children with his first wife, and seven children with his second wife, totaling 15 kiddos. He was 70 years old when his youngest child was born. Woah!


8. James Polk

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship | President: 1845 – 1849

Little Known Fact: Polk was the first underdog to be elected president. He wasn’t exactly the favorite and some considered him to be a “Plan B” president because Martin Van Buren wasn’t able to secure the nomination.


9. Millard Fillmore

Legal Training: Clerkship | President: 1850 – 1853

Little Known Fact: Millard Fillmore married his teacher. That’s right. While he was a student at New Hope Academy in New York, he met and married his teacher, Abigail Powers. They were only a few years apart in age.


10. Franklin Pierce

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship | President: 1853 – 1857

Little Known Fact: Franklin Pierce was sworn in as president using a book of law rather than the Bible.


11. James Buchanan

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship | President: 1857 – 1861

Little Known Fact: Here’s a two-for: James Buchanan is the only president to stay a bachelor throughout his presidency and the remainder of his life, and he was the last president born in the 18th century.


12. Abraham Lincoln

Legal Training: Apprenticeship | President: 1861 – 1865

Little Known Fact: Apparently “Honest Abe” should’ve been nicknamed “Fist-Fighting Abe.” Mr. Lincoln was involved in roughly 300 wrestling matches and only lost once. He was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame with the honor of “Outstanding American.”


13. Rutherford B. Hayes

Law School: Harvard | President: 1877 – 1881

Little Known Fact: Rutherford B. Hayes has been known for his alcohol ban in the White House during his presidency, but you probably didn’t know that before he was president, he struggled with “lyssophobia”—the fear of going insane.


14. Chester Arthur

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship | President: 1881 – 1885

Little Known Fact: Chester Arthur earned the name “Elegant Arthur” due to his impeccable wardrobe. He is rumored to have owned over 80 pairs of pants and received four marriage proposals on his last day in office.


15. Grover Cleveland

Legal Training: Clerkship | President: 1885 – 1889 and 1893 – 1897

Little Known Fact: Grover Cleveland was the first Democrat elected after the Civil War in 1885 and was the only president to be elected for two non-consecutive terms. He was also the only president married in the White House.


16. Benjamin Harrison

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship | President: 1889 – 1893

Little Known Fact: Benjamin Harrison was the first president to live in White House with electricity. However, he was terrified of electrocution and refused to touch any light switches.


17. William McKinley

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship | President: 1897 – 1901

Little Known Fact: William McKinley almost always wore a red carnation for good luck. On the day of his assassination, he had given his carnation to a young girl in the crowd just seconds before he was shot.


18. William Howard Taft

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship | President: 1909 – 1913

Little Known Fact: After his presidency, William Taft became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, making him the only person in history to serve as the head of two branches of government.


19. Woodrow Wilson

Law School: University of Virginia | President: 1913 – 1921

Little Known Fact: Woodrow Wilson would paint his golf balls black so that he could continue to play golf in the snow.


20. Calvin Coolidge

Legal Training: Post College Apprenticeship | President: 1923 – 1929

Little Known Fact: Calvin Coolidge was a little odd, to say the least. Not only did he enjoy breakfast in bed while having petroleum jelly rubbed on his head, but he would regularly push all of the call buttons in the White House and watch his staff run into his office just to see who was working.


21. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Law School: Columbia | President: 1933 – 1945

Little Known Fact: Franklin D. Roosevelt was given story credit in a film. During a dinner party, Mr. Roosevelt discussed a story idea with his guests, one of which was a magazine editor. The story was fleshed out by mystery writers at the editor’s request and subsequently turned into a movie, The President’s Mystery.


22. Richard Nixon

Law School: Duke University | President: 1969 – 1974

Little Known Fact: The three best known Western names in China are Jesus Christ, Elvis Presley, and Richard Nixon.


23. Gerald Ford

Law School: Yale | President: 1974 – 1977

Little Known Fact: Gerald Ford worked as a model during college and was featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan in 1942. He also worked as a forest ranger at Yellowstone National Park, directing traffic and feeding the bears.


24. Bill Clinton

Law School: Yale | President: 1993 – 2001

Little Known FactBill Clinton is a two-time Grammy winner. In 2004, he received a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album For Children along with Mikhail Gorbachev and Sophia Loren for their narration on the Russian National Symphony’s “Wolf Tracks and Peter and the Wolf”. In 2005, he won the Best Spoken Word Grammy for the audiobook of My Life.


25. Barack Obama

Law School: Harvard | President: 2008 – 2016

Little Known Fact: Nerd Alert! President Obama loves comic books and fiction. He collects Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comic books, and he has read every Harry Potter novel.


All photos courtesy of Wiki Media Commons.

About Chelsea Beran

Chelsea Beran
Chelsea Beran is a graduate student of Communication at Loyola University Chicago with a focus on digital media and storytelling. She has had her hand in every communication "cookie jar" from audio and video production to web design and investigative journalism. She is currently working as a Membership Specialist at the American Bar Association.

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