An article in Newsday suggested the possibility of former President Bill Clinton becoming junior Senator for New York. It’s a possibility with two big “if’s”: if Hillary Clinton is elected President in 2008 and if New York Governor Eliot Spitzer appoints Bill to take Hillary’s place in the Senate. Not that I expect this to happen, but it did make me curious about what other former US Presidents have done after their term is up, politically or otherwise.
This is a long post, so here’s the executive summary. Most presidents went into quiet retirement where they typical composed memoirs and vast correspondence as well as offered advice on current affairs as an elder statesman. To answer the question I posed as the premise of this post, only 6 former Presidents went on to hold elected or appointed positions in national government after their presidency. The most notable of these are John Quincy Adams who served for many years in the House of Representatives and William Howard Taft who delighted in his long career as Supreme Court Justice. Four former Presidents attempted to run for President again as non-incumbents, but only Grover Cleveland succeeded in being elected. Four former Presidents went into academics as university professors and/or administrators. One President returned briefly to military service (Washington). In recent years it’s common for former Presidents to get involved on corporate boards and in charitable organizations.
The President with the longest post-Presidential life was Herbert Hoover who lived another 31 years after failing to be reelected. James K. Polk died a mere 3 months after his term ended.
Of course eight presidents never lived long enough to find out what their post-Presidential life would be like. Presidents who died in office include William Henry Harrison (pneumonia and pleurisy), Zachary Taylor (cholera? heat stroke? poisoning?), Abraham Lincoln (assassination), James Garfield (assassination), William McKinley (assassination), Warren G. Harding (heart attack), Franklin D. Roosevelt (massive cerebral hemorrhage), and John F. Kennedy (assassination). It strikes me that of the 42 men who’ve served as President, 20% of them died in office. Not very comforting odds, I say.
What follows are brief summaries of the post-Presidential careers of the 34 former Presidents.
George Washington (1797-99): After delivering his farewell address in 1796 and refusing to run for a third term, Washington retired to Mount Vernon. His well-deserved rest and relaxation was interrupted briefly when John Adams asked him to serve as Commander in Chief of the army in event of war with France.
John Adams (1801-26): Retiring to Quincy, Adams settled into writing his autobiography and advising the younger generation, particularly his son John Quincy who took office himself in 1825. Adams is famed for his vast correspondence, most especially with Thomas Jefferson after they reconciled in 1812.
Thomas Jefferson (1809-26): Like Washington and Adams before him Jefferson settled down at home at Monticello which was a continual work in progress to meet his ever-changing architectural goals. Jefferson also constructed a smaller retreat house called Poplar Forest and the University of Virginia which he chartered in 1819. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence and a few hours before Adams passed away.
James Madison (1817-1836): Retiring to his plantation home Montpelier, Madison kept in touch with Jefferson and participated in creating the University of Virginia serving as rector. He participated in resettling freed slaves in Liberia in an effort to end American slavery. Madison’s last years were marred by debt and illness that kept him bedridden.
James Monroe (1825-1831): After his term ended, Monroe retired to his home at Oak Hill and served as a regent for University of Virginia and as a member of a state constitutional convention. Suffering from serious debt he applied and received payments from Congress. Like Jefferson and Adams, Monroe died on the 4th of July.
John Quincy Adams (1829-1848): A precedent for Clinton was set by the younger Adams who in the wake of his loss to Andrew Jackson in his reelection campaign, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830. In fact, Adams would serve in Congress for the rest of his life, falling ill in the House chamber and dying two days later. Highlights of Adam’s congressional career include attempts to introduce abolitionist legislation and acting as defense council for the Africans in the Amistad case.
Andrew Jackson (1837-1845):Suffering from ill health, Jackson retired to the Hermitage for his final 8 years living pretty much as an invalid. Even from afar he retained an active interest in politics and helped the successful campaigns of Martin Van Buren in 1836 and James K. Polk in 1844.
Martin Van Buren (1841-1862): After losing his reelection bid to William Henry Harrison in 1840, Van Buren ran for President two more times as a Democrat in 1844 and as a Free Soil Party candidate in 1848. He received a good amount of support in each election and his participation contributed to the decision of what candidate eventually was elected in a time of many factions. After 1848 Van Buren spent many years in Europe and in retirement at his home in Kinderhook, NY.
John Tyler (1845-1862): Unable to secure the nomination of the Democratic party for a reelection campaign in 1844, Tyler retired to his Sherwood Forest plantation in Virginia but continued to be an active voice in politics, advocating the cause of the Southern states in the growing sectional crisis. In February 1861 Tyler presided over the last minute Peace Conference with the intention of avoiding secession. After Virginia seceded from the Union, Tyler remained loyal to his state and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives but died before taking office.
James K. Polk (1849): As the They Might Be Giants song declares, Polk “sought no second term” and left office for retirement to his Nashville home in 1849. Despite being the youngest man to serve as President up to that point of time, Polk’s retirement was short and he died three months after the end of his term.
Millard Fillmore (1853-1874): In 1852 the Whigs chose to back war hero General Winfield Scott as their candidate instead of attempting to reelect Fillmore. In 1856, Fillmore ran as the candidate of the Know Nothing Party receiving 21% of the popular vote, a record at that time for a third party candidate. Failing to regain the Presidency, Fillmore retired from national politics and spent the rest of his life active in the municipal politics of Buffalo and western New York. He also founded the University of Buffalo and the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy.
Franklin Pierce (1857-1869): Unable to get Democratic support for reelection in the 1856 convention, Pierce retired from politics at the end of his term and returned to his home in Concord, NH. He and his wife toured Europe extensively from 1857-59. During the Civil War, Pierce controversially spoke out against Republican policies and declared the Emancipation Proclamation to be unconstitutional. Pierce suffered from alcoholism and died in obscurity in 1869.
James Buchanan (1861-1868): Leaving office with the nation on the brink of war, Buchanan retired to his Wheatland estate in Pennsylvania. His reputation suffered greatly during the war as he was accused of failing to adequately support Federal military fortifications in the South and allowing seven states to secede on his watch. The Senate drafted a resolution to condemn him and his portrait was removed from the Capitol to protect it from vandalism. To defend himself from his critics Buchanan penned his memoirs Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion which was published in 1866.
Andrew Johnson (1869-1875): After being the first President impeached by the House of Representatives, Johnson returned home to Tennessee in post-Presidential years. After losing campaigns for the Senate in 1869 and the House in 1872, Johnson was elected to the US Senate in 1874. He would only served five months before he died of a stroke. Since he was the second President to be impeached, Bill Clinton could follow in Johnson’s shoesteps into the Senate as well.
Ulysses S. Grant (1877-1885): On the heels of his troubled Presidency, Grant traveled the world meeting national leaders in Europe, Asia, and Africa on 2 1/2 year journey. In 1880, through know effort of his own, Grant received a great number of votes at the Republican National Convention before anti-Grant factions forced the nomination of Jame Garfield instead. Trouble followed as Grant took interest in an investment firm which collapsed in scandal and then he came down with throat cancer. In his last years Grant restored his family name and fortune by composing and selling his memoirs.
Rutherford B. Hayes (1881-1893): Refusing to run for a second term, Hayes retired to Fremont, Ohio. There he managed several family farms and dedicated himself to humanitarian causes. Hayes was particularly interested in prison reform and education for black children in the South.
Chester A. Arthur (1885-1886): During his term as President, Arthur learned he was suffering from Bright’s Disease, a fatal kidney ailment. While he put his name up for nomination at the Republican National Convention, he was not selected, and after his term ended he returned to private law practice in New York. He died within the year.
Grover Cleveland (1889-1893; 1897-1908): Cleveland is well-known as the only US President to serve non-continuous terms, and thus also has two periods as former President. In the interregnum, Cleveland returned to his law practice in New York City. Repudiated by his party after his second term, Cleveland retired to Princeton, NJ where he became a trustee and lecturer at Princeton University. In 1907, Cleveland was elected president of the Association of Presidents of Life Insurance Companies.
Benjamin Harrison (1893-1901): Retiring to Indianapolis, Harrison resumed a law practice. In 1896, he married his late wife’s niece Mary Lord Dimmick. In 1901, Harrison delivered a series of lectures at Stanford University called Views of an Ex-President.
Theodore Roosevelt (1909-1919): Post-Presidency, Roosevelt went on safari in Africa and toured Europe. Distressed with President Taft’s divergent policies, Roosevelt sought but failed to gain nomination for the Republican party in 1912. Instead he started his own Progressive “Bull Moose” Party, finishing second in the national elections. While campaigning in Milwaukee he survived an attempted assassination and quickly recovered and returned to public appearances. During the First World War, Roosevelt became a fervent supporter of the Allied cause and harshly criticized President Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt repaired the divisions between himself and the Republicans and at the time of his death was under strong consideration for the 1920 nomination.
William Howard Taft (1913-1930): The paragon of post-Presidential political involvement, Taft was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Harding in 1921. He thoroughly enjoyed this position and wrote “I don’t remember that I ever was President.” He retired from the court in 1930 approximately one month prior to his death from heart disease.
Woodrow Wilson (1921-1924): Suffering a stroke in his second term, and exhausted by his efforts to create the League of Nations, Wilson lived his final years primarily as an invalid in seclusion in Washington.
Calvin Coolidge (1929-1933): Coolidge retired to his home in Northampton, MA where he wrote a syndicated column and other magazine pieces as well as his autobiography.
Herbert Hoover (1933-1964): Scapegoated for causing the Depression, Hoover lived in New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria for his final thirty years and focused on conservative thought and policy. He wrote several books attacking New Deal policies and against communism. Under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower he headed the Hoover Commissions that reformed and streamlined bureaucracy in the Executive Branch.
Harry Truman (1953-1972): Retirement in Independence, MO was quiet but active for Truman. He spent his time reading, writing articles about political, and taking daily walks around town. He also supervised construction of the Truman Library near his home.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1961-1969): After speaking against the “military-industrial complex” and praying for peace in his farewell address, Eisenhower retired to his farm in Gettysburg, PA. There he wrote his memoirs and several other books. Seventy at the time of his retirement, his last years were marred by long illness leading to his death.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1969-1973): Retiring to the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City, TX, Johnson spent his last years in quiet retirement writing his memoirs and planning the presidential library. Johnson died just a short time prior to the agreement ending the war in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon (1974-1994): Forced into resignation by the Watergate scandal, Nixon was forever tainted yet did manage to recoup his public image over his last twenty years of life to be seen as an elder statesman. Like earlier Presidents he wrote his memoirs and several books about politics. He lived in the New York City area for much of his retirement and rooted for the New York Mets.
Gerald Ford (1977-2006): Ford retired to Palm Springs, CA and had the opportunity to reenter politics when Ronald Reagan offered Ford a chance to be his Vice Presidential running mate in 1980. Ford enjoyed his retirement playing golf, skiing, and serving on the boards of numerous corporations.
Jimmy Carter (1981- ): Perhaps the most active former President in US history, Carter has been particularly involved in international diplomacy, such as mediating an agreement in Haiti in 1994 that restored exiled President Aristide to power. Carter and his wife Rossalyn have also been active in social justice programs such as Habitat for Humanity. He’s published numerous books including his memoirs, commentary on politics and faith, and even a book of poetry. In 2002, Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ronald Reagan (1989-2004): Reagan retired to Southern California, wrote his autobiography, and for many years was active on the lecture circuit. In 1994 he revealed that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and spent his final years in reclusive retirement.
George Bush (1993- ): The elder Bush has had an active retirement which includes a victorious visit to Kuwait, a much-publicized break with the NRA, skydiving, and speaking at my college graduation. Bush serves on corporate boards and collaborated with former President Clinton on aid programs for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina disasters. Bush saw his sons George W. and Jeb elected as governors of Texas and Florida respectively, and then in 2001 became the first former President since John Adams to see his son also take the oath as President of the United States.
Bill Clinton (2001- ): Clinton retired to the New York City suburbs as his wife Hillary campaigned and was successfully elected as Sentator for the state of New York. He also opened an office in Harlem. Clinton has traveled far and wide, given lectures, and published his memoirs. With George Bush he’s worked on aid programs to help victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia and the hurricane on the Gulf Coast.
Resources used in creating this post include the CQ Encyclopedia of American Government, Encyclopaedia Britannica and the White House web site.