Every four years, Americans go to the polls to elect the individual who will serve as our chief executive officer, commander in chief of the armed forces, head of state, and who, since the Truman administration, is known by the acronym, POTUS – President of the United States. These individuals have brought numerous skills and diverse experiences to our highest office. These experiences have included: architect, soldier, diplomat, Secretary of State, governor, postmaster, ordained Minister, school teacher, sheriff, journalist, U.S. Solicitor General, judge and vice president of the United States.
Significantly, of our 44 presidents (if one counts Grover Cleveland twice), there have been 25 individuals who were lawyers before becoming presidents, including William Howard Taft who became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court after he served as President. In addition to Taft, who argued before justices he had appointed, seven other lawyer-presidents have appeared before the United States Supreme Court. The most recent lawyer-president to do so was Richard Nixon when he argued the case of Time v. Hill in 1966.
Some individuals actively practiced law. John Adams combined a lengthy career as an attorney with major contributions to the founding of a new nation. His son, John Quincy Adams, successfully argued that the kidnapped and sold-as-slaves Africans should be treated as free men and released in Amistad [Part of our audio/visual collection available on display]. Rutherford Hayes and Benjamin Harrison handled several high profile cases, including sensational murder trials. Abraham Lincoln was involved in more than 5000 cases, spanning his 25 year career. He was also a postmaster and a captain in the Black Hawk war. Lincoln was a skilled draftsman. He utilized this skill in crafting a legally binding executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation.
Some presidents studied the law to further political aspirations. Some, such as Lincoln and James Garfield, set their own course of study and read the law before being admitted to the bar. Garfield is better known as a teacher, college professor and president, soldier, congressman and a Minister of the Disciples of Christ. Others took the more traditional approach and attended law schools. President Gerald Ford, in fact, attended three including a summer spent at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Norman Gross has profiled the men who were both lawyers and president of the United States in his treatise, America’s Lawyer-Presidents: From Law Office to Oval Office [Available at on display - Call No. KF353 .A46 2004 ].
Test your knowledge of America’s Lawyer-Presidents by taking the quiz sponsored by the American Bar Association.
- Susan Catterall -