You may be surprised to know that among the lawyers and captains of industry, many of the Chief Executives of the United States gained valuable leadership experience as small business owners. Here’s a roundup of 7 presidents who ran their own businesses.
1. George Washington (1st President)
Washington ran two successful whiskey stills in early 1797, after his farm manager, James Anderson, convinced the first President to give it a go, Washington allowed Anderson and his farmhands to construct a proper whiskey distillery on the grounds of Mount Vernon. With a boiler and five copper stills, the 2,250 square foot distillery became profitable almost instantly. What’s more, the near 11,000 gallons it produced in 1799 made it the largest whiskey distillery in the country at the time.
2. Abraham Lincoln (16th President)
Lincoln decided to set up shop in New Salem, IL, after having visited the small town on a trip to New Orleans. He and William Berry, a friend and fellow former militiaman, opened the Lincoln-Berry general store in January of 1833. Unfortunately, their choice of location wasn’t ideal — the town had stopped growing, and Berry’s attempt to boost sales by acquiring a liquor license flopped. The store shut its doors a few months later, leaving Lincoln with a debt that he couldn’t pay off until he was elected to Congress in 1848. Despite it all, Lincoln was known to rise triumphant out of failure. He went on to launch a successful law practice in 1837, and became the only president to receive a patent in 1849.
3. Andrew Johnson (17th President)
Johnson’s mother worked as a seamstress and helped her son secure an apprenticeship with a tailor in Greeneville, Tennessee when he was 18. Johnson developed a real knack for the trade, and opened his own tailor shop in 1826. Over the next decade, Johnson’s shop prospered, and he invested much of the profits in real estate. The shop eventually became a gathering place for political debate, and Johnson held his first meetings as an alderman (an elected member of a municipal council) in 1829.
4. Warren Harding (29th President)
After graduating from Ohio Central College when he was only 17, Harding did brief stints as an insurance salesman and a teacher. Realizing that neither profession was for him, Harding raised $300 with a group of local investors to purchase The Marion Daily Star, a failing newspaper based in his hometown of Marion, Ohio. Two years later, he became the full owner. Reviving the paper was a serious challenge – and the fact that the Star was pushing a Republican message in a Democratic area didn’t help. Nevertheless, Harding succeeded in making it financially sound (with the help of his business savvy wife), and took on the Marion Independent to become the city’s official daily newspaper. On July 5th, 1899, Harding used the Star to announce his interest in becoming a Republican state senator.
5. Herbert Hoover (31st President)
After getting a geology degree from Stanford, Hoover left a steady job as a mining engineer at Bewick, Moreing & Co to start his own international mining consulting business. Establishing offices in Paris, New York, San Francisco, among others, he worked as an engineer, financier, promoter, and technical consultant. His firm, which focused mainly on restructuring near-bankrupt companies in the industry, eventually employed over 175,000 workers. The business’ success earned him the title “doctor of sick mines.” Hoover’s success transformed him into a big believer in the power of trade. When he was appointed Secretary of Commerce in 1921, he sought to make the Commerce Department the hub of American growth and stability.
6. Harry Truman (33rd President)
After serving in World War I, Truman opened a haberdashery in Kansas City, Missouri. He ran the shop for three years with a close friend, Edward Jacobson. Unfortunately, they went bankrupt following the recession of 1921, and it took Truman 15 years to pay off his share of the firm’s debts. Nevertheless, the store established Truman’s reputation as a respected businessman, which in turn set him on the path to civic engagement. He joined the Triangle Club, an association of businessmen committed to improving the city, and became a regular participant in the activities of the American Legion.
7. Jimmy Carter (39th President)
When Carter’s father, Earl, died in 1953, the peanut farm he had built was on the verge of failing. Jimmy, who was serving in the Navy at the time, resigned and returned to Plains, Georgia to manage the farm. But the harvest was so depleted by drought in 1954 that Carter had to maintain several lines of credit to keep the farm afloat. Still, he refused to quit, and by studying and implementing the latest agricultural practices, he was able to turn things around. This experience gave Carter a new appreciation for the importance of agriculture as part of the economy. As president, he would sign the Agricultural Trade Act into law in 1978, establishing trade offices in major agricultural commerce centers across the globe to “develop, maintain, and expand international markets for U.S. agricultural commodities.”