Life after the White House: what the US presidents did next
As a new president prepares to take centre stage, Rob Attar looks back through American history to offer some suggestions as to how Donald Trump might spend his post-presidency years, from fishing and farming to falling in love...
This article was originally published in the February 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine and has since been updated
The fauna of Africa was in for a rude awakening when 26th president Theodore Roosevelt left office in 1909. That year he embarked on a year-long hunting and collecting trip with his son Kermit, scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and more than 200 porters.
Teddy Roosevelt had given his name to a popular stuffed toy after refusing to despatch a bear in 1902, but he was less shot-shy seven years later. Travelling by boat, train and caravan around the northeast of the continent, the former president and his party accounted for elephants, rhinos, hippos, snakes, zebra, monkeys and various other creatures, bringing many of the carcasses back to America for scientific study. In late 1913 the adventurous Roosevelt embarked on another expedition, this time for seven months in South America.
A year earlier Roosevelt had become a target himself when a German bartender shot him in the chest as he prepared to give a speech in Milwaukee. Bravely, he opted to deliver the address as planned before making his way to hospital where doctors were relieved to discover his wounds were not life-threatening.
Work on the farm
First president George Washington liked nothing better than tending to his Virginian estate Mount Vernon. Having secured victory in the War of Independence in 1783 Washington hoped to live out the rest of his life as a gentleman farmer.
He approached the presidency six years later with some reluctance. Even during his time in office, agriculture was rarely far from his mind and in one 1795 letter to Thomas Jefferson, for example, he discussed how “buck wheat might be used advantageously as a manure”. On his retirement from the presidency in 1797 Washington hastened back to Mount Vernon, which had been somewhat neglected in his absence. He died two years later after being taken ill while riding a horse around his plantation in a snowstorm.
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John Quincy Adams was the only former president to enter the House of Representatives, which he was elected to in 1830, a year after his term had ended. The sixth president spent the next 17 years in the House, eventually acquiring the nickname ‘Old Man Eloquent’.
The cause he became most identified with was the fight against slavery. Famously Adams took on the notorious 1836 gag rule whereby any petitions against enslavement were tabled without discussion. He continued to present more and more petitions, sent to him by abolitionists, until the House gave in and repealed the rule in 1844. Adams also went to the Supreme Court in 1841 to defend the African slaves who had mutinied against their owners on the Amistad. Thanks partly to the ex-president’s intervention, the defendants won their freedom.
Fall in love
Theodore Roosevelt described 23rd president Benjamin Harrison as “a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician”. Yet the stocky, bearded Harrison must have had some charms for in 1896, three years after relinquishing the presidency, he married Mary Dimmick who was 25 years younger than him.
Harrison’s first wife Caroline had died of tuberculosis two weeks before his failed attempt to secure a second term in 1892 and it was not long before he began romancing Mary, who was both Caroline’s assistant and niece. The 62-year-old former president’s two children were horrified by the marriage, refusing to attend the New York wedding service.
On Harrison’s death in 1901 he gave the bulk of his $400,000 estate to his wife and their daughter Elizabeth (born 1897), leaving little for his elder offspring. Mary survived her husband by close to half a century and when she died in 1948 Harry Truman was president and the Cold War had begun.
Found a university
Scientific pursuits were a “supreme delight” of third president Thomas Jefferson but the “enormities of the times” he had lived in forced him into the political arena. After he left the top job in 1809, Jefferson was able to devote himself more fully to education. His finest achievement was the founding of the University of Virginia – chartered in 1819. Jefferson designed both the curriculum and the university buildings, which included a grand rotunda modelled on Rome’s Pantheon. As befitted the drafter of the Declaration of Independence’s enlightened views, it was the only college in America at the time with no religious affiliation.
Heal the world
“I can’t deny I’m a better ex-president than I was a president,” said the 39th incumbent Jimmy Carter in 2005, a quarter of a century after being heavily defeated by Ronald Reagan. Disappointed by the relative failure of his time in office, Carter threw himself into diplomatic and humanitarian work through the Carter Center he established in 1982.
Since then Carter has mediated in conflicts all over the globe and earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Perhaps his greatest achievement has been the near-eradication of Guinea worm disease, which once afflicted millions of Africans. His post-presidential work has not been without controversy but few ex-leaders could boast a more illustrious career away from the top job.
Tell your side of the story
James Buchanan’s presidency was something of a disaster. The 15th office holder failed to conciliate the feuding north and south and in the four months between Abraham Lincoln’s election and Buchanan’s departure in March 1861, several southern states had seceded, paving the way for the Civil War. Buchanan remarked to his successor: “My dear sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed”.
Yet Buchanan was loath to accept the criticism being heaped on him for his handling of the crisis. In 1866 he produced the first presidential memoir Mr. Buchanan’s Administration of the Eve of the Rebellion, which set out the case for his defence. It was a bold effort but one that largely failed to restore his reputation, as underlined by a 1962 poll of historians which rated him the third worst president thus far.
On this podcast, historian Adam IP Smith tells you everything you need to know about the American Civil War, the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy that devastated America in the 1860s:
Take the law into your own hands
Five years before being elected 27th president in 1908 William Taft made clear his views on the possibility of a Taft presidency: “Don’t sit up nights thinking about making me president for that will never come and I have no ambition in that direction,” he said. “Any party which would nominate me would make a great mistake.” Taft’s prediction was borne out. His unhappy four years in office prompted a split in the Republicans that enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to achieve a convincing victory in the 1912 contest.
Taft, a lawyer by training, had applied to be president through the prompting of his wife and his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt. He often said “politics makes me sick” and was pleased to return to legal work in the years after his defeat. The pinnacle of Taft’s career was probably his appointment as chief justice of the United States in 1921. He held this post for nine years and remains the only president to have also been the country’s leading lawyer.
Relax by the river
Several presidents have been keen anglers, perhaps none more-so than the 31st incumbent Herbert Hoover. One 2005 biography even bore the title Hoover, the Fishing President. When in the White House he liked to relieve the stress of work with some quiet hours on the river and after he was replaced by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, Hoover continued his hobby, while embarking on further political and diplomatic work.
In his long post-presidential career Hoover wrote widely on international affairs and the problems besetting America but the final book he produced was of a very different kind. Published in 1963, a year before his death, Fishing for Fun reflected a lifetime love of angling and in one of its most memorable lines, Hoover exclaimed: “All men are equal before fish”.
Or if all else fails… become president
A few former presidents have tried to return to the White House after an electoral defeat but only one, Grover Cleveland in 1892, actually managed to do so. In the process he became both the 22nd and 24th presidents.
Cleveland was defeated by Benjamin Harrison after his first term in 1888 but remained sufficiently popular with the Democrats to be given a second chance against Harrison four years later. At the end of his second term Cleveland retired for good and he now resides in pub quizzes across the world.
Rob Attar is editor of BBC History Magazine