What 12 US Presidents Did After Leaving The White House
Whether Democrat, Republican, or something else, all ex-presidents share the same fate: figuring out what to do after they leave the White House. After all, becoming president ranks as one of the highest achievements an American can attain. So, what do former presidents do after they've already peaked?
Many former presidents use their post-presidential life as an opportunity to pursue their own interests. Others – like Jimmy Carter – choose to secure their legacy as humanitarians and turn their attention to philanthropy. Some ex-presidents just can't quit US politics and find new avenues for their talents, either in other branches of government or as informal advisors to their successors.
From Thomas Jefferson to George W. Bush, the former presidents on this list demonstrate that there is life after the White House.
- Photo: Harris & Ewing / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt decided not to seek another term. He threw his support behind William Howard Taft, the Republican nominee; Taft won the election to become the 27th president.
Four years later, Taft wanted another term – and so did Roosevelt, who felt that he belonged back in the White House. The two men went head to head and ended up splitting their supporters. Democrat Woodrow Wilson cruised to victory after his two opponents cannibalized their own votes.
Taft may have lost the White House, but that didn't mean that his federal career was over. He made history in 1921, when President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft as chief justice of the Supreme Court. No other president has also served in that role. During his nine-year tenure on the court, Taft generally made conservative decisions.
Taft found his calling in the courtroom and his appointment was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. As Taft said in 1910:
There is nothing I would have loved more than being chief justice of the United States.
Taft's failure to win a second term as president thus enabled him to find fulfillment in other ways.
- Birthplace: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States of America
- Presidency: 27
- V.P.: James S. Sherman
- Profession: Judge, Jurist, Lawyer
- Photo: Philip Haas / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
John Quincy Adams's one term in office ended with a gut punch: He lost the 1828 presidential election to Andrew Jackson. Depressed and humiliated, Adams confessed his feelings in his journal:
The sun of my political life set in the deepest gloom.
Adams returned to Massachusetts, where he licked his political wounds and planned his next move. He soon realized that the sun would rise again.
He was coaxed back into politics when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830. Adams would go on to serve as a Congressman for 17 years.
Adams also devoted much of his political capital to speaking out against slavery to the point that many of his pro-slavery colleagues nearly censored him.
- Birthplace: Braintree, Massachusetts, United States of America
- Presidency: 6
- V.P.: John C. Calhoun
- Profession: Politician, Diplomat, Attorney at law, Lawyer
- Photo: Commonwealth Club from San Francisco / Flickr / CC-BY 2.0
Jimmy Carter's presidency sputtered to a halt in 1980, when his bid for re-election failed. Americans overlooked Carter's achievements, focused on some of his administration's challenges, and elected Ronald Reagan. They turned the Georgia Democrat into a one-term president.
Carter quickly spun his political failure into an opportunity to serve humanity in new ways. He continued to act as a mediator of foreign affairs and as a humanitarian. His work earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
Carter and his wife Rosalynn even rolled up their sleeves and went to work building homes with Habitat for Humanity. He also used the power of words to inspire, move, and entertain. Carter published no less than 30 books, ranging from memoirs and political pieces to historical fiction.
Carter's distinguished post-presidency has modeled what public service looks like and inspired scholar James Zogby to anoint him “our greatest former president.”
- Birthplace: Americus, GA Micropolitan Statistical Area, Sumter County, Plains, United States of America
- Presidency: 39
- V.P.: Walter Mondale
- Profession: Statesman, Politician, Novelist, Military Officer, Author
- Photo: John G. Gilman / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Ulysses S. Grant's two-term presidency came to an end in 1877. Though initially popular as a Civil War hero, Grant squandered a lot of the public's goodwill, thanks to corruption scandals that rocked his administration. So when Grant and his family left the White House, they opted to take an extended trip abroad.
From England to China, the Grants trotted across Europe and Asia, drawing huge crowds and gaining invitations to meet with heads of state and royals along the way. The Grants returned to the United States in 1879 more popular than when they had left it.
Yet, trouble still seemed to follow Grant. After inadvertently investing in a scam, Grant's finances were in shambles. Fearing that he would leave his wife and children penniless, Grant agreed to do something he had long put off: write his memoirs.
The man working behind the scenes to encourage Grant to write his memoirs was none other than Mark Twain, one of the former president's friends. Twain offered to publish Grant's memoirs. He even ensured that Grant would get 70% of royalties, a princely sum. Grant agreed.
Sadly, Grant was up against time. He had recently received a cancer diagnosis and worked through pain to finish his manuscript before it was too late.
Grant passed three days after completing his memoirs. When Twain published the book months later, it became a runaway hit, securing the Grant family's financial future.
- Birthplace: Point Pleasant, Ohio, United States of America
- Presidency: 18
- V.P.: Schuyler Colfax, Henry Wilson
- Profession: Politician, Soldier, Military Officer
- Photo: Rembrandt Peale / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
When Thomas Jefferson left the White House in 1809, he knew where he wanted to be: Monticello, the estate he personally designed. Nestled near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Charlottesville, Virginia, Monticello was Jefferson's retreat, the place where he could lose himself in learning.
That's exactly what he did. Jefferson used his post-presidential life as an opportunity to fully lean into his intellectual pursuits. Besides tinkering with Monticello, Jefferson also conducted his own scholarship, read classic texts in Greek for fun, and even crafted his own version of the Bible.
He may not have been president of the United States anymore, but Jefferson was still president of the American Philosophical Society. He had been elected to that position in 1797, an experience he classified as “the most flattering incident of my life.” He finally stepped away in 1814.
Jefferson was not only committed to his own learning and scholarship – he wanted to support the educational journey of his fellow Virginians. So, Jefferson devoted his final years to establishing the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
It's important to note that Jefferson had the freedom to follow his curiosity; his many, many enslaved workers did not. His complicated views on slavery add darker shades to his intellectual life, since his moral objections to the enslavement of other human beings did not move him to end the institution. Instead, the man who wrote “all men are created equal” relied on enslaved labor to make his Monticello paradise possible.
- Birthplace: Shadwell, Virginia, United States of America
- Presidency: 3
- V.P.: Aaron Burr, George Clinton
- Profession: Statesman, Inventor, Author, Farmer, Architect
- Photo: James Anthony Wills / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Unlike most other presidents in the last century, Dwight D. Eisenhower technically wasn't a politician when he was elected to the highest office in 1952: He had been a successful and popular five-star general who helped secure Allied victory in World War II. After the war, Eisenhower translated the public's affection for him into political capital.
So when Eisenhower retired in 1961 after two terms in the White House, he earned his time off.
Dwight – known simply as “Ike” – and his wife Mamie retired to a farm they had purchased near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1950. Though the farm had been a high-profile retreat during Eisenhower's term in office, it became a family home after 1961. It was also a working farm where Eisenhower grew crops and raised cattle. To further personalize it, Eisenhower built a putting green on the property so he could indulge in his love of golf.
Though out of the public eye, Eisenhower still felt compelled to lead the nation in his own way. Besides offering counsel to his successors – John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson – Eisenhower also spoke out about the risks posed by the military-industrial complex.
- Birthplace: Denison, Texas, United States of America
- Presidency: 34
- V.P.: Richard Nixon
- Profession: Politician, Soldier