Six Presidents Who Were Lawyers
- Jan 25, 2023
- Law School, Legal Life
- Reviewed by: Matt Riley
There have been a lot of presidents who were lawyers; 27 of the 46 US presidents have practiced law at some point in their careers. You could almost say that when we select presidents, lawyers take precedence (sorry).
At any rate, over half of all the presidents have studied law (though the LSAT didn’t begin until 1948).
So, to honor the most common pathway to the presidency, let’s highlight some notable facts about the legal careers of six presidents.
Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren became a lawyer and the eighth president of the United States despite English being his second language — he’s the only ESL president, in fact. He was also a tiny little man dubbed “Little Van” and was almost too shabby a dresser to become an attorney. Oh, and he married his cousin, becoming the first, but not the last, president to do so.
John Tyler had 15 kids with two wives — more kids than any other president by a margin of, like, a lot. He was accidentally admitted to the Virginia bar when he was 19, after the judge forgot to ask his age. He was later named the 10th president of the United States, after William Henry Harrison gave a two-hour inauguration speech in the freezing rain and promptly died of pneumonia.
Despite being arguably the most successful lawyer and the most successful president on this list, Abraham Lincoln had a lot of setbacks during his career. Before becoming president, he grew up dirt poor in Illinois; lost his mother at age nine from something called “milk sickness;” worked at a failed general store; lost an election to become a state legislator — twice; couldn’t get into law school so taught himself the law using the impossibly dry and impenetrable Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England; ran another failed general store; and failed to earn a seat on the U.S. Senate in his two attempts to do so. What I’m trying to say is, don’t let a low practice exam score get you down.
William Howard Taft
Lafty Tafty is probably the most lawyer of all the presidents — and that’s not even a joke about his prodigious size. He was a prominent Ohio attorney in his twenties, was appointed to the Superior Court of Cincinnati by 29, was considered for a seat on the US Supreme Court at thirty-two, was instead made Solicitor General, and then earned a lifetime appointment to the Sixth Circuit by thirty-five. After a brief sojourn as a one-term president, he was nominated by Warren G. Harding to be the tenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Prototypical gunner.
Harry S Truman
He was only technically a lawyer — he never practiced, but he did earn an honorary license to practice law posthumously (as in, he was awarded the license posthumously — not that he can practice law posthumously, as a ghost). Like many who take the LSAT once, he started down the legal path but quickly changed his mind. But I included him anyway because he’s the subject of my favorite presidential fact: the “S” in his name didn’t stand for anything. In a historic flex, he just added it to his name because he felt like it. And that fact is appropriate to this post because — despite what anyone, up to and including representatives of LSAC, will tell you — the S in LSAT also doesn’t stand for anything. It’s true. [Ed. Note: It is not true].
The only president be elected neither vice president nor president (he was appointed to the vice presidency after elected veep Spiro Agnew was indicted for tax evasion, and was then appointed president after Richard Nixon resigned following the whole Watergate thing) had a pretty interesting life. Before becoming a Michigan lawyer, he had offers to play pro football for both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. And after becoming a lawyer, he became a snitch for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI monitoring of the Warren Commission. He was also the first president to be satirized on SNL, a proud tradition that continues to this day.
So there you have it — the sometimes less-than-illustrious careers of six of the 26 presidents who were attorneys. Going to law school to become president is maybe not the most practical reason to earn a J.D. — but, you know what, it’s better than getting an M.B.A. to become president, since only one president has one of those. In any case, let these President’s Day facts make plain that you can countenance a few setbacks, peculiarities, and outright failures as you chart your path to the courtroom or the White House.
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