Life After Presidency: What Ex-Presidents Do With Their Time

HomeU.S. HistoryLife After Presidency: What Ex-Presidents Do With Their Time
  • Anna Butler
  • February 12, 2022

What happens to a former president? This has been a question people have asked since 1797 when George Washington retired from his position as president. In general, retired presidents find themselves in a unique position of high repute and are well thought of once they leave their positions. Even the scandalous presidents, like Richard Nixon and Ulysses Grant, ended up being well regarded over time, despite their poor reputation in office.

The majority of the ex-presidents were retired during a time when retirement wasn’t exactly what it is now. The idea of simply relaxing and living life wasn’t considered an option and so many of them went on to work or do other things after leaving the White House. Today, it’s normal for a president to get a massive book deal and speaking fees, but not everyone had that luxury back then.

In this article, we’ll be looking at just what a number of former presidents did with their “free” time after leaving the White House. 

Here are some of the interesting things American’s ex-presidents have decided to do once they moved out of the White House and continued with private life. 

George Washington: Army Commander During the Quasi-War

Near the end of the 18th century, John Adams appointed the retired George Washington as Lieutenant General in the US Army. The former president left his plantation and came out of retirement to manage American troops and militia, which was preparing for possible war with France. At this point in history, the hostilities with France were mostly occurring at sea, but there was a possibility it would stretch further.

Washington, despite enjoying his retirement greatly, gave up his leisure time to go ahead and command the troops. He insisted, however, that Alexander Hamilton would serve as the field commander. Washington’s sense of duty caused him to come out of retirement and work again. 

When Washington accepted the position, he was appointed the first Chief of Staff of the US Army. He turned Mount Vernon into an army headquarters, but fortunately, it was never needed. The aptly named Quasi-War ended without Washington needing to send any troops into battle. After the Quasi-War ended, the former president went back to farming and managing his animals instead of troops.

He went on to open a fishery and set up grist mills, as well as producing nails and other building items, and distilled whiskey and brewed beer. In short, the man never wasted a moment of his retirement. He stayed on top of the affairs of state, sharing his thoughts in letters right up until his death in 1799.

John Adams: Bankrupted His Farm

The majority of the early presidents were poorer when they left the White House than when they first went in. John Adams, however, was a frugal man and he managed to stay on top of his finances. He was the first president to run again while still in office, but he lost and that made him pretty bitter. He left the office and retired on his farm in Massachusetts to write on his later abandoned autobiography.

Two years later, he lost nearly all his money ($13,000 or roughly $250,000 today) when his bank collapsed. Completely broke, Adams was fortunate enough to have a son, John, who bought the farm and other pieces of land to help his father recover. He paid nearly $13,000 for it all and allowed his father to stay on the farm.

Until Jefferson left the office, Adams kept to himself. Eventually, however, he began to send letters to newspapers to tell the real story of his time in office. In 1812, he and Jefferson resolved their political feud and started to write back and forth. The letters are an amazing piece of history. Both former presidents were on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence.

For years, Adams and Jefferson talked about nearly everything under the sun, though Jefferson was always careful not to get into politics, which was a hot topic for both.

Thomas Jefferson: Constructed a University

Thomas Jefferson served eight years on the White House and when he left, he decided to do something about the College of William and Mary. At the time, the college was the main school option in Virginia and Jefferson had gone there himself. The curriculum at the college was heavily influenced by the church, affecting even how mathematics was taught.

Jefferson didn’t trust the clergy, so he brought together the president of the US at the time, James Madison, and other prominent Virginians to help him get a charter for a new school. Jefferson designed the University of Virginia campus, as well as the majority of the other buildings.

While the university was being built, a process Jefferson supervised in person or via telescope from Monticello, he hired professors and set up the entry and graduation requirements. He even had a hand in how the curriculum was created. Once the university was finished being built, Jefferson was the first rector for the university and oversaw the Board of Visitors, which included both James Monroe and James Madison.

He even recorded the minutes of the first meetings himself. While the university has the largest religious studies department in the US today, Jefferson refused to allow any religion to enter the university.

James Madison: Edited Letters to Change History

James Madison left office considerably poorer than when he entered it. As the third president of the “Virginia Dynasty,” he retired to his plantation in Montpelier, only to discover that his overseers had done a terrible job in his absence. His main crop, tobacco, had dropped in price and he found himself with some land, but little else. During the Virginia Constitutional Convention, he took up public service once more and was the second rector at the University of Virginia once Jefferson died in 1826.

He continued at the university until he died himself, but his most notable efforts were aimed at preserving his own legacy.

The issues of slavery and rights of the states began to destroy the nation and James Madison started rewriting his correspondence with other founders, including his friend, Jefferson. Fortunately, Jefferson had invented a machine to copy his letters as he wrote them and those copies proved that Madison had forged Jefferson’s handwriting to change the letters to help Madison look good.

His mental health was less than ideal by the end of his life. Age affected him, as did his age, and he eventually died in 1836. He was buried at Montpelier.

James Monroe: Colonized Liberia with Freed Slaves

During the time of slavery in the US, many slave owners were torn about owning humans. James Monroe was one of them. He had plenty of slaves, but he didn’t like the fact that it was something that existed and he felt it was a necessary evil that colonists had forced on the economy before the American Revolution.

As President of the Constitutional Convention of Virginia in 1829, Monroe shared his views and showed that the Virginia legislature had tried to stop the importation of slaves from Africa, something that was thrown out by the governor appointed by the King of England. Monroe suggested all slaves be emancipated and deported. His thought was that the federal government could help them settle African colonies.

While Monroe’s idea was rejected, he remained a member of the American Colonization Society and between 1820 and the late 1830s, the Society helped freed slaves and free African Americans. Eventually, these colonies were turned into the nation of Liberia.

The capital, Monrovia, was named for James Monroe. The Society bought land to gift the families sent to Africa, all with private donor money. He died on Independence Day, just like Jefferson and Adams had five years before.

John Quincy Adams: Served as a Congressman

John Quincy Adams only served for one term, just like his father had. He was known for using a book on constitutional law for his oath of office, rather than a Bible. He insisted the president could invoke broad powers of action, thanks to the general welfare clause included in the constitution.

He was in favor of a number of infrastructure projects that his opponents felt were not part of the federal government’s concern. Needless to say, he was a controversial president and didn’t get re-elected. He didn’t even attend Andrew Jackson’s inauguration and went back to Quincy. He was elected to serve in the House of Representatives in 1830.

As the first ex-president to join Congress, Quincy was a very active representative and joined multiple committees as chairman. Since that time, only one other president has gone on to serve in Congress after the presidency, Andrew Johnson. John Quincy Adams was integral in presenting the compromise that resolved the Nullification Crisis and he also opposed Texas annexing.

He was also against the Mexican War, and the way Polk resolved the Oregon Dispute. He was such a big part of the Congress that he remained there until he had a stroke on the floor of the House and subsequently died in the Speaker’s Room at the Capitol in 1848.

John Tyler: Formed the Confederate States of America

John Tyler rose to the presidency, due to William Henry Harrison’s death. It quickly became evident that Tyler didn’t share the same values as the former president and felt he didn’t have to follow the same rules. He was so independent that many referred to him as “his accident” and his presidency was marked by chaos.

Andrew Jackson convinced him not to try for re-election after the Democrats denied him a chance at the presidency in 1844. Since he could only serve out the remainder of Harrison’s term, Tyler’s final act as president was to annex Texas into the Union, something he’d wanted to do for a while.

Once he retired to his plantation in Virginia, called Sherwood Forest (he felt he was Robin Hood, since the Whigs who lived nearby felt he robbed their party), Tyler kept out of national politics. That didn’t stop him from jumping into a position in the Virginia Secession Convention as the Civil War loomed, though. While he supported secession, the Convention voted against it in 1861, but then voted for once the attack occurred against Fort Sumter.

Tyler went on to join the Provisional Confederate Congress, which created the Confederate Constitution. In 1862, he was elected to serve in the Confederate House of Representatives, but he died before the first session.

Andrew Johnson: Joined the Senate That Tried Him After Impeachment

Andrew Johnson was given the presidency when Abraham Lincoln died.  While Lincoln was not much liked while in office, his death caused him to become a type of martyr and it was a hard act to follow. Johnson, though not a huge drinker, was labeled a drunk by some and inept by others. He also made enemies of most in Congress, which led to him being impeached by the House.

He went on trial in the Senate and the votes were 35-19 in favor of impeachment. However, the yes votes needed one more in order to reach the majority.

Once he’d served out his term, Johnson retired to Tennessee, but it didn’t suit him, so he chose to return to the Senate. He wanted revenge on the people who had embarrassed him so badly and to prove that he was worthy. He failed several times to join, but won a seat in 1875, through persistence. The Senate held a special session to swear him in and he was vindicated, thanks to the newspapers nationwide praising him.

The Republicans who had tried to impeach him simply ignored the former president. He was the only ex-president to ever enter the Senate, but he didn’t get to serve. After that first session, he did a speaking tour and died of a stroke in Ohio.

Ulysses S. Grant: Traveled the World

Ulysses S. Grant doesn’t have the best reputation in the world. He was considered a drunkard and a terrible general who got many soldiers killed. He was also said to be corrupt and dishonest, but none of these were actually true. The scandals that occurred during his administration were not his fault at all and he worked quickly to fix the issues. He explained to the nation that the people involved had made poor decisions and were due to errors in judgment.ADVERTISEMENT

One of the people involved in the scandals was his brother. Once he retired from presidency, Gran took on a world tour and served as a diplomat, thanks to the next president, Rutherford B. Hayes.

Upon his return from the world tour, Grant joined several partners, including Jay Gould and built a railroad into Mexico. Unfortunately, the Senate didn’t ratify the expected free trade agreement with Mexico and the railroad went bankrupt. He tried to run for presidency in 1880, but failed that and then set up a brokerage house. His partner was Frederick Ward and the business was quite successful until Ward embezzled money and vanished, leaving Grant in deep debt.ADVERTISEMENT

He managed to pay off those debts, thanks to William Vanderbilt’s help and took Mark Twain’s advice to write his memoirs. He just barely finished the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant a few days before he died of throat cancer. The book was successful after his death.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Worked On Political and Educational Reform

In 1881, Hayes left the presidency after just one term, as he’d vowed to do. He retired to Ohio, where he promptly began to lobby for charities that worked to improve education and supported federal subsidies for education. He firmly believed that education and, most importantly, vocational education, was the key to resolving the many problems facing America.

At that point, there were so many dividing issues, including women’s suffrage, trade deals, tariffs, immigration, Indian affairs, race, and labor unions, among others.ADVERTISEMENT

Hayes worked to help everyone reach higher education if they wanted it, rather than just having it available to those with money and time. He disliked the upward trend of the wealthy minority controlling the national wealth in the U.S. and wanted to change that. “Money is power,” he said and he pointed out that it influenced everything from government to church and even the media.ADVERTISEMENT

According to Hayes, it was essential to educate and inform the people in order to balance out the power of money, especially in politics, where it was very easily influenced and no checks were in place.

William Howard Taft: Served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Born in Cincinnati, Taft worked as a judge and lawyer before he served as the Governor General of the Philippines in 1901 for Roosevelt. He later served as Secretary of War and Roosevelt felt that Taft was following his own goals and values, so he helped him get elected as president and headed off to Africa.

However, Taft had very different ideas and left behind conservation, focusing instead on tariff reduction than antitrust actions. When Roosevelt ran against Taft in 1912, the split party caused Woodrow Wilson to get into office.ADVERTISEMENT

After his retirement, Taft took a position at Yale University and helped build the Lincoln Memorial, which he dedicated in 1921. He also became president to the League to Enforce Peace, which opposed American soldiers joining World War I. In 1921, Taft was finally given his dream job, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, thanks to President Herbert Hoover.ADVERTISEMENT

Under Taft, the court was conservative and helped restrict the government’s ability to manage commerce at both federal and state levels. He stayed in his position throughout his illness and eventually died in 1930. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the first president and the first chief justice to be buried there.

Calvin Coolidge: Worked as a Columnist

Calvin Coolidge was called Silent Cal because he detested speaking to the press. His press conferences were generally conducted by bringing reporters into the Oval Office and they could talk to the president there. In one case, a reporter asked if the president had anything to say about foreign affairs and his reply was “No.” He would answer the same way to many other questions and then, as the reporters left, he would tell them, “And don’t quote me!”ADVERTISEMENT

Interestingly enough, Coolidge chose to write a newspaper column after he left the White House. It was called Calvin Coolidge Says and ran during 1930 and 1931, but later, the pieces were put into a book. People were finally able to see the bizarre, dry humor that the president had, both in the columns and in his autobiography and speeches, which he also published. Despite being Silent Cal for several years, it turned out he just needed the right venue to speak his mind. You can still find his book, Calvin Coolidge Says, today.ADVERTISEMENT

Herbert Hoover: Met Adolf Hitler and Went Against Roosevelt

In 1933, Hoover left the White House and became the only living ex-president until 1953, when Truman retired. Hoover dedicated himself to opposing, loudly and strongly, Franklin Roosevelt’s policies for the New Deal. He gave speeches against Roosevelt and even published books and articles opposing him.

Hoover always felt that people blamed him unfairly for the Great Depression, but he also felt that the executive branch expansion in the government was not a good response and had an adverse effect on the U.S. economy. While he was still disliked in the U.S. in the late 1930s, Hoover headed to Europe. There, he was actually appreciated. He even visited Germany, meeting Nazi leaders who saw him as an ally for them, against Roosevelt.ADVERTISEMENT

While in Germany, Hoover met Adolf Hitler and was invited to Karinhall, the hunting estate belonging to Herman Goering. Hoover later said that Hitler was “mad” and he was disgusted by how the Nazis treated Jews. Still, he was fully against the U.S. getting involved in the war and he was also against supporting the Russians, as well.ADVERTISEMENT

Once the war was over, Truman sent him to Germany to check on the conditions and the Marshall Plan was developed based on his observations. Hoover didn’t take a pension from the government until 1958 when Truman was forced to accept the funds because he was broke. Hoover had money, but he didn’t want his friend to be embarrassed, so he also took a pension.

Harry Truman: Built a Library and Traveled

Truman retired from office with nothing more than a small stipend for his service WWI. He sold the rights to his memoirs to afford a new car (a Chrysler New Yorker) and carefully planned with gas station maps and letters, then headed off to drive to Washington and New York, along with his wife. In this time period, there were no interstates, a few signs, and not many motels.ADVERTISEMENT

Fast food hadn’t been invented yet, either, so it was a daunting trip and one that he made without Secret Service or bodyguards, though his wife, Bess, probably would have fought off any attempts to attack the former president.

The trip was a wonderful one and while his wife kept a tight rein on his speed, resulting in being stopped for impeding traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he got off with a warning and enjoyed the rest of his trip. When he got back home, Truman built the first Presidential Library where he would store his own personal paperwork, memoirs, and correspondence, once it was no longer classified.ADVERTISEMENT

He also worked with Eisenhower and John Kennedy as a consultant. He never quite trusted Kennedy, though, since he’d once threatened to throw JFK’s father out a window.

Ike Eisenhower: Stayed In Politics

Eisenhower was not doing well in the health department when he left office. The stress of being president, commanding during WWII and dealing with difficult allies took its toll, along with smoking several packs of cigarettes every day. He bought a farm with his wife near Gettysburg, PA and relaxed. He played a lot of golf, for which he was well known, as he’d built the putting green at the White House. Eventually, the Eisenhower Presidential Library was established on the farm, but he also had a second house in California. Eisenhower’s retirement wasn’t only golf, though, he also stayed active in politics with the Republicans.ADVERTISEMENT

Eisenhower wasn’t necessarily a very successful president, but he was a very popular one and once he retired, his reputation was further boosted. He did a television commercial in 1964, with Barry Goldwater, who was the Republican nominee for president at the time. While Goldwater was beaten out ridiculously by Lyndon Johnson, Eisenhower still supported him.ADVERTISEMENT

He wasn’t as keen on Richard Nixon in 1968, but he still endorsed the new president on his inauguration date in 1969 and showed his support throughout the campaign. Shortly after Nixon was elected, Eisenhower passed away from heart failure, while in Washington DC.

Lyndon Johnson: Wrote Books On His Ranch

Lyndon Johnson stopped smoking after he had his first heart attack in 1955. Until then, he’d smoked up to six packs a day. On the day his successor was nominated, Johnson got on a plane to head home and lit up a cigarette. His daughters were upset by this, but he told them, “I’ve now raised you, girls. I’ve now been president. Now it’s my time.”

He headed to his ranch in Stonewall, Texas, along with speechwriter Harry Middleton and started writing a book that covered his political decisions and policies. He also started writing his memoirs. The ranch was a working one and so he selected the University of Texas in Austin to build his Presidential Library.ADVERTISEMENT

When he left office in 1969, Johnson took up all his old habits for drinking and smoking and eating whatever he liked. He had several attacks of angina and a minimum of two heart attacks, leading to declining health. He did endorse George McGovern for presidency in 1972, but he couldn’t do much more than a few interviews and issue some statements. In 1973, he was very ill, dealing with congestive heart failure and diverticulitis, among other things. He kept right on smoking up until just before his death in 1973 at his beloved ranch. He was 64 years old.ADVERTISEMENT

Richard Nixon: Wrote Books and Gave Interviews

Nixon was the only president to ever resign from the White House and he left under a pretty dark cloud. His successor, Gerald R. Ford, issued him a pardon, which only served to make him look guiltier. Nixon didn’t testify in some trials for Watergate, due to being ill with phlebitis, which also made people suspicious. It wasn’t until 1974, after he was no longer being investigated, that Nixon started trying to recover his reputation. His transition allowance ran out and he did a series of interviews to the tune of $600,000 with David Frost. These were aired in 1977 and were the closest he ever came to hinting at his involvement in the Watergate Scandal.

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China had always been good to him, so when Mao invited him back in 1976, Nixon happily went. That same year, he was disbarred in New York State. In the early 1980s, Nixon published his memoirs and began to speak and write, as well as give interviews, on a range of subjects. He also met with multiple world leaders in the Mideast and represented the U.S. at Anwar Sadat’s funeral, with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. He died in 1994 after a stroke.

Gerald Ford: Invested in Oil

Gerald Ford was strongly criticized for pardoning Richard Nixon and he left office unhappily. However, Carter paused his own inauguration to thank Ford for all he’d done to heal the land, which started the regeneration of the former president’s reputation. He moved to Denver, where he invested in the oil industry, but he never completely left politics. Ronald Reagan considered adding Ford as his running mate in the 1980 election. However, Reagan was told that Ford would try to run the presidency as co-president, so George H. W. Bush was chosen in his place.ADVERTISEMENT

Ford was very active throughout his retirement years. He skied, played gold, traveled and did frequent public appearances. He also consulted during the Carter Administration and was given foreign and domestic affair briefings on a monthly basis. He formed a very close friendship with Carter once the other man left the presidency. Ford’s Presidential Library is at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He was also essential in establishing the Gerald R. Ford Institute of Public Policy at Albion College. Ford began to slow down as he got older and he died on December 26, 2006.ADVERTISEMENT

Jimmy Carter: Established Charities and Built Homes

Carter was considered a failed president, but he was offered multiple opportunities to make money after retirement. He turned all these down and chose to set up the Carter Center, which supported global human rights. He was a big part of peace missions, diplomatic and humanitarian missions and even gave the eulogy at Gerald Ford’s funeral. He also joined Habitat for Humanity to led them extra credibility with his name and help raise funds, he also jumped right in and built homes as a carpenter. He was also very outspoken on U.S. issues.

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While Carter’s Habitat for Humanity stint was well known and he was frequently praised for it, most people have little idea about his writing. He published multiple books on politics, social issues, relationships, religious beliefs, and more. He also wrote memoirs, novels, and poetry. In 2003, his novel The Hornet’s Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War covered a little known aspect of the war. It looked at the rivalry between Patriot and Loyalist families and was the first novel published by a former president.

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