10 U.S. Presidents Who Were Lawyers

Throughout the history of the United States, many presidents have started their careers as lawyers. Focusing on law gave these leaders a strong grasp of the Constitution and the workings of government.

This legal background often provided them with critical skills for governance and political strategy. Understanding legal principles and court procedures helped shape their approaches to policy-making and leadership.

1) Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, had a notable career as a lawyer before his presidency.

He studied law under George Wythe, one of the most respected legal minds of the time. Jefferson began his legal studies in Williamsburg, Virginia, between 1760 and 1762.

After completing his studies, Jefferson started his practice in 1767. His legal career was marked by a deep understanding of English law, which greatly influenced his views on governance and individual rights.

Jefferson’s legal background played a significant role in his contributions to American history. He was a principal author of the Declaration of Independence, showcasing his legal expertise and eloquence.

He believed in the importance of individual liberties and the rule of law, values that guided his presidency from 1801 to 1809.

Jefferson’s legal philosophy also influenced the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, reflecting his dedication to creating a fair and just government. His legal career and achievements continue to be a foundation in the study of American law and politics.

2) James Madison

James Madison

James Madison was the fourth president of the United States, serving from 1809 to 1817. Known as the “Father of the Constitution,” he played a crucial role in drafting and promoting the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Before his presidency, Madison had a significant legal career. He studied law and became a respected lawyer. His legal background helped him navigate complex legal and constitutional issues throughout his political career.

Madison’s legal expertise was evident in his political work. He was deeply involved in the drafting of the Federalist Papers, which argued for the ratification of the Constitution. His contributions to the legal framework of the United States are still celebrated today.

Madison also served as Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson. In this role, he dealt with important legal and international issues, including the Louisiana Purchase. His knowledge of law was key in these negotiations and decisions.

3) John Adams

John Adams

John Adams, the second President of the United States, was a prominent lawyer before he became a major political figure. Born in 1735 in Braintree, Massachusetts, Adams went on to graduate from Harvard in 1755.

As a lawyer, Adams played a key role in the early history of the United States. He was known for his skill and dedication in the courtroom. His legal career included defending British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, showcasing his commitment to justice.

Adams was also a diplomat and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His political career was marked by his strong belief in the principles of freedom and governance.

Despite the challenges of his time, Adams’ legal background helped shape his approach to leading the country. His contributions as a lawyer extended beyond the courtroom to the highest office in the land.

4) James Buchanan

James Buchanan

James Buchanan was the 15th President of the United States, serving from 1857 to 1861. He was born on April 23, 1791, near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.

Before becoming president, Buchanan had a long career in law. He opened his own law practice and became a successful lawyer. His legal career helped him build important connections.

Buchanan also served in various political roles. He was Secretary of State and served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. His experience as a lawyer played a key role in his political career.

Buchanan’s presidency is often marked by his inability to prevent the Civil War. Despite his efforts to keep the peace, tensions between the North and South escalated. Buchanan retired from politics after his presidency and returned to his home in Pennsylvania.

5) Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was a prominent lawyer before his presidency. He served as President from 1861 until his assassination in 1865.

Lincoln’s legal career began in Illinois, where he was known for his ability to simplify complex cases and connect with juries. He often traveled by horseback to various county seats to practice law.

Lincoln worked on a wide range of cases, from property disputes to criminal defense. His legal work helped build his reputation, leading to his election to the Illinois House of Representatives and eventually the U.S. House of Representatives.

Lincoln’s skills as a lawyer played a significant role in his political career. His logical arguments and persuasive speeches were assets in his leadership during the Civil War.

Despite his demanding political life, Lincoln never lost his passion for the law. He continued to study and discuss legal matters even while in the White House.

Throughout his career, Lincoln remained committed to justice and fairness, principles that guided his presidency and left a lasting legacy.

6) Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President of the United States, served from 1877 to 1881. Before his presidency, Hayes had a noteworthy career in law. He studied at Harvard Law School and became a well-respected attorney.

Hayes began his legal career in Ohio. He served as city solicitor of Cincinnati from 1858 to 1861. His work included defending refugee slaves, highlighting his stance as a staunch abolitionist.

During the Civil War, Hayes served in the Union Army and achieved the rank of major general. His military service bolstered his reputation, leading to his election to Congress.

After the war, Hayes became the Governor of Ohio before running for President. His experience in law contributed to his approach to governance.

Hayes’s presidency is often noted for the end of Reconstruction in the South. He aimed to bring new standards of integrity to the office, combating the corruption that plagued Washington, D.C., at the time.

Rutherford B. Hayes’s background in law helped shape his political career. His legal expertise and commitment to justice were evident throughout his life and tenure as President.

7) Chester A. Arthur

Chester A Arthur

Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the United States, took office after the assassination of James Garfield. Born on October 5, 1829, Arthur was a prominent lawyer before his political career.

Arthur studied law at Union College. He then moved to New York City, where he established himself as a skilled attorney.

He became involved in politics and held various positions, including Collector of the Port of New York. This role showcased his administrative talents.

As president, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which aimed to reduce corruption in federal appointments. This law marked an important change in how government jobs were awarded.

Despite initially being viewed with skepticism, Arthur’s leadership earned him respect. His time in law greatly influenced his approach to governance and reform.

8) Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland served as the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. He is the only president to serve non-consecutive terms. Before his presidency, he had a notable legal career.

Cleveland studied law at the Buffalo law office of Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers. By 1859, he was admitted to the bar. He practiced law in Buffalo, New York, and became a partner at the firm of Bass, Cleveland, and Bissell.

Cleveland also held the position of Sheriff of Erie County, New York. His legal background and experience made him well-versed in issues related to law and governance. His career in law was instrumental in his rise to political power.

As a lawyer, Cleveland was known for his dedication and hard work. His legal expertise helped him navigate his political roles effectively. This foundation in law provided him with the skills necessary to manage the complexities of the presidency.

9) Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president of the United States, served from 1889 to 1893. Born in 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, he was part of a prominent political family. He was the grandson of the ninth president, William Henry Harrison.

Harrison studied law at Miami University and was admitted to the Indiana bar in 1854. He worked as a lawyer before entering into politics. As a lawyer, Harrison handled various legal cases and built a solid reputation. His legal background helped him navigate the complex issues he faced during his presidency.

During his term, Harrison signed significant legislation, including the Sherman Antitrust Act. This law aimed to curb monopolies and promote fair competition in the marketplace.

Harrison also achieved the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, impacting the nation’s monetary policy. His contributions as a lawyer and president left a lasting impact on American law and politics.

10) William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft was born on September 15, 1857, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was from a prominent political family and followed his father into law. Taft’s legal career began early, and he quickly gained respect as a lawyer and jurist.

Before becoming president, Taft served as a federal judge and Solicitor General of the United States. He played a key role in legal reforms and was a strong advocate for judicial improvements. His expertise in law made him a natural choice for important legal positions.

As the 27th President of the United States (1909-1913), Taft focused on issues like antitrust laws and tariff reforms. His presidency saw the passage of the 16th Amendment, which established the federal income tax. This was a significant legal change during his tenure.

Taft is unique in American history as the only person to serve as both President and Chief Justice of the United States. After his presidency, he was appointed as the 10th Chief Justice, serving from 1921 to 1930. His influence on the judiciary was profound, marking significant contributions to both branches of government.

Taft’s legal background and achievements left a lasting impact on the United States. His career interwove the highest roles in both the executive and judicial branches, showcasing his dedication to law and governance.