12 Presidents Who Were Former Governors

Throughout American history, several presidents have risen to the nation’s highest office after serving as governors. These leaders brought with them a wealth of experience managing state governments and handling the diverse challenges that come with executive leadership positions at the state level.

Exploring the journeys of these presidents offers insight into how gubernatorial experience can shape a president’s approach to national governance. Their prior roles as governors provided them with unique insights and expertise, helping them navigate the complexities of the federal government with a seasoned perspective. Understanding their paths from state governance to the presidency reveals much about the diverse backgrounds and skills that have shaped the leadership of the United States.

1) Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson served as the Governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781. During his time as governor, he managed the state’s resources and dealt with challenges like the British invasion of Virginia.

Before becoming a governor, Jefferson had already made significant contributions as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. His political experience was further solidified by his time in the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress.

Jefferson’s role as governor was just one part of his extensive political career. Later, he became the third President of the United States, serving from 1801 to 1809. As president, he completed the Louisiana Purchase and sent Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition.

His time in office highlighted his vision for the country and his effort to expand its borders. Jefferson’s legacy as a statesman and Founding Father continues to be studied and admired today. His impacts on American politics and governance remain significant.

2) Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York, on December 5, 1782. Before becoming the eighth president of the United States, he made significant impacts at both state and national levels.

Van Buren began his political career in New York. He served in various roles, including New York’s Attorney General and later as a U.S. Senator. His skills as a politician earned him many nicknames, such as the “Little Magician” and the “Sly Fox.”

Van Buren was a major figure in the formation of the Democratic Party. As an ally of President Andrew Jackson, he served as Jackson’s Secretary of State and then Vice President. His loyalty to Jackson helped him win the presidency in 1837.

Van Buren’s presidency was marked by the Panic of 1837, a financial crisis that led to a severe economic depression. Despite this, his contributions to the political landscape were substantial, including his efforts in developing a two-party system in the United States.

Martin Van Buren continued to influence politics even after his presidency. He remained active in Democratic politics and ran for president again in 1848 as a candidate for the Free Soil Party, though unsuccessfully.

3) James K. Polk

James K. Polk

James K. Polk served as the 11th president of the United States from 1845 to 1849. Before becoming president, he was the governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841.

During his presidential term, Polk was known for his expansionist policies. Under his leadership, the U.S. gained significant territories, including present-day California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Polk also served as the 13th speaker of the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1839. He was a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson and a member of the Democratic Party. His time as governor and speaker helped shape his approach to the presidency.

4) Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson was the 17th president of the United States. He served from 1865 to 1869, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Before becoming president, Johnson had a significant political career, including serving as a governor.

Johnson was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina. He faced many hardships early in life, such as poverty and the death of his father. Despite these challenges, Johnson rose to prominence in politics.

He started his political career as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. He later became the governor of Tennessee from 1853 to 1857. His time as governor helped him understand state and national politics better.

Andrew Johnson was a Democrat and ran with Lincoln on the National Union Party ticket. This was to help promote unity during the Civil War. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Johnson became president.

Johnson’s presidency was marked by his efforts during the Reconstruction era. He faced many challenges, including conflicts with Congress and his impeachment in 1868. Despite surviving the impeachment trial, his presidency was marred by these issues.

Andrew Johnson left the presidency in 1869 and continued his political career. He remains a notable figure in history, remembered for his contributions as both a governor and a president.

5) Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes was the 19th president of the United States. Before his presidency, he served as the governor of Ohio. He held the office of governor for three terms, showcasing his leadership and dedication.

Born on October 4, 1822, in Delaware, Ohio, Hayes had a strong background in law and politics. He was known for his commitment to equality and law enforcement.

As governor, Hayes focused on education reform, infrastructure improvements, and veterans’ affairs. He gained notable experience that would later benefit his presidency.

Hayes’ tenure as governor of Ohio also highlighted his ability to handle post-war reconstruction and manage economic challenges. He was respected for his efforts in maintaining order and advancing progressive policies.

His governance style was marked by integrity and a commitment to fair administration. This helped him to establish a reputation that carried over to his time in the White House.

6) Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland portrait

Grover Cleveland served as the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. He is the only president to have served two non-consecutive terms. Before his presidency, he was the Governor of New York.

Cleveland became known nationally for his reputation as an honest and efficient leader. His time as governor helped him gain the trust of the public and paved the way for his presidential campaigns.

Cleveland’s first term as President started in 1885. After losing the election of 1888, he returned to win again in 1892 for his second term. His unique political journey is still unmatched in U.S. history.

7) William McKinley

William McKinley

William McKinley served as the 25th President of the United States from 1897 until his assassination in 1901. Born in Niles, Ohio on January 29, 1843, McKinley started his political career after his education at Poland Academy and Allegheny College.

He enlisted as a private in the Union Army during the Civil War and rose to the rank of major. McKinley’s political journey began in the House of Representatives, where he was known for supporting protective tariffs. This stance helped him gain prominence in the Republican Party.

Elected as the Governor of Ohio in 1891, McKinley’s tenure was marked by his economic policies and ability to gather wide support. He used his position as governor to build a strong base for his future presidential bid.

McKinley’s presidency is noted for the Spanish-American War in 1898, which led to American control of territories like Puerto Rico and the Philippines. His leadership during this time solidified the United States’ status as a global power.

8) Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt served as the 26th President of the United States from 1901 to 1909. Prior to his presidency, he was the governor of New York. Roosevelt’s tenure as a leader is remarkable for his progressive policies and strong leadership.

Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 27, 1858. His early life was marked by his battle with asthma, which he overcame through physical activity and determined spirit.

Roosevelt attended Harvard University, graduating in 1880. He also studied law at Columbia University, although he did not finish his degree.

Roosevelt entered politics in 1882, starting as a member of the New York State Assembly. His interest in politics grew, leading to his election as governor of New York in 1898.

As governor, Roosevelt focused on reform and fought against corruption. This made him popular and eventually led to his selection as Vice President under William McKinley.

After McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt became President. He is known for his work in conservation, establishing national parks, forests, and monuments. He also played a significant role in regulating big businesses.

Roosevelt’s dynamic leadership style and progressive vision left a lasting impact on American politics and society.

9) Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia. Before his presidency, Wilson served as the governor of New Jersey. His term as governor started in 1911 and lasted until 1913.

During his time as governor, Wilson focused on progressive reforms. He advocated for direct primaries, workers’ compensation, and utility regulation. These efforts earned him national recognition and paved the way for his presidential run.

Winning the 1912 election, Wilson became the 28th president of the United States. His presidency lasted from 1913 to 1921. He was a member of the Democratic Party and brought many changes to the nation.

Wilson is known for his leadership during World War I. He was also the creator of the League of Nations, an international organization aimed at ensuring peace.

Throughout his presidency, Wilson faced significant challenges, including health issues. He was incapacitated for a large part of his final year in office. Despite this, his impact on American politics and global relations remained notable.

10) Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge, born John Calvin Coolidge Jr., became the 30th president of the United States. He served from 1923 to 1929. Before his presidency, Coolidge was the governor of Massachusetts.

As governor, he gained attention for his handling of the Boston police strike in 1919. His decisive action during the strike earned him national fame. This event helped boost his political career.

Coolidge took office after the sudden death of President Warren G. Harding. He was known for his quiet demeanor and strong work ethic. Coolidge believed in limited government and fiscal conservatism.

He led the country through a period of economic growth known as the Roaring Twenties. His policies focused on reducing taxes and government spending. Coolidge’s leadership helped restore public confidence in the White House after the scandals of the Harding administration.

11) Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt, born in 1882, served as the Governor of New York before becoming the 32nd President of the United States. He held the governorship from 1929 to 1932.

As governor, Roosevelt focused on addressing the economic challenges of the Great Depression. He introduced several reforms to help the unemployed and revive the economy.

Roosevelt’s performance as governor caught national attention. He built a reputation as a strong leader during difficult times. His efforts in New York made him a promising candidate for the presidency.

In 1932, Roosevelt won the presidential election. He went on to serve four terms, making him the longest-serving U.S. president.

Roosevelt’s experience as governor helped shape his New Deal policies. These policies aimed to provide relief, recovery, and reform to the country during the Great Depression. His leadership style and political strategies were influenced by his time as governor.

12) Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter served as the 39th president of the United States from 1977 to 1981. Before his presidency, he was the governor of Georgia. His term as governor lasted from 1971 to 1975.

Born on October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia, Carter began his political career as a Georgia state senator from 1963 to 1967. He was known for his focus on civil rights and improving state government efficiency.

During his presidency, Carter faced significant challenges, including the energy crisis and high inflation. His administration emphasized human rights and he achieved the Camp David Accords, a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

After leaving the White House, Carter became a respected humanitarian and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He is the longest-lived former U.S. president, emphasizing his continued influence and legacy in American history.