Former Presidents that Returned to Government Service


Contemporary former presidents don’t return to public service, although some, like Bill Clinton, champion global causes. They write books, appear on television talk shows, and appear on the lecture circuit. Former presidents often spend their lives pursuing causes important to them such as Jimmy Carter through his Carter Center in Atlanta, or rehabilitate themselves as elder statesmen as in the case of Richard Nixon. But there were earlier presidents that returned to government service and often made a greater impact than they had as presidents.

John Quincy Adams Enters the House of Representatives

John Quincy Adams lost his bid for reelection in the Election of 1828. The campaign was rancorous and bitter. Adams refused to attend Andrew Jackson’s inauguration, returning to Massachusetts. He rejected an offer by the legislature to be appointed Senator but was elected in 1830 to the House of Representatives.

Adams achieved great success in his 17 years in the House. He was an advocate of abolition, fighting an 1836 House “gag rule” forbidding debate on anti-slavery petitions. He defended the Africans involved in the Amistad affair, arguing on their behalf in the Supreme Court. Adams is also chiefly responsible for the creation of the Smithsonian.

Adams opposed the policies of Andrew Jackson, supporting Henry Clay’s American System. He also opposed the annexation of Texas, declaring that the Constitution does not provide for the annexation of another republic. In this, his chief concerns may have focused on the expansion of slavery. As a Whig, he also voted against James Polk’s war declaration on Mexico.

William Howard Taft is Appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

In 1921, former President Taft was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Harding, a position he held until 1930. Like Adams, Taft had served only one term as president.

Elected in 1908 as the chosen heir of Teddy Roosevelt, Taft soon drifted from Roosevelt’s progressivism, forging alliances with stalwart Republicans in the Congress. In 1912, Roosevelt split the party when the GOP nominated Taft for a second term; Roosevelt formed the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party.

Taft stated that he was appointed in June 1921 to “reverse a few decisions.” Historians view the Taft court as one of the most pro-business and conservative courts in the history of the federal judiciary. In one decision, Taft invalidated the 1919 Child Labor Tax Act. He died in his sleep in 1930 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Other Former Presidents Returned to Government Service

John Tyler, the “accidental president” who assumed office upon the death of William Henry Harrison in 1840, was not considered for reelection by the Whigs in 1844. But during the Civil War, he became a Virginia delegate to the Confederate Congress.

Abraham Lincoln’s second Vice-President, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, became a pariah in his last two years as President, alienating the Radical Republicans and forced to endure the impeachment process. But after leaving the White House, the Tennessee legislature returned him to the U.S. Senate. Johnson, however, died before the new Congress convened.

The Presidency as the Pinnacle of Power

For a variety of reasons, former Presidents went into retirement or business after leaving office. Only Grover Cleveland won a second non-consecutive term in 1892. In many cases, the burdens of high office left former presidents sick as in the case of Woodrow Wilson. James K. Polk died shortly after leaving the White House.

Contemporary presidents especially disdain any notion of returning to government service, other than heading a special commission or acting as a “good-will” ambassador. The Carter Center pursues global justice and peace. Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative addresses, among other issues, women’s equality in the world while confronting human trafficking and abuse.

The contemporary presidency has global implications. Some pundits have suggested that, given the global impact of the person in the White House, the election of an American President should involve global participation. Leaving such an exalted office after four or eight years, Presidents are reluctant to return to the Congress or serve as a governor. The same is not true, however, for First Ladies.


William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents From George Washington to George W. Bush (Gramercy Books, 2001)
Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins & Development, fifth edition (W.W. Norton & Company, 1976)