When you’ve been President of the United States, what do you do for an encore?
Excluding the incumbent, forty-three men have served as U.S. President and, of those, eight died in office. That leaves thirty-five who experienced retirement. Most sought retirement lives of peace and quiet, but several went on to new achievements, and one stands out for defining his life by his retirement accomplishments and giving us all a yardstick with which to measure our own. In honor of Presidents Day, The Retirement Whisperer offers its own highly subjective countdown of five U.S. Presidents who did retirement right.
#5 – Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover is remembered somewhat unjustly as the President who brought us The Great Depression. By training a mining engineer, Hoover first gained prominence leading U.S. relief efforts in Europe after World War I, serving also as Secretary of Commerce before becoming President just months before the Wall Street crash in 1929. When he left the presidency after one term he was only 58 years old, and he spent much of the next 12 years as a vocal critic of the policies of his successor, Franklin Roosevelt. After World War II President Harry Truman asked him to return to Europe to assess relief needs, and his efforts led to a program that provided meals for three-and-a-half million German youth in the British and American occupation zones. Later Hoover wrote a biography of President Woodrow Wilson, oversaw the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and raised money for Boys Clubs. Hoover also loved to get away and enjoy the solitude of fishing in the wilderness and wrote a book called Fishing for Fun–And to Wash Your Soul. Hoover lived to be 90 years old, dying in 1964.
#4 – John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams, son of President John Adams, tasted the international life and learned several languages as he accompanied his father on his diplomatic missions on behalf of the newly independent United States. After graduating from Harvard he served in numerous diplomatic posts himself before becoming James Monroe’s Secretary of State. Elected President in 1824, he faced relentless opposition from populists led by Andrew Jackson who accused Adams of favoring manufacturing and elitist interests in the Northeast, and criticized his stance in favor of the the abolition of slavery. After Jackson swept him from office in 1828 after a single term as President, Adams embarked on a new career as a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts, becoming the first U.S. President to manage his retirement by… not retiring. Adams won reelection to Congress eight times and served until his death at age 81. Adams’s congressional career was perhaps more distinguished than his presidency—he was a determined opponent of slavery and a leading supporter of scientific advancement in America, persuading Congress to earmark a financial donation from James Smithson to fund the institution that eventually became the Smithsonian.
#3 – Howard Taft
There’s more to Howard Taft than the enormous bathtub he installed in the White House. Taft, from Cincinnati, was trained as a lawyer and in his twenties was appointed a judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, foreshadowing his “retirement” role. He served as Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and was elected President in 1908, but his subsequent split with Roosevelt cost him re-election in 1912. From 1913 until 1921 Taft taught history and law at Yale before being appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding. Later Supreme Court justices describe Taft’s legacy as “conservative” but not reactionary, and his greatest contribution were his successful efforts to modernize Supreme Court facilities and procedures. Taft died in 1930 at age 72.
#2 – Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses Grant is the only two-term President on our list. Born in 1822 and educated at West Point, Grant served in the Mexican-American War and held other minor posts before retiring from the Army in 1854 and embarking on a series of failed business ventures. He rejoined the Army when the Civil War began, achieved battlefield success after success, and rose to the position of General of the Army of the United States. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the war, Grant’s diligent enforcement of Reconstruction in the former Confederate States, and his support for African-American enfranchisement led to conflict with President Andrew Johnson. Grant became President in 1869 and pursued an vigorous Reconstruction agenda, founding the Department of Justice and aggressively prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan for civil rights violations. The Panic of 1873 dampened Republican zeal for Reconstruction, and Grant’s second term was marked by several scandals. In retirement Grant embarked on a world tour and made a attempt to gain the Republican nomination for President in 1880, but his greatest retirement achievement was literary. Diagnosed with throat cancer and in financial ruin because of bad investments, Grant wrote his memoirs to bolster both his bank account and his reputation, finishing them just days before his death at age 63 in 1885. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant achieved both financial and critical success, earning his widow $450,000 in royalties and judged by Mark Twain as a “literary masterpiece.”
#1 – Jimmy Carter
Before 2012 Herbert Hoover held the record for the longest Presidential retirement, living 31 years after leaving office. Thirty-seven years after he left office, Jimmy Carter now holds that record, and no other U.S. President’s retirement defines his legacy like Carter’s. An Annapolis grad, engineer and peanut farmer from Georgia, Carter’s presidency is remembered for high gas prices and cardigan sweaters, stagflation, and the Iran hostage crisis. In retirement Jimmy Carter has lent his name, his leadership, and even his muscle to humanitarian efforts, He has lead peacekeeping missions to the Middle East, Cuba, Korea and Darfur, joined with Nelson Mandela and other global leaders in a group dedicated to human rights called The Elders, and built houses with Habitat for Humanity in hurricane-ravaged areas in the United States. Carter is also an avid woodworker, fly fisherman, and painter. He has been award the Hoover Medal—recognizing “great, unselfish, non-technical service by engineers to humanity”—, the United National Human Rights Prize, and the Nobel Peace Prize. For his full, rich, and purposeful life in retirement, Jimmy Carter takes the number one spot on our list and is The Retirement Whisperer’s inaugural nomination to the Retirement Hall of Fame.