Statehouse Experience a Boon to Many White House Hopefuls

By Kelley Griffin | Feb. 21, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

Almost half of U.S. presidents also served in their state legislatures. But for current legislators eyeing the White House, history indicates the road probably will be a long one. 

Most presidents who were state lawmakers had decades between the statehouse and the White House. The one with the shortest gap is also the most recent: Barack Obama became president just four years after leaving the Illinois Senate. 

Before ascending to the nation’s highest office, some legislators fought or led in wars, including the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, among others. Some ran family businesses: Andrew Johnson had been a tailor’s apprentice from age 14 and ran a successful tailoring business in Tennessee; Jimmy Carter returned from service as a naval nuclear engineer to manage the family peanut farm after his father’s death. 

Some were aiming for the presidency early in their careers and thought of the statehouse as a good place to test their ideas and build political alliances. Others got a taste of success on issues they cared about at the state level and sought bigger platforms. 

Several who served in statehouses were considered dark horse candidates. James Polk, who had served in the Tennessee General Assembly, was the first presidential candidate to earn that title, followed over the years by Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, James Garfield of Ohio, Warren G. Harding, also of Ohio, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Persistence Pays Off

George Washington didn’t even win his first campaign in 1755 for the House of Burgesses in Virginia, the pre-independence version of the state’s governing body. But he won the second time, serving from 1758 to 1775. At that time, the voters—male landholders only—cast their votes at a gathering, out loud, so the sheriff could record them. It was common for candidates to supply food and liquor to the voters, making for some rowdy elections. 

“Washington, in fact, paid for food and drinks to be provided for voters during at least some of his winning elections,” researcher Maria Kimberly noted on the Mount Vernon website. 

The Virginia House of Burgesses was founded in July 1619, making it the first democratically elected legislative body in the British American colonies. When Washington was elected about 140 years later, revolution was afoot. He was commanding the troops in New York when the House of Burgesses was replaced by the House of Delegates in 1776, signifying the end of British rule in Virginia. 

It would be another 13 years before Washington was unanimously elected president in 1789 with all 69 electoral votes, a feat never repeated.

Reputations and Debates

Thomas Jefferson served alongside Washington in the House of Burgesses. As his death neared in 1826, Jefferson drew up his epitaph, listing his three most important accomplishments. He didn’t mention the House of Burgesses—or the presidency. It reads, “Author of the Declaration of Independence [and] of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.”

William Henry Harrison had served as a territorial governor and was hoping to be named secretary of war, or a Russian diplomat. When those posts didn’t come through, he successfully ran for the Ohio Senate, but lost a bid for governor two years later and didn’t return to the Statehouse. He became president 20 years later in 1841—for 31 days. He died after the nation’s shortest term.

Abraham Lincoln lost his first run for the Illinois General Assembly as a member of the Whig party, but he won a seat two years later. Lincoln was a member of the “Long 9,” a group of lawmakers representing Sangamon County, noted for their height. They were also noted for getting the state capital moved to Springfield, the Sangamon County seat. 

Lincoln would later turn to the Legislature in a bid for the U.S. Senate, because state lawmakers elected U.S. senators at that time. He faced Stephen Douglas in lengthy debates around the state in which Lincoln opposed slavery. The Legislature narrowly chose Douglas for Senate, but Lincoln gained prominence for his ideals and speaking ability, setting the stage for his presidential run.

James Garfield, a Disciples of Christ preacher and popular educator, parlayed a debate with a British atheist into a successful run for the Ohio Senate. He left the Senate after two years to fight in the Civil War. Though he had no military training, he distinguished himself in battles and would go on to represent Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years before becoming president. He was assassinated his first year in office. 

Getting Away From Work

Most presidents had professions to manage when they served in the legislature. Theodore Roosevelt gave up the study of law when he was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1882, saying later, “I intended to be one of the governing class.” He wrote more bills than any other legislator of his time and went after railroad magnate Jay Gould, a so-called robber baron of the Gilded Age, for a tax evasion scheme. Roosevelt’s popularity was such that he won re-election as a Republican by a greater than 2-1 margin in a district swept by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Grover Cleveland. 

Jimmy Carter lost his first race for the Georgia Senate in 1962. Or so it seemed. Carter’s team was convinced a powerful state lawmaker was ballot stuffing. But he couldn’t get anyone to investigate, not the party, not local newspapers. 

“We were hopeless,” Carter recalled years later. He finally convinced reporter John Pennington of the Atlanta Journal Constitution to investigate. Pennington found at least one ballot cast by a dead person and one by someone serving time in federal prison. That prompted a judge to order a new contest, which Carter won.

For all this statehouse experience among presidents, it generally didn’t matter much by the time they campaigned for the presidency. 

But Obama had only been gone from the Illinois Statehouse for three years when he announced his run for president. A U.S. senator at the time, he made his announcement at the Illinois Capitol, which he said represented a place where ideals for governing come to life.

“It was here where we learned to disagree without being disagreeable,” Obama said then. “That it’s possible to compromise so long as you know those principles that can never be compromised, and that so long as we are willing to listen to each other, we can assume the best of each other instead of the worst.”

Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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