The Presidential Stepping Stone

More than half our Presidents have been lawyers, at least by discipline. Whether they liked it or not, and even whether they actively “practiced law” is something else.

POTUSes Reading Law


John Adams won fame as a lawyer by defending the British soldiers accused of fomenting the Boston Massacre.

In the “olden days,” one did not need a college education, or even a secondary level education to “read law.” One merely needed to find an established attorney who would agree to take him on as an apprentice. This usually involved allowing the candidate to read his mentor’s law books, followed by discussion from time to time. Once the candidate had read sufficiently, and the practicing attorney was satisfied as to his ability, the candidate would appear before a panel of lawyers, be questioned on a few related subjects, and when they were satisfied, a new lawyer was now entitled to practice law.

thomas jefferson

Thomas Jefferson studied law with George Wythe, considered the best attorney in the Colonies.

John Adams, once graduated from Harvard, read law. So did William & Mary student Thomas Jefferson, who apprenticed himself to George Wythe, who is considered by some to be the “father” of law schools as we know them.  James Monroe, however, never completed his William & Mary studies, preferring to enlist in the American Revolution. A few years later, he apprenticed himself to Governor Thomas Jefferson, who was happy to have him as a student.

young abe

Lincoln was self-taught, but he was well thought of by his legal peers.

Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln are rare anomalies. They read law with only a modicum of basic formal education. Neither of them had more than three years of schooling. Whatever learning they acquired, they acquired on their own. Both became relatively successful in a law practice.

The last POTUS who became a lawyer by “reading law” was Calvin Coolidge. He had graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts, and when he decided to pursue the law, funds were tight, and “reading law” was still acceptable – in the mid-1890s.

calvin coolidge

Calvin Coolidge was the last President who “read law” rather than attended a formal law school.

The first President who went to a formal law school, was Rutherford B. Hayes, who had graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio, and went on to Harvard Law School in the 1840s. At that time, Harvard was one of the rare institutions of higher learning that issued law degrees.

Today of course, formal training at a School of Law, is essential, whether it is practiced – or merely used as a stepping stone politically.

Law Hating POTUSes

But just because a young man (and we are only talking about Presidents here) becomes an attorney, and usually at a young age, does not mean that he enjoys the work, or even wishes to continue its mundane practice. More than a few of our Presidents actually loathed practicing law, and preferred politics, or diplomacy or even conceptual legal philosophy to the day-to-day i-dotting.

Thomas Jefferson practiced law (in the sense of taking on clients) for only a short time. He was much happier as a planter, architect, inventor, politician or natural scientist. His conceptual overview of law, however, was a part of his lifetime achievements. James Madison, Jefferson’s close friend, is said to have studied governmental law as part of his curriculum at the College of New Jersey (Princeton). He devoted himself only to theoretical studies, however. And James Monroe, despite his well-placed mentor, never practiced law either. He was politics and diplomacy from the beginning.

John Adams enjoyed practicing law, albeit not for a long career, nor a hugely successful one. By the time he was forty, his lawyering days were over, and he devoted himself exclusively to politics.

sully portrait

John Quincy Adams was considered a fine attorney – but he hated it. He much preferred the diplomatic life. Or even writing poetry.

His son, John Quincy Adams, considered a fine lawyer in his own right, loathed practicing law. It is said that whenever he found himself “needing” to open a law office for financial reason, it made him physically ill. Politics and diplomacy was his preference, and obviously where whatever legal skills he had developed were put to their best possible use.

the hero

Andrew Jackson was never well regarded as an attorney by his Eastern peers. He preferred military life, anyway.

Andrew Jackson became a lawyer (it is suggested) because it would give him the opportunity to rise to the gentlemanly status he admired. His own rough background and poverty practically consigned him to learning a trade. Lawyers wore suits, not overalls. But once the 21-year-old Jackson became a lawyer, he became involved in politics, among other interests. Once he became a General in the Tennessee militia, he never practiced law again. He found a trade he liked better, with niftier clothes.

The Later Haters

James Garfield, president for a few months in 1881 before he was assassinated, had read law as well. He was actually an ordained minister, a college teacher and president and a lawyer – and he never made a living at any of it. He had discovered politics, and it was a full time career.

college-age TR

Young Theodore Roosevelt studied law for a few months at Columbia University. It bored him. He went directly into politics.

Both Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, studied law. Theodore enrolled at Columbia University after graduating Harvard, but dropped out from boredom. He never seemed to regret the decision. Franklin also went to Columbia after Harvard, but never finished. He managed to pass the bar before his studies were completed, so there was no need. He was also an indifferent attorney with little interest or effort. He jumped at the first chance he could to be involved in politics. He was better at it.

Woodrow Wilson had a law degree from the University of Virginia. He practiced law ineffectively for a year, was bored and decided to study for a doctorate, and concentrate on theoretical governmental studies thereafter. He was better at that, too.

The Law Lover

young will

Young William Howard Taft truly loved the law as a profession. But rather than practicing law, he preferred the judiciary. He was our only President who became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Arguably, the best lover-of-law of all our presidents was William Howard Taft. He not only loved the law, but he loved the judiciary. He became an appellate judge early in his career, followed by a lifetime of public service. It is said that being president was the only job he ever had that he didn’t like. His ambition was always to have a seat on the Supreme Court. He achieved that too.

Taft was named Chief Justice by President Harding. Harding had thought briefly about studying law early in his life, but decided it was just too hard.


Burstein, Andrew – The Passions of Andrew Jackson – Borzoi-Knopf – 2003

Dalton, Kathleen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – Borzoi-Knopf, 2002

Unger, Harlow Giles – John Quincy Adams – DeCapo Press, 2012




About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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