U.S. Presidents With No Political Experience

Here Are 6 President Who Had Never Served in Office Before the White House

President Donald Trump is the only modern president who had no political experience before entering the White House. You'd have to go way back to Herbert Hoover and The Great Depression to find a president who had less experience in running for elected office than did Trump. Most presidents who lacked political experience had strong military backgrounds; they include Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Zachary Taylor. Trump and Hoover had neither political nor military experience.

Political experience is not necessary, though, to make it to the White House. None of the requirements for being president set forth in the U.S. Constitution include having been elected to office before entering the White House. Some voters actually favor candidates who have no political experience; those outsider candidates have not been subject to corrupting influences in Washington, D.C. In fact the 2016 presidential contest featured several candidates who had never held elected office: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former tech executive Carly Fiorina.

Still, the number of people who have served in the White House without having previously served in an elected office is small. Even our most inexperienced presidents — Woodrow WilsonTheodore Roosevelt, and George H.W. Bush — held office before entering the White House. The first six presidents in American history previously served as elected delegates to the Continental Congress. And since then most presidents have served as governors, U.S. senators or members of Congress — or all three.

Political Experience and the Presidency

Having held an elected position before serving in the White House certainly does not guarantee a president will perform well in the highest office in the land. Consider James Buchanan, a skilled politician who consistently ranks as the worst president in history among many historians because of his failure to take a position on slavery or deal Secession Crisis. Eisenhower, meantime, often performs well in surveys of American political scientists and historians even though has never held elected office before the White House. So, of course, does Abraham Lincoln, one of America's greatest president but someone who had little previous experience.

Having no experience can be a benefit. In modern elections, some presidential candidates have scored points among a disaffected and angry electorate by portraying themselves as outsiders or novices. Candidates who have intentionally distances themselves from the so-called political "establishment" or elite include pizza-chain executive Herman Cain, wealthy magazine publisher Steve Forbes, and businessman Ross Perot, who ran one of the most successful independent campaigns in history.  

Most American presidents served in elected office before being elected president, though. Many presidents served as governors or U.S. senators first. A few were members of the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected president.

Here's a look at the presidents who had political experience before entering the White House.

Continental Congress Delegates Who Went On To Be President

The first five presidents served as elected delegates to the Continental Congress. Two of the delegates also went on to serve in the U.S. Senate before running for president.

The five Continental Congress delegates who ascended to the presidency are:

  • George Washington
  • John Adams
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • James Madison
  • James Monroe

U.S. Senators Who Went on to Be President

Sixteen presidents served in the U.S. Senate first.

They are:

  • James Monroe 
  • John Quincy Adams
  • Andrew Jackson 
  • Martin Van Buren 
  • William Henry Harrison 
  • John Tyler 
  • Franklin Pierce 
  • James Buchanan 
  • Andrew Johnson 
  • Benjamin Harrison 
  • Warren G. Harding
  • Harry S. Truman 
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Lyndon B. Johnson 
  • Richard M. Nixon 
  • Barack Obama 

State Governors Who Went on to Be President

Seventeen presidents served as state governors first.

They are:

  • Thomas Jefferson
  • James Monroe
  • Martin Van Buren
  • John Tyler
  • James K. Polk
  • Andrew Johnson
  • Rutherford B. Hayes
  • Grover Cleveland
  • William McKinley
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Calvin Coolidge
  • Franklin Roosevelt
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Ronald Reagan
  • Bill Clinton
  • George W. Bush

House of Representatives Members Who Went On To Be President

Nineteen members of the House have served as president, including four who were never elected to the White House but ascended to the office following death or resignation. Only one ascended directly from the House to the presidency, though, without gaining more experience in other elected offices.

They are:

  • James Madison
  • John Quincy Adams
  • Andrew Jackson
  • William Henry Harrison
  • John Tyler
  • James K. Polk
  • Millard Fillmore
  • Franklin Pierce
  • James Buchanan
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Andrew Johnson
  • Rutherford B. Hayes
  • James Garfield
  • William McKinley
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Lyndon B. Johnson
  • Richard M. Nixon
  • Gerald Ford
  • George H.W. Bush

Vice Presidents Who Went On To Be President

Only four sitting vice presidents won election to president in the 57 presidential elections since 1789. One former vice president left office and later won election to president. Others tried and failed to ascend to the presidency.

The four sitting vice presidents who won election to president are:

  • George H.W. Bush
  • Martin Van Buren
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • John Adams

The presidents who left office and later won the presidency is Richard Nixon.

6 Presidents Who Had No Political Experience At All

There are five presidents who had no political experience before entering the White House. Most of them were war generals and American heroes, but they had never held elected office before the presidency. They fared better that many big-city mayors including Rudy Giuliani of New York and state legislators in trying to run for the White House.

Here's a look at the presidents with the least political experience. 

Donald Trump signs an executive order
President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order surrounded by small business leaders in the Oval Office on Jan. 30, 2017. Getty Images News/Getty Images

Republican Donald Trump stunned the political establishment in the 2016 election by defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. senator and secretary of the Department of State under Barack Obama. Clinton had the political pedigree; Trump, a wealthy real estate developer and realty television star, had the benefit of being an outsider at a time when voters were especially angry at the establishment class in Washington, D.C. Trump had never been elected to a political office before winning the 2016 presidential electionMore »

Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th president of the United States and the most recent president without any prior political experience. Bert Hardy/Getty Images

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th president of the United States and the most recent president without any prior political experience. Eisenhower, elected in 1952, was a five-star general and the commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. More »

Ulysses Grant
Ulysses Grant. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

Ulysses S. Grant served as the 18th president of the United States. Though Grant had no political experience and had never held elected office, he was an American war hero. Grant served as the commanding general of the Union Armies in 1865 and led his troops to victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Grant was a farm boy from Ohio who was educated at West Point and, upon graduation, placed in the infantry. More »

William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft. Getty Images

William Howard Taft served as the 27th president of the United States. He was an attorney by trade who served as a prosecutor in Ohio before becoming a judge at the local and federal levels. He served as a secretary of war under President Theodore Roosevelt but held no elected office in the United States before winning the presidency in 1908.

Taft showed a clear dislike of politics, referring to his campaign as "one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life."  More »

Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover is considered to be the president with the least amount of political experience upon taking office. PhotoQuest

Herbert Hoover was the 31st president of the United States. He is considered to be the president with the least amount of political experience in history.

Hoover was a mining engineer by trade and made millions. Widely hailed for his work distributing food and managing relief efforts at home during World War I, he was nominated to serve as the Secretary of Commerce and did so under ​Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

  More »

Zachary Taylor
De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Zachary Taylor served as the 12th president of the United States. He had no political experience but was a career military officer who served his country admirably as an Army general during the Mexican-American War and the War of 1812.

His inexperience showed, at times. According to his White House biography, Taylor "acted at times as though he were above parties and politics. As disheveled as always, Taylor tried to run his administration in the same rule-of-thumb fashion with which he had fought Indians." More »