- Historic Sites
The ex-Presidency now carries perquisites and powers that would have amazed all but the last few who have held that office
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
What should be done with ex-Presidents? William Howard Taft once remarked that perhaps the best way to handle a former President was to chloroform and ceremonially cremate him when he left office, in order to “fix his place in history and enable the public to pass on to new men and new measures.” Taft did not insist on this ritual for himself, however, accepting instead a professorship at the Yale Law School when he finished his presidential term, and later serving as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. These occupations were dignified and moderately remunerative. Taft thus chose a course of ex-presidential behavior midway between that of Jefferson, for example, who retired to his plantation and died heavily in debt, and Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, both of whom hired theatrical agents, signed a number of exclusive contracts, and began earning millions of dollars for television and publishing commitments.
The evolution of the ex-Presidency has been, until recently, rather haphazard. For most of its history the nation has left the former Presidents to fend for themselves and to work out their own post-Executive careers. But in the last thirty years, the quasi-public “Office of the Ex-President” has emerged with quite well-defined perquisites, and some of the trappings of power.
Yet despite the growth of the office and of the sums of public funds spent on his maintenance, a former Chief Executive is under virtually no obligation to do, or not to do, anything at all. Until the last few years—since the ex-Presidency of Richard Nixon—no federal rules or guidelines existed to direct or restrict him.
As in almost everything else, George Washington set precedents as the first presidential retiree. Perhaps the most important decision ever made concerning an ex-President was Washington’s decision to become one. Conceivably, he might have stayed in office until he died, establishing a far different tradition than the voluntary relinquishing of power.
Returning to his plantation, Washington tried not to interfere unduly with his successor, John Adams. The old hero retained enormous popularity, however, and when the nation faced the possibility of war with France in 1798, Adams found himself forced into appointing Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Armies, a title constitutionally reserved for the President. Adams’ successor, Jefferson, did not have to confront such a powerful figure. Washington died in 1799, and the unpopular Adams became the first expresidential “exile,” banished into political inactivity.
Although a number of former Chief Executives in the ensuing century and a half remained important figures in their parties, not many achieved new elective office. Only Cleveland proved able to recapture the Presidency after a hiatus, a testimony to his ability to unite the Democratic party. The others who tried—Van Buren, Fillmore, and Theodore Roosevelt—failed at the head of so-called third parties. Three former Presidents won re-election to lesser offices—John Quincy Adams to the House of Representatives, John Tyler to the Confederate Congress, and the impeached Andrew Johnson to the U.S. Senate. They showed that a President who lost his national majority could sometimes retain a power base in his home constituency.
More common, especially in the twentieth century, has been the use of former Chief Executives in nonpartisan public service. Cleveland accepted an offer from Theodore Roosevelt to head a study commission during the coal strike of 1902. Taft co-chaired the War Labor Board in 1918 and later, as noted, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Hoover headed a committee on relief of famine in Europe after World War II, and in 1947 was appointed by Truman to lead a commission to study the executive branch of the government.
Ex-Presidents also had to maintain themselves and their families economically, and until 1958 there was no government pension for them. They pursued a variety of post-White House careers, but a consensus soon developed that these should be consistent with maintaining the dignity of the Presidency. Neither the public nor most ex-Presidents have wanted to see former heads of state become hucksters or financial speculators, and genteel poverty plagued many former Chief Executives. Except for Washington, who was a good businessman, most of the Presidents of the Virginia dynasty who retired to their plantations soon discovered they were deeply in debt. Madison and Monroe, like their friend Jefferson, died virtually penniless.
To help avoid this specter, Congress doubled the President’s salary in 1873 to $50,000. At the same time, legislators recognized the old tension between dignity and earning potential, for they justified the increase so that “the President could save enough money to retire [after leaving office] from all active or at least from all money-making pursuits.”