As we head into the July 4th holiday, it’s important to remember the blessings of this country. In the spirit of celebrating America, I’d like to highlight a few of our presidents who have very solid backgrounds in small business.
For starters, consider that before he led the continental army, George Washington was a farmer, which was a common and fruitful entrepreneurial endeavor at the time. According to MountVernon.org:
Initially growing tobacco as his cash crop, Washington soon realized that tobacco was not sustainable and he switched to grains, particularly wheat as a cash crop in 1766. Washington read the latest works on agriculture and implemented the new methods . . . on his five farms.
Additionally, John Adams, James Monroe, and James Madison were all lawyers (which certainly requires an entrepreneurial flair).
But let’s not stop there:
Andrew Jackson was a true entrepreneurial president. Jackson, while also a lawyer, made his first fortune buying and selling real estate. He was also a founder of Memphis, Tennessee. Additionally, his progressive policies were proactive in encouraging both small business and entrepreneurship.
Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer and an entrepreneur. In 1833, Lincoln opened a general store with a partner and took on debt to finance the company. Unfortunately, the venture failed and Lincoln’s possessions were seized by the state. Lincoln also owned a law practice and got a patent for an invention that would lift boats over obstructions in rivers.
Warren G. Harding was an excellent entrepreneur. When he was 19, he bought a newspaper that was about to go under – The Marion Star. Soon after his acquisition, the paper quickly gained success; so much so that his debts were soon paid off and the venture generated income for him for the next several decades.
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt got polio in 1921, he heard a story about a young boy who regained the use of his legs through hydrotherapy. From that point forward, FDR became what is now known as a social entrepreneur – working tirelessly to raise funds to set up a center for people with polio, later to become known as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.
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Before becoming president, Harry Truman owned a hat store and opened his own clothing store in Kansas City after serving in World War I.
Jimmy Carter’s small business story is one of the better ones. Carter took over his family’s peanut farm after serving in the navy, and he managed to turn that tiny farm into a multi-million-dollar business. Warehouses, shelling plants, industrial farm equipment – the works.
Despite the farm’s great success, Carter almost went broke when he was leaving the White House. However, his acute entrepreneurial skills were what allowed him to turn things around yet again. He founded the Carter Center, and became a best-selling author and speaker. Additionally, he became a millionaire in the process.
Jimmy Carter was one of the savvier businessmen presidents – even to this day.
In 1951, George H.W. Bush founded the Bush-Overby Oil Development Company as well as the Zapata Petroleum Corporation. The latter is what eventually made him a millionaire. George W., made $15 million from his initial investment in the Texas Rangers. Home run!
Today, Bill Clinton has a net worth of over $100 million, mostly from speaking fees. This is more impressive considering he did not enter or leave office rich.
Maybe Barack Obama put it best when he said “[You don’t] have to look a certain way, or be of a certain faith, or have a certain last name to have a good idea.”
Certainly, on this July 4th it is important to remember that even presidents started small (businesses, that is)!
About Steve Strauss
Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest, The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can also listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success.© Steven D. Strauss.
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